“Fleeing by Night” is the title of a (Northern) Chinese opera standard about a slandered warrior fleeing from the emperor’s troops that is performed within the 2000 movie directed by Hsu Li-Kong and Yin Chi “Fleeing by Night” (“Ya ben” in Mandarin). The set piece is an aria wondering whether the warrior will ever be able to see his wife and son again.
The story, set during the 1930s in Tianjin, focuses on a long-haired (male) cellist Hsu Shaodong (played by Huang Lei, the younger of the blind musicians in “Life on a String”) who returns from his lonely American studies to his North China banking family. He goes to a performance of “Fleeing by Night” at a local theater (owned by Shaodong’s father) and is smitten by the (male) star Lin Chung (Yin Chao-Te).
Shaodong is engaged (seemingly he had some say in the arrangements between elite families) to marry Wei Ying-Er (Rene Liu). Ying-Er accompanies Shaodong to performances and also on outings with the diffident opera star who is more or less owned by the swaggering gangsterish Dai Leon (Tai Li-jen). Shaodong is more than a little rude to Dai and eventually whisks Ying-Er off… and fails everyone. I think that the diagnosis is “internalized homophobia.” Lin Chung flees by night from an automobile on a deserted road.
And the History comes crashing down, as in so many Chinese movies (To Live, Farewell My Concubine, etc.). The Japanese occupation, the civil war, US immigration exclusion compound the tragedy. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot than I already have. The last part is set in New York City years later and casts a complicating light on Dai Leon and on the pains of loves back in 1930s Tanjing.
The four leads are all excellent. The three male leads have not had much in the way of careers since making this heart-rending melodrama. Rene Liu has gone on from playing the innocent young woman, who is in my opinion (mis)used as a cover by Shaodong while Shaodong is in the most charitable interpretation confused by his feelings both for Ying-Er whom he likes and Chung whom he loves but is not ready to admit to himself he loves to having a career in Chinese movies.
The movie has the glamorous 1930s look of “Shanghai Triad” and other movies. The stories are very sad, but the movie is a beautifully rich tearjerker that is only slightly ruffled by what I’m pretty sure are inadequate translations in the English-language subtitles.
The Strand DVD has no bonus features, but the visual and audio transfers seems quite good.(In that internalized homophobia is the opposite of gay pride and a significant bar to gay freedom, this movie is about what we have (often still!) to overcome when our pursuit of happiness is stigmatized and actively discriminated against.)