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Master Qi and the Monkey King (First Run Features, NR)

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dvd master-qiThe Master Qi of the title is Qi Shu Fang, who began studying Peking Opera at age four in her native China. She was among the first women to train in this art, and learned to play both male and female roles.


If you ever have the chance to see a Peking Opera performance, I recommend doing so, because you will be treated to an all-encompassing performance including singing, instrumental music, declamation, dance, mime, and acrobatics, with lots of props and elaborate costumes to keep you entertained, as well. Until that day comes, however, you can get a taste of what Peking Opera is like from the new Alan Governar documentary Master Qi and the Monkey King, which provides both stage performances and a behind-the-scenes look at a respected Peking Opera troupe headquartered in Queens, New York.

The Master Qi of the title is Qi Shu Fang, who began studying Peking Opera at age four in her native China. She was among the first women to train in this art (prior to 1949, only men were allowed to perform), and learned to play both male and female roles. She became a national sensation at age 18 when Chairman Mao’s wife, Madame Jiang Qing, selected her to play the lead in a national “model opera” espousing the value of the Cultural Revolution. Clips of a film of this opera are included in Master Qi, and you have to marvel at Qi Shu Fang’s beauty and skill, while also wondering if the combination of traditional spectacle with an explicitly didactic message was not perhaps a bit misjudged.

Master Qi and her husband Ding Mei-kui immigrated to the United States in 1988, along with their company, and continue to perform their art. Today, they live in a modest house in Queens, and members of the troupe hold down less-than-glamorous jobs (running a shop in Chinatown, working in a nail parlor, selling real estate) to make ends meet between performances. Nonetheless, none of them question whether the sacrifice is worth it: They’re living in America, practicing their art, and bringing Peking Opera to a population that would otherwise be unlikely to see it.

There are no surprises in Master Qi and the Monkey King (beyond perhaps the fact that Master Qi is female), but it succeeds in telling two stories straightforwardly and well. One is the story of Peking Opera in the People’s Republic of China, and the other is the classic tale of immigrants coming to America in search of a better life. Add in some splendid stage performances, and you’ve got a film that is certainly worth seeing. Extras on the DVD include five bonus performances, a photo gallery, and biographies of the performers and filmmaker. | Sarah Boslaugh

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