Chen Boqing, MA, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University
The Wheel of Life (1983) is a three-part film directed by Hu Jinquan, Lixing, and Bai Jingrui respectively. Set in the Ming period, the early years of the Republic of China, and the modern era, the three parts of the film are linked by a “fish-belly dagger.” The film takes its title from a Buddhist term meaning “reincarnation,” implying that everything in the universe is part of an endless cycle. Male lead Jiang Houren and female lead Peng Xuefen meet and fall in love in different historical periods, yet are stymied each time by actor Shi Jun’s character. Thus, love and fate take different roads but still end up at the same destination, revealing the meaning of “reincarnation.”
Hu Jinquan directs the film’s first part, a story that takes place in the Ming era. Peng Xuefen’s character, a beautiful girl from a wealthy family, meets and falls in love with Jiang Houren’s character, a young nobleman. But the two are driven apart by circumstances, and Shi Jun’s character, a secret police operative, claims the young woman for himself. In this section of the film the “fish-belly dagger” is part the woman’s dowry, and each of the characters have their own hidden agendas, but the director lets us know that the infighting is all in accord with the “will of heaven.” In the end the young woman throws the dagger in an attempt to kill the secret policeman, but inadvertently slays her lover instead. Thus, fate’s inescapability is the subtext of The Wheel of Life – “it seems as though there is a higher power that decides everything.” In parts two and three, as soon as the dagger appears viewers can be sure that “death” and “fate” are fast approaching.
In the second part an opera troupe performs “How Song Jiang Slew His Concubine,” a Peking opera standard, the onstage dialogue subtly reflecting the feelings that exist between the male and female protagonists offstage. In part three a modern dance troupe performs two classics, “Capturing Sanlang Alive,” an adaptation of “How Song Jiang Slew His Concubine,” and “The Scholar Swordsman,” which is set in the Ming era, echoing the historical time frame of the film’s first part. Through the use of techniques such as resemblance, similarity, and displacement, The Wheel of Life reverberates with such unending coincidences, constantly reminding viewers of the implications of “reincarnation.”
The film uses its characters to broach deep religious questions. For example, in part two the male protagonist’s mother is a devout Buddhist, but when her son goes against her wishes, she cries out, “I’ve worshipped in vain!” Her words reveal a traditional Chinese mindset: “piety” and “devotion” are a tradeoff for favors from the gods, the practical side of religious beliefs. In the third part a young woman from the city and her spirit medium boyfriend in Penghu often quarrel over questions of religion – for instance, the city girl believes that heeding the weather report is more likely to ensure safety on the seas than is praying for the gods’ protection, thus their lovers’ spats all center on debates of religion versus reason. In fact, when the young woman first sees her boyfriend-to-be, he is at a temple, carrying a god’s palanquin and practicing “seven-star” footwork. She laughs at him and says, “If you re-choreographed a little, you’d have some nice dance steps.” Religion and secularism are not necessarily antithetical, but attempts to combine them are likely to generate a good deal of controversy.
At the end of part three, the male and female protagonists’ love finally reaches fruition, as though they have at last surmounted their tragic fate. But as the film concludes a subtitle reads “The Fourth Round,” as though nothing is finished – the wheel of life is still turning, leaving viewers with a rich aftertaste.
1A famous knife owned by Zhuan Zhu, an assassin in ancient China, the weapon is so small that it can be hidden in the intestines of a fish, hence the name. According to Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian: Ranked Biographies of Assassins, Zhuan Zhu allegedly used the blade to slay the ruler of the state of Wu during the Spring and Autumn period.
2In “Outlaws of the Marsh,” a classical Chinese novel, hero Song Jiang and his concubine, Yan Poxi, are locked in a second-story room by Yuemu Guan, who hopes the quarreling lovers will make up; instead, Song Jiang murders his paramour. In another operatic adaptation of the same story, “Capturing Sanlang Alive,” the slain Yan Poxi comes back as a ghost and attempts to lure her lover Zhang Sanlang into the nether world.
|Related Literary Themes：||Religious Literature|