1977 The Legend of Purple Hairpin

(Pinyin: zi cai ji)
Zi Caa Gei
a LEE TIT film
"The Legend of Purple Hairpin"
(source: Universe Laser & Video Co., Ltd DVD cover)

According to the Hong Kong Film Archive’s Research Unit, an interesting finding has shown that "only 4 Cantonese opera films have been produced since the end of the 1960s, including Laugh in the Sleeve (1975, Lee Tit), Princess Chang Ping (1976, John Woo), The Legend of Purple Hairpin (1977, Lee Tit) and The Legend of Lee Heung Kwan (1990, Chor Yuen)."

Released in 1977, "The Legend of Purple Hairpin" marks the third and also the last movie of this genre that Lung Kim Sang and Mui Suet See made together aside from their long time partnership in live stage performances of Cantonese operas, which continued well into the early 90s.

The melodrama tells an emotional yet beautiful story of love and devotion.
Scholar Li-I married beautiful Huo Hsiao-yu soon after the first time they had met. The purple hairpin marked their intimate bond. Li served the army after their marriage.

Later, the Military Head ordered Li's return because he wanted Li to marry his daughter. Moreover, Li was forbidden from going home.

Hopeless and in great despair, Huo dressed up with her gown and crown and intruded into the wedding banquet. She had prepared to die for her love, fortunately her sincerity and passion won.
-- From the Universe Laser & Video Co., Ltd's "The Legend of Purple Hairpin" DVD back cover.

* * *

A young and talented scholar named Lee Yick 李益 (Lung Kim Sang) was told by a lady matchmaker whom he met on the festive night street while traveling with his two friends, Tsui Wan Ming 崔允明 (Leung Sing Bo) and Wai Ha Hing 韋夏卿 (Chu Kim Dan), that he should marry a girl who dresses in purple named Fok Siu Yuk 霍小玉 (Mui Suet See) since she is not only a beauty, but she also despites wealth and power.

Thus, at the sight of a girl in purple, Lee follows her to the front door of a house on Sheng Yen street where he happens to pick up an amethyst hairpin dropped by none other than Fok Siu Yuk, whom Lee wants to meet.

Taking up on the opportunity to divert Siu Yuk’s maidservant, Woon Sha 浣沙 (Wan Fei Yin 尹飛燕), went looking for the amethyst hairpin, Lee Yick chances upon meeting Siu Yuk when she was stepping out of the house looking for Woon Sha.

They fell for each other at first encounter. Lee Yick admires Siu Yuk’s brilliant as Siu Yuk to his poems and talents. Believed it is fate that they meet. Lee uses the amethyst hairpin as a betrothal gift and proposes to Siu Yuk.

Though Siu Yuk is happy to hear the proposal from Lee, she thinks that she is too low for him as she is only a brothel’s singer. Her courtesan life is with many struggles and that she has to take care of her mother.

Persisted, Lee wins the blessing from Siu Yuk’s mother, Cheng Luk Leung 鄭六娘 (Ying Suet Fan 言雪芬), for the couple hands in marriage that very night.

Following their wedding night, Lee wrote the couple’s vows on a pongee as testament of his sincere and devoted love for Siu Yuk and as proof of their marriage.

Keeping promise of a husband to raise the family status, Lee passed the imperial examination. Not only that, he came in first. However, Lee was called by the Grand officer Lo 盧太尉 (Lan Chi Pak) who is in charge of the military affairs for Lee to serve in guarding the border shortly thereafter. Thus, Lee has to part from Siu Yuk in order to fulfill his military duty.

Little Lee Yick knows at the time that it was a part of officer Lo’s grand scheme to distance Lee and Siu Yuk for three long years.

During those years, Siu Yuk was waiting patiently for Lee to come back and helping out Lee’s two friends by pawning her valuables, even at selling her beloved amethyst hairpin. She is only to learn from the jewelry craftsman that Lee has come back from the border and he is staying at the Grand officer Lo’s mansion. There is also news that Lee is to marry officer Lo’s fifth daughter.

Upon hearing the news, Siu Yuk pays a visit to the Lo's, but feels helpless standing at the Lo’s residence gate. She then goes to the temple praying for help. It is at the temple where she meets a chivalry elder man dressed in yellow 黃衫客 (Leung Sing Bo), he who is willing to listen and sympathize with her story.

It happens that same day Lee Yick was allowed to leave the Grand officer Lo’s mansion, not without guards, to be at the temple at an invitation.

Learning of Lee from Siu Yuk’s heartbroken story, the chivalry elder man dressed in yellow rescues Lee from the guards and brings Lee home to Siu Yuk.

Believing that Lee has deserted her, Siu Yuk has fallen gravely ill. Lee’s coming helps to explain on the couple’s misunderstandings.

It was Grand officer Lo who tricked Lee into believing Siu Yuk has sold her amethyst hairpin and that she has been remarried.

After taken Lee's written reference in a poem out of context, Lo used it against Lee, framing Lee for being disloyal to the Emperor with the sole intention of forcing Lee to abandon Siu Yuk into marrying Lo’s daughter.

When Lee was reluctant to comply with his wish, he confined Lee; or rather, held Lee captive - disallowing Lee from coming home to Siu Yuk.

Yet, Lee and Siu Yuk's reunion is short lived as officer Lo quickly sent his guards to bring Lee back to the residence to go through with the wedding ceremony as planned.

Tipped by the chivalry elder man dressed in yellow to dress in gown and crown, Siu Yuk enters the Lo’s residence to take back her husband at the chance of being beaten to death for intrusion.

As it turns out, the chivalry elder man dressed in yellow is the Emperor’s fourth brother. He comes right in the niche of time to expose Grand officer Lo's scheme and bring Lo to justice for the beaten death of one of Lee's friends, Tsui Wan Ming, who refused to betray Siu Yuk in complying with the request to be a matchmaker for Lee and Lo's daughter.

The Emperor’s fourth brother is then standing in as the matchmaker to officiate the reunion of Lee and Siu Yuk.

Mui Suet See and Lung Kim Sang in character for The Legend of Purple Hairpin
(source: 1993 Crown Record Co., Ltd CD cover)

* * *

[Thoughts and reaction...]
When first watching “Dream of the West Chamber” stage performance on DVD, my initial reaction was that why didn’t they stage “The Legend of Purple Hairpin”?

However, I soon developed a special appreciation for both individually despite the somewhat similarities in their story plotline in with my second, third, fourth and many viewings afterward.

In retrospect, I have come to appreciate the staging of the 2005 “Dream of the West Chamber” revival. The opera’s message and materials can easily be related to today’s modern world on the subject of love, marriage and relationships whereas the basis is built on understanding, communication and trust.

Yet, it is not to say that “The Legend of Purple Hairpin” would offer anything less. It is just that the opera’s entailing references might not play well with today’s youth in comparison to more simplicity and focus elements found in “Dream of the West Chamber”. And that is just my personal opinion.

* * *

[Acting impression...]
With Mui Suet See as Fok Siu Yuk and veteran Cantonese opera performer Leung Sing Bo pulling double duty - first as Tsui Wan Ming and then the chivalry elder man dressed in yellow (aka the Emperor’s fourth brother), they practically stole the scene in the emotional packed second half.

Much as one would feel the pain and sadness Siu Yuk having to go through at the news of Lee Yick marrying Grand officer Lo’s fifth daughter, they would also have great respect and admiration for Tsui’s courageous action of standing up to Lo’s power for what is righteous.

Moreover, the performance of the two artists as hero and heroine continues to shine with Leung Sing Bo's return for his latter portrayal of the chivalry elder man dressed in yellow.

As for Mui Suet See, Siu Yuk’s entrance to the Lo’s mansion to claim back her husband is an emotionally powerful scene. Here, the viewers can appreciate Ms. Mui Suet See’s artistry and effort in treating them elegant elements in Cantonese Opera the best she can within a film setting.

* * *

[DVD details & technical note...]
Although the DVD picture and sound didn’t get digitally remastered as with “Princess Changping”, it is of much better quality than Modern Audio Ltd’s releasing of “Laugh in the Sleeve”. Regrettably, there is no inclusion of special features except for Stars’ Files on Lung Kim Sang, Mui Suet See and Lee Tit, which are, by the way, informative.

The Chinese/English subtitles are helpful to non-Chinese Cantonese speakers; yet, they get in the way of the picture at time. But, that is something can be managed. Other than that, the DVD recording of the movie itself is something to treasure since there is no film of this genre being produced nowadays.

Hopefully, with UNESCO’s recent recognition of Cantonese Opera as "masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity", there are (and will be) efforts going on with the restoration of Cantonese opera films hand in hand with the revitalization of youth's interests in this unique art form.

Credits and/or Citations:
The above written review/recap does incorporate researched movie data from the Hong Kong Film Archive (HKFA) and some information elements from "Synopses of Cantonese Opera" owned by the Cantonese Opera Research Programme (CORP), The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

Where to buy
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Thymocyte said…
I enjoyed this blog post. I was surprised to find that someone else liked Cantonese opera as well, who is in my generation! I enjoy Cantonese opera very much, but my Cantonese is fluent, so it's hard for me to understand the entire story unless there are English subtitles.

You made a good point about how Siu Yuk's second attempt to enter Grand Officer Lo's court is a very powerful moment. The first time she enters, she is helplessly pounding at the door. The second time, she is stately and strong, and Mui Sheut Sze's acting really is amazing in that scene.

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