Dream of the Red Chamber ★★★

Very different from the musical version Li Han-hsiang made in 1977 with Brigitte Lin and Sylvia Chang. Directed by Bu Wancang, a mainstay of the Shanghai film industry, sometime between 1943 and 1945 (I've seen multiple dates for it), it too is an adaptation of one of the Four Great Classical novels, albeit in black and white and with only a couple of songs, whereas the later film is a lushly colorful huangmei musical in the high Shaw Brothers style. My wife read the book in college and has been trying to get me to read it for years. She watched the later version and liked it, and she watched this one with me as well. She was initially excited by the appearance of her favorite character, an aunt who didn't make it into the later film. But by the time the story reached its tragic conclusion, she'd fallen asleep.

It's a Qing Dynasty story about a young man, scion of a wealthy family dominated by women. He falls in lovely with his sickly cousin, but the family wants him to marry another, less interesting girl. Li's film plays this as mythic tragedy, similar in tone to his great 1963 Butterfly Lovers story The Love Eterne. Bu's film, though, isn't so much a tragedy as it is an indictment of the women who dominate the young man's life. First they feminize him (he spends all day walking among flowers and reciting poetry, surrounded by female peers and servants, many of who he's romantically involved with, note too that just like in the other version, the man is played by a woman), then they screw him over by separating him from his true love. Instead of tragedy for it's own romantic sake, we get the story of a boy learning to become a man by breaking free of the evil women in his home, wandering off into the future.

I guess you can make it a war allegory and say the women stand in for the Japanese.