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Plot[ edit ] As the film opens, a street crowd watches a troupe of boys perform Peking opera, supervised by their aging director, Master Guan. When Laizi attempts to run away, Shitou placates the crowd by breaking a brick on his head; the crowd cheers, but Shitou is later punished for the stunt.
Shitou welcomes the newcomer as "Douzi" bean , and the two boys become friends. A few years pass. Laizi and Douzi run away, but witness a performance by an opera master that inspires them to return to the troupe.
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They find Shitou being beaten for allowing their escape, and Douzi accepts his punishment as Master Guan beats him mercilessly. Shitou tries to intervene, when an assistant informs them that Laizi has hanged himself. Douzi attaches himself to Shitou and is trained to play dan female roles.
Shitou learns the jing , a painted-face male lead. Douzi practises the monologue "Dreaming of the World Outside the Nunnery" but mistakes the line "I am by nature a girl, not a boy" and instead says "I am by nature a boy He repeats this mistake, doing so in front of an agent who might fund the troupe.
Douzi looks dazed, but whispers, "I am by nature a girl Douzi responds that one day he hopes to give Shitou a sword like that. Douzi is to meet Zhang alone, and catches him in a lascivious embrace with a young girl. Douzi is afraid as the man eyes him up and down, and seeks to be with Shitou, but Zhang catches him and pushes him to the ground. Hours later he emerges, and Shitou cannot get him to say a word. It is clear that Douzi has been sexually assaulted. The adult Dieyi is in love with Xiaolou, but the sexual aspects of his affection are not returned.
When they become a hit in Beijing, a patron, Yuan Shiqing, slowly courts Dieyi. Xiaolou takes a liking to Juxian, a headstrong courtesan at the upscale House of Blossoms. Xiaolou intervenes when a mob of drunk men harass Juxian and says that they are announcing their engagement. Juxian later buys her freedom and, deceiving him into thinking she was thrown out, pressures Xiaolou to keep his word.
When Xiaolou announces their engagement, Dieyi and Xiaolou have a falling-out. Dieyi calls her " Pan Jinlian " a "dragon lady" from the novel Golden Lotus. An aged Master Guan shames them into re-forming the troupe. The complex relationship between these three characters is then tested in the succession of political upheavals that encompass China from the onset of the Second Sino-Japanese War.
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The film also follows the fates of Na Kun, who turns his theater troupe over to the new government after , and the abandoned baby, called "Xiao Si" little fourth brother , who is trained in dan roles.
Xiao Si and Douzi have an argument about training and punishment at the end of which Xiao Si threatens revenge.
Betrayed, Dieyi leaves and becomes addicted to opium. Later, Xiaolou and Juxian help him to recover and the troupe surrounds him to congratulate his return to health.
On the eve of the Cultural Revolution , Shitou and Juxian are seen burning now- contraband literature and clothing. After a few drinks, they rekindle their relationship.
The scene shifts to Shitou being questioned by the Red Guards on a few unpatriotic words he said years ago and overheard by their manager. Xiao Si is seen in the background, seemingly in a position of power. The entire opera troupe is taken out in public for a humiliating struggle session by the Red Guards. Under duress, Shitou confesses that Douzi performed for the occupying Japanese and may have had a relationship with Yuan Shiqing.
Enraged, Douzi tells the mob that Juxian was a prostitute. Juxian is crushed to hear his words and commits suicide. They exchange a smile and Shitou begins with the line that gave Douzi trouble forty years ago. Douzi makes the same error of finishing the line with "I am not a girl". Shitou corrects him and they continue practising.
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Douzi then commits suicide by sword. After meeting with Lee, they recruited Chinese writer Lu Wei for the screenplay, and in the first draft of the screenplay came about.
This release featured a censored version; scenes dealing with the Cultural Revolution and homosexuality were cut, and the final scene was revised to "soften the blow of the suicide".
This is the version seen in U. It was better before those guys made cuts. Critical reception[ edit ] Roger Ebert awarded the film four stars, praising the plot as "almost unbelievably ambitious" and executed with "freedom and energy".