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Film Review: Ding Lan, the Dutiful Son


These notes were composed in 1988 in connection with a class viewing of a badly produced commercial videotape of the Taiwan version of a terrible film called “Ding Lan, the Dutiful Son” in English and Xiào Zǐ Dīng Lán 孝子丁蘭 in Chinese. The production details are appended to the end of this review.


(Hitherto Unpublished)

Film Review:
Ding Lan, the Dutiful Son

Aesthetically Ghastly,
Ethnographically Fascinating

by D. K. Jordan

Aesthetic Considerations

This distinctly fourth-rate Hong Kong-Taiwanese film concerns the famous filial hero Dīng Lán 丁蘭. It is one of a genre of pseudo-historical films with a strong moral message, elaborating a story already well known to most of the audience.

The Original Story

Fortunately, although watching this will not be a memorable aesthetic experience, it should be an interesting ethnographic one. It takes the story of Dīng Lán, perhaps the most famous hero of filial piety, associated with originating ancestral tablets, and modernizes it by dwelling at length on its implicit themes and their message for contemporary life.

The story of Dīng Lán’s life as immortalized in the well-known “Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars” (Èrshí Sì Xiào 二十四孝). These stories, of which this is one of the earliest, are both translated and retold with an introduction elsewhere on this web site. (Link) Briefly, Dīng Lán's story is as follows:

The father and mother of Dīng Lán丁蘭 of the Hàn dynasty died when Lán was young and never received support and service from him. But he thought often of their “grievous toil” [in raising him]. He carved wooden statues and served them as though they were alive. His wife began after a time not to revere them. [One day] she took a needle and pricked their fingers in mockery. Blood flowed, and when the wooden statues saw Lán, tears fell from their eyes. Lán inquired about their condition; then he divorced his wife and cast her out.

Dīng Lán is considered by some to have been the originator of the idea of ancestral tablets.

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Changes Made by the Film Maker

The Daoist’s Curse

In this film several interesting twists are made to modernize the story. The film begins even before its titles with an encounter between a funeral procession (with white lanterns) and a wedding procession (with red banners). This ill-omened event so upsets one woman (apparently the bride’s matchmaker) that she insults the priest of the funeral procession, who in anger calls down a curse upon the marriage. Apparently it is as a result of the curse that Dīng Lán’s new wife, Lìhuá 麗華, a terrible shrew, is destined to disrupt his relationship with his mother. (We never learn how much of her shrewishness is a result of the curse and how much her original character.)

The Virtuous Mother and Her Bad Daughter-in-Law

Although Lán’s father has apparently died before the start of the action of the film, his mother, Lady Dīng, is very much alive. Recall that, although filial piety is ideally stated in terms of fathers, it is usually fantasized about in terms of mothers, with whom a more intimate emotional bond exists.

Dīng Lán’s new wife Lìhuá is portrayed as a conspicuously well-dressed and rather lazy young hussy unwilling to undertake any of the work about the household the way a proper daughter-in-law would, and inclined to stage-manage small events to help turn Dīng Lán against his mother.

The Bad Son & His Degenerate Friends

Lán himself is a spoiled playboy rather than a filial paragon when the story begins.

Under his wife’s fell influence, Lán badly mistreats his mother, a theme which the film shows in seemingly endless detail. Even Lán’s friends, portrayed as drunken gamblers —both drunkenness and gambling were archetypal signs of moral weakness in traditional China— try to make him stop, thus dramatically high-lighting what a terrible thing he is doing.

Madame Ding’s consolation is Yùzhū 玉珠, apparently the widowed wife of one of Lán’s brothers, who spends a certain amount of her time in a nearby Buddhist monastery also visited by Lady Dīng.

Essentially Lán and his wife persecute Lady Dīng until she commits suicide. She does so in error (and with dramatic irony), since, unbeknownst to her, Lán has just come to his senses and embraced filial piety moments earlier.

Reforming Oneself Too late

Overcome with grief, Lán is desperate to make things right with his mother, whom he can no longer serve now that she is dead.

The wooden figure comes in at this point, as does the needle and the divorce. (Significantly, no wooden figure is made for Lán’s father.) Indeed, Lán’s attempt to communicate with Lady Ding’s spirit by means of divination blocks is claimed (by a screen banner that flashes up for a moment) to be the origin of divination “moonblocks.”

Lán’s Journey to Hell

The film now borrows from another popular Chinese story, that of Mùlián 目蓮, a disciple of the Buddha who goes to hell to try to liberate his mother from postmortem torment. (The story is available on this web site. Link) In the present film, Dīng Lán visits a Taoist dedicated to the cult of a certain Sān Gūniáng 三姑娘 (Third Maid), who puts him into a trance, by which he is able to visit hell and witness Lady Dīng’s torments, just as Mùlián did in the other story.

The experience leads him to make a pilgrimage to a famous Daoist mountain associated with the same sect, where he is followed by his (divorced?) wife Lìhuá and his virtuous sister-in-law Yùzhū.

At the mountain, a Taoist (!) master oversees Lán’s (much abbreviated) moral training, after which, through his suffering and persistence, his mother is lifted from the torments of hell to the Western Paradise, and the words “The Good Shall Attain the Western Heaven” (Shànzhě shēng Xītiān 善者升西天) flash across the screen.

To make the happy ending (and the couplet) complete, Lan’s divorced and unfilial wife falls into a chasm and is carried downward to hell by demons as the words “The Iniquitous Shall Descend into Hell” (Èzhě xià Dìyù 惡者下地獄) flash across the screen.

Family Hierarchy: Good Mothers & Bad Wives

These elaborations allow the introduction of Buddhist motifs about postmortem reward and punishment for earthly behavior. But they also play on popular stereotypes about family hierarchy. The film portrays the mother-in-law as entirely innocent of any selfish thought, and the daughter-in-law as failing utterly in any human virtue.

Blurry mess made by a computer scan of a badly printed late Qing dynasty woodcut of Dīng Lán at his ancestral altar being pious. In comparison with the incompetent videotape, this is a beautifully clearly reproduced portrait of Dīng Lán.

The theme of mothers-in-law persecuting daughters-in-law is so common in revolutionary and other modern fiction that we tend to forget that the wicked daughter-in-law is an equally important stock figure in popular fantasy, and particularly in traditional moral fiction.

It is probably broadly significant too that it is the evil wife who blinds Dīng Lán to his duty to her for so long and makes him act in immoral ways; thus she simultaneously represents the dangerous seductress also common in Chinese folklore, similar in her destructive influence to the dreaded fox fairies who seek to undo susceptible men. (The fact that she may have been motivated by a curse caused by the chance encounter with a funeral procession does not seem to remove the moral onus on her.)

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Production Details

The director of this joint Taiwan-Hong Kong production was listed as Wu Chuen-Wan (WÚ Chūnwàn 吳春萬) and the featured the actors are listed below, insofar as the white lettering could be read against the bright background. The film had no date, but seems to have been produced by the Guān Shēng Chàngpiànn Gōngsī 關聲唱片公司.

A quarter century later, the Internet produced information about a film with the slightly different name: “The Persistently Devoted Son” in English and Xiào Zǐ Dīng 孝子釘 in Chinese. The company releasing it is apparently Yōupéng Pǔyuè 優朋普樂 (= 优朋普乐) or (for the DVD) Chūpǐn Yǐngpiàn 出品影片. .

Another release was apparently directed to a differenct (mainland?) audience under the English and Chinese titles “Dutiful Son Ding” and Qímén Bāguā 奇門八卦 (“Talisman to the Gate of the Weird”).

The director and cast are the same, and all appear to be the same film, perhaps cleaned up slightly for its Hong Kong rather than its Taiwan release, or for its DVD rather than cinema/videotape release. The date given is 1982. The (same) principal actors were:

Taiwan Spelling Hong Kong Spelling Chinese Screen Name
Shy Fong Sek Fung SHÍ Fēng 石峰
Sy-ma Yuh Jiau Sze-Ma Yu-Chiao SĪMǍ Yùjiāo 司馬玉嬌
O Yang Sha-Fei Ou-Yang Sha-Fei ŌUYÁNG Shāfēi 歐陽莎菲
Wang Mei-lee Wong Mei-Lik WÁNG Měilì 王美力
King Po Gam Boh JĪN Bō 金波

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