Following a respected Queens-based troupe of Peking opera performers, the polite-rather-than-probing documentary Master Qi and the Monkey King is part traditional-art-form appreciation and part immigrant story. Director Alan Govenar finds more success with the former, showcasing the elaborate costumes, instrumentation, and acrobatics demanded by this highly particular operatic form, and assembling coherent explanations of some of its core traditions. Qi Shu Fang—who became famous in China after co-starring in the film of the Cultural Revolution model play Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, and moved to the United States after touring there in the late 1980s—serves as the focal point here. Now in her sixties, she’s still an agile onstage presence, and a warmer sit-down interview than her diva résumé might suggest. She also appears to have inspired considerable devotion among her collaborators: Govenar speaks with opera-company members about balancing their commitment to the troupe with their day jobs (nail-salon employee, real estate agent, etc.). Qi’s husband and longtime creative partner, Ding Mei-kui, explains the move to the U.S. as an opportunity to be more “useful” in bringing suitably high-caliber Peking opera to as wide an audience as possible. Quietly admiring of its subjects’ skill and dedication, Govenar’s straightforward documentary does a capable job of extending that mission.
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