Director Edward Lam modernises Dream Of The Red Chamber

Chinese literary classic Dream Of The Red Chamber can seem forbidding to the average person, but it is not merely some out-of-touch musty tome. To renowned director Edward Lam, it is a work which continues to resonate strongly today.

"Do you watch House Of Cards?" he asks in Mandarin, referring to the American political television drama starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as an ambitious power couple.

"They are both Wang Xifeng," he points out with relish. Wang is a formidable character in the novel who is saddled with a womanising husband.

Making a case for how progressive the book was, he adds: "She's a very avant garde woman. She's very career-minded, charismatic, beautiful and calculating. I think she embodies many women, and men, today."

In identifying men with Wang, the thoughtful and articulate Lam, who is in his 50s, is also making a point about the gender issues at play in the book.

He notes: "Some have said that Dream Of The Red Chamber may have been written by a man, but it is from the point of view of female suffering and is a reminder to men to repent."

It is also about the ills of a patriarchal society, he adds.

The unfinished novel by Cao Xueqin was written in the middle of the 18th century during the Qing dynasty and is about the rise and fall of the Jia family.

Lam has fashioned a decidedly contemporary take in the provocatively titled What Is Sex?. In his stage adaptation, 12 men in tuxedos read passages from the novel and also take on female roles. The performances on Feb 21 and 22 are part of the Huayi festival.

"When these men read the lines spoken by women, we can see that it is language that dictates gender and not gender that dictates language," says Lam.

This is not the first time that Dream Of The Red Chamber has inspired the director to come up with a play. At 2013's Huayi, he presented Awakening. This was an adaptation which starred 12 actresses, including singer Denise Ho as the male protagonist Jia Baoyu.

Asked about his particular love for the novel, he says: "Our culture doesn't do justice to such a great novel. Jia Baoyu is not seen as a feminist but, instead, as an effeminate character and, hence, the book has always been overshadowed by this prejudice."

On a personal level - having grown up in a large family of women - Dream is "blood and flesh" to him, "something I can understand from a 3-D perspective".

What Is Sex? completes Lam's quartet of works based on the four great Chinese classics. The process began with Water Margin adaptation What Is Man? in 2006, followed by What Is Fantasy? (Journey To The West) and What Is Success? (Romance Of The Three Kingdoms). Of these, What Is Man? was presented at Huayi in 2008.

The title of his latest production has resulted in him getting scolded by netizens on microblog Weibo for being misleading. He says: "Even some who have watched it wonder what the play has got to do with sex. To some, maybe sex has got to be about stripping or the act itself."

Those who have not read the book think it is about romance, but in every chapter, there are Freudian undertones and sexual themes from awakening to adultery to objects representing sexual organs from Jia Baoyu's jade to Xue Baochai's lock, adds Lam.

Still, while the controversial play title might draw some, the source material might put some off, particularly when not many people are likely to have read the book nowadays.

In reply, Lam recounts how engaged a 14-year-old daughter of an author friend was by the production, given "she didn't know anything about the book, not even that its central characters are Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu".

He says: "A lot of the behaviour in the play is very human. Anyway, a lot of people who watch Shakespeare don't know it either. You can approach the play knowing the book word for word to get its juice, but the play can also be a starting point for you to eventually pick up the book. Either way is fine."

Audiences can also expect to be challenged by the experimental nature of Lam's works. What Is Sex? is not a linear, literal transposition of Dream Of The Red Chamber to a modern-day setting but, instead, follows a kind of dream logic and the rules change from scene to scene.

Lam draws a parallel between his works and modern art: "When you gaze upon a work by a modern painter, it is not about informing you, that's what a poster does. A painting inspires you. One wants to tell you something, the other invites you to feel something."

bchan@sph.com.sg