The original story from which this film draws its inspiration is a four hundred-year-old classical Chinese opera called “The Peony Pavilion” (also known as “The Resurrection”). A metaphor on the closed nature of Chinese and Chinese society, this is a tale of an offical’s daughter whose cloistered life within the family estate leaves her little knowledge of the outside world. Her maidservant tells her one day of a beautiful garden behind the estate. Though at first she tries to disregard this information, believing her duty is to think only of her studies, the girl finds herself thinking more about this place and eventually asks her maid to take her there.
The girl has never known of the garder’s existence even though it lies just behind her house and she finds herself happily ensconced in the tranquil beauty of the place. When she returns home, she sleeps and dreams that she is back in the pavilion of the garden being made love to by a young scholar she has never met before, either in the dream or real life. Upon waking, she finds her mind cannot return to reality and she dies still obsessed by her vision of the world inside her dream. In her next life, she comes back to find the young scholar and the two are finally united.
The difficulty of portraying such a tale on its own is that the style and unique language of the drama, drawn as it is from classical Chinese literature, makes it practically inaccessible to a modern Chinese audience. But there is much in the story—the Chinese concept of love and personal freedom—that has relevance today. In adapting it to film, then, the original is used as a parallel discourse to a modern story.
The modern story is of two women who are unknown to one another but who both dream of the Peony Pavilion in the classic tale. In their common dream, one of the women takes the role of the girl, the other dreams she is the scholar. Both women are bound by the restrictions of their daily lives and have known disillusionment and disappointment in love; only in their dream do they find a truly romantic and sensible world in which they have the freedom to be themselves.