Starring Leslie Cheung and Zhang Fengyi; Miramax
Whether you were lotteried out of Foreign Cultures 62 or not, "Farewell My Concubine" should be part of your cinematic core curriculum. The co-winner of the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or, "Farewell My Concubine" is a work that is both universal and undeniably Chinese, tracing the relationship of two men through fifty years of Chinese history. With superb acting (especially from star Leslie Cheung) and beautiful mainland China as its backdrop, the movie is an epic tale that somehow remains intensely personal. Less melodramatic than "The Joy Luck Club" and more realistic than "The Wedding Banquet," "Farewell My Concubine" provides the viewer with a glimpse into the way modern Chinese view the tumultuous events of the 20th century. The sacrifices the characters make in the name of art, politics, and love give the movie its power and direction, and help make it one of the most moving films of the year.
A tale of two Chinese opera stars, "Farewell My Concubine" benefits from Taiwanese director Chen Kaige's masterful use of lighting, sound, and setting. This skill is apparent from the movie's beginning--reuniting in 1977, post-Cultural Revolution China, the movie's two main characters, Cheng Dieyi(Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) walk tentatively side by side into the bright light of a bare gymnasium, to be greeted by a single admirer rather than the thousands they once entertained. This make-shift stage, with its single spotlight, bears an eerie resemblance to the interrogation rooms of the Communists, giving the reunion an ominous feel that is heightened by the underlying music. When the flashbacks to the ex-stars' boyhood begin, Kaige is careful to inform his viewers of the historical time periods to prevent confusion, and chooses his locales with a feel for realism and authenticity.
This realism, however, does not prevent Kaige from engaging in artistic symbolism; the lake where the boys, who meet as children in a troupe of actors-in-training, practice their singing is a cool, calm respite from the political strife that dominates the movie, and its diffused, early-morning lighting and wide stretches of green lilypads give it an almost dream-like quality. When Dieyi succumbs to opium addiction later in the film, Kaige focuses on a giant fish bowl to convey his trapped, drugged state, out of which he is forced by the will of Xiaolou.
Xiaolou, is portrayed as the stronger of the two friends, and befriends the shy Dieyi during their childhood years in an opera troupe. Through the long, often-cruel training the boys endure, the two make various sacrifices for one another, until they are eventually cast in starring roles opposite one another. "Farewell My Concubine" is the opera the two men are destined to act in for the rest of their lives, with Xiaolou playing the strong, proud King of Chu while Dieyi takes the role of his faithful concubine Yu. Xiaolou's character is one whose blustering demonstrations of strength are not enough to keep him from bending under the strain of the harshpolitical times, and actor Zhang Fengyi does anadmirable job of portraying a character whoeventually finds it necessary to turn againstthose he loves.
Despite Xiaolou's strength, the story reallyrevolves around the character of Dieyi, and thefact that actor Leslie Cheung is up to thischallenging role is what makes the movie asuccess. Cheung, despite being a Hong Kong popstar accustomed to playing leading man roles, isperfectly cast. His Dieyi is in some ways the mostfeminine character of the movie, a tragic figurefaithful to the man be loves. The son of aprostitute, Dieyi comes to depend upon Xiaolou forguidance and purpose. The young Dieyi is already asexually ambiguous figure, and this ambiguity isincreased by being forced to sing lines like "I amby nature a girl, not a boy," and participate in aprocess designed to allow him to play female rolesconvincingly. He initially refuses, apparentlyfrightened by the implications of suchgender-bending, but eventually gives in to thewill of Xiaolou. Xiaolou realizes the necessity ofDieyi taking on this role if the opera is tocontinue, but does not fully recognize itconsequences for their friendship.
As his love for Xiaolou can only be expressedthrough the opera itself, Dieyi chooses to makethe opera his life. As a frustrated Xiaolou tellshim, "I'm just a fake king. You really areConcubine Yu!." The many sacrifices Dieyi andXiaolou make for one another are still not enoughto prevent misunderstanding between the two men;the head-strong Xiaolou is furious with Dieyi forsinging for the ous with Dieyi for singing for theJapanese to save Xiaolou's life. Informed that heis to be Xiolou's best man at his wedding, thecostumed, stage-painted Dieyi looks more like abeautiful, jilted lover than a best man, theexpression on his face a perfect tale of betrayal.Xiaolou only exacerbates the situation byreferring to Dieyi as his "sworn brother" andsuggesting that they visit a brothel together,putting Dieyi through agonies to which Xiaolou isoblivous. Gong Li, who starred in "Raise the RedLantern," plays the manipulativeprostitute-turned-wife Juxian, whose charactercomes to control to some extent the weakenedXiaolou. The rivalry between Juxian and Dieyi forthe love of Xiaolou gives the movie much of itstension.
At two hours and 40 minutes, the movie's lengthmay put off those viewers who got bored sittingthrough three hours of "Dances With Wolves." andthe film could stand for a little judiciousediting. Incorporating the Japanese occupation,Nationalist regime, Communist Revolution andCultural Revolution into one film will undoubtedlycause some confusion for those unfamiliar withChinese history, but while the history provides apowerful backdrop, the tale is ultimately one ofhuman relationships and betrayal. The scenesportraying Dieyi's opium addiction are the onlytruly annoying sequences of the film, althoughprobably purposely confusing, as the sequencesshift between depicting Dieyi with long, stringyhair to Dieyi as the short-haired, successfulactor who has Beijing at his feet. A film thatcannot be shows in Taiwan (more than half of itsactors are from mainland China), "Farewell MyConcubine" is nonetheless a movie that Americansat least can savor and enjoy, providing us with aunique look at Chinese history and culture.Professor Watson would be proud