[Film Review] Farewell My Concubine (1993)

Farewell My Concubine poster

English Title: Farewell My Concubine
Original Title: Bai wang bie ji 霸王别姬
Year: 1993
Country: China, Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin
Genre: Drama, Music, Romance
Director: Chen Kaige 陈凯歌
Lillian Lee 李碧华
Lu Wei 芦苇
based on the novel of Lillian Lee
Music: Zhao Jiping 赵季平
Cinematography: Gu Changwei 顾长卫
Leslie Cheung 张国荣
Zhang Fengyi 张丰毅
Gong Li 巩俐
Ge You 葛优
Ying Da 英达
Lü Qi 吕奇
Lei Han 雷汉
Yin Zhi 尹治
David Wu 吴大维
Fei Zhenxiang 费振翔
Zhi Yitong 智一桐
Tong Di 童弟
Jiang Wenli 蒋雯丽
Ma Mingwei 马明威
Zhao Hailong 赵海龙
Li Dan 李丹
Rating: 9.1/10

Farewell My Concubine 1993

A re-visit of this probably, most acclaimed Chinese film in the 20th century, Canne’s Palme d’or winner (an honor deservingly shared with Jane Campion’s THE PIANO 1993), two Oscar nominations, and other awards galore. Directed by Chen Kaige, the trailblazer of “The Fifth Generation” directors (along with Zhang Yimou) in China, FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE has remained as his most intrepid and accomplished work ever, it is a chef-d’œuvre goes right down in the annals of the entire history of cinema.

The full version runs about 170 minutes, and spans over 50 years, it traverses through the turmoil times of contemporary China. Starting from 1924, in the Republic of China (1912-1949), a 9-year-old boy Douzi (Ma, Yin in different ages) is left by his prostitute mother (Jiang, in a devilish showy cameo) to a Peking Opera troupe, run by the rigorous Master Guan (Lv), under whose extremely strict coaching measures, where physical punishment is meted out on a daily base, Douzi is trained to play female roles due to his feminine appearance, and strikes an intimate affinity with a senior fellow apprentice Shitou (Fei and Zhao). An agonising process of Douzi’s dragooned shifting from cisgender to transgender paves the way for his success in the field, but also foreshadows his tragedy where he can no longer retract himself from his female character, Yuji, whom he plays in the traditional play “Farewell My Concubine”, she is the loyal concubine of King Xiang Yu, played by Shitou. Projecting him and Shitou as Yuji and Xiang Yu, Douzi loses his grasp of the fine line between reality and performance, but Shitou isn’t.

Time jumps to the Japanese invasion in the 30s, when Dieyi (literally means butterfly’s dress, the stage name of adult Douzi, Cheung) and Xiaolou (means small pavilion, the stage name of Shitou, Zhang) have become star opera singers, mostly for their collaboration of “Farewell My Concubine”. A crack occurs, when a headline prostitute Juxian (Gong) contrives her way to marry Xiaolou as an opt-out from the whorehouse, the inseparability between Yuji and her King is deadly breached, Dieyi feels betrayed, but the show must go on. Through the rapid-changing political landscape of its time, from Japanese, Kumingtang, to the Communist Party, which established the PRC in 1949, until the Cultural Revolution in the late 60s, the trio experiences a string of tumultuous happenings: miscarriage, opium addiction, imprisonment, trial for treason, disciple betrayal, etc., which Chen dauntlessly brings about with no trepidation of the harsh censorship of the government (the film was denied a theatrical release in mainland China, for obvious reasons), and reach its apex in a heart-rending criticism and denunciation meeting encircled by the Red Guards, where Dieyi searingly lashes out his disillusion, spite and wrath, once and for all, it finishes with an abrupt but poignant suicide. Then, after out of contact over a decade long, the two brothers finally reunite on the stage for their grand finale with a highly cinematic coda.

This is Hong Kong legendary star, Leslie Cheung’s most audacious and dazzling endeavour, whose personal backstory (as a closeted gay man, he committed suicide on the April Fool’s Day 2003 because of depression, at the age of 46) in retrospective makes his brilliant impersonation of Dieyi more plaintive and heart-breaking to watch, his impeccable semblance of a woman in full cosmetics is deceptively alluring, yet he is far from being a pretty face, his subtle facial impressions, gestures, line-delivery and body language all precisely hit the perfect note of a soul desperately clinging to his illusion, driven mad by jealousy, deeply disheartened and traumatised by the milieu.

Zhang Fengyi’s Xiaolou, wonderfully balances Dieyi’s delicacy with his macho superiority and bluntness, which is tune with the strategy to intentionally sidestep the elephant-in-the-room in their relationship, and makes the case more like a meta-identity confusion tale than a taboo-divulging melodrama, homoerotic tension has been mostly taken out, whereas vignette between Douzi and a senior eunuch is not for the faint-hearted. Xiaolou is only the king in the opera, back to reality, his virility is a false front, and he is ready to snitch on everyone when difficult time approaches, but we cannot blame him, he is no hero, but an ordinary man tries to save his life, most of us would do the same, right?

Gong Li, the goddess of contemporary Chinese cinema, grabs a meaty supporting role here, becomes the unwelcome third wheel among the two men, her Juxian, is a woman knows what she wants and never hesitates to get it, she is tough, manipulating but not vicious, one of the most poignant moments is when she and Dieyi establishes a semi-mother-and-son bond during the latter’s cold turkey period, that is the only time, hostility caves in to warmth and affections, yet it is evanescent, her only mistake is that she puts all her stakes on a wrong man and sticks to him afterwards, among all the main characters, she is the most ambiguous one but Gong’s expertise makes her the most sympathetic one too.

Gu Changwei’s Oscar-nominated cinematography, the exotic atmosphere around Peking opera scenes and a distinctively oriental score by Zhao Jiping, even popular comedian Ge You’s subdued performance in a drama role, one can ramble on and on, but in the end of the day, it needs to be seen by more audience, particular young Chinese filmmakers, simply to show the world that Chinese cinema can produce masterpieces despite that it has been stuck in the dry spell for too long, with an ostensibly booming market congested with utterly inferior commodities.

Oscar 1993  Farewell My Concubine

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