Farewell My Concubine is probably the single most famous film by its director Chen Kaige and one of the representative works of the so-called Fifth Generation movement of Chinese cinema. After watching Yellow Earth a few months back, it seemed natural to progress to this one as I’ve never seen it before. My wife claims to have watched it many times already but she was insistent that I gain more exposure to Chinese films.
Born in the 1920s, Cheng Dieyi is given away by his prostitute mother to an opera training school in Beijing. Nicknamed Xiaodouzi due to his slight frame, he is bullied by the other boys until he is taken under the wing of the larger Duan Xiaolou. The two form an inseparable pair and become performing partners when Dieyi is trained to play female roles. After many years of hard and arguably abusive training, during which time Dieyi is forced to embrace his feminine side, the duo eventually become famous actors. They specialize in performing the eponymous play with Xiaolou naturally as the King of Chu and Dieyi as his favorite concubine Consort Yu. Even as they become celebrities and are feted everywhere they go, it becomes apparent that Dieyi is attracted to Xiaolou is a romantic manner, internalizing his role as the concubine. These tensions come to a head when Xiaolou becomes involved with a prostitute Juxian and eventually marries her, against Dieyi’s fervent objections. Out of despair, Dieyi himself accepts the advances of a rich and well connected patron of the arts, Yuan Shiqing, who marvels that he the living reincarnation of the Consort Yu. As the years pass, these characters and their relationships with one another are tested by the tumultuous events that befall China in the 20th century: the invasion of Japan, the victory of the Communists over the Kuomintang and the Cultural Revolution.
There’s no question that this is a masterpiece that fully deserves its glowing reputation. You can tell by how immensely rich this film is. It is visually rich with face-painting and elaborate costumes that helped me appreciate for the first time how gorgeous Chinese opera can be. It makes for a wonderful showcase for a now obsolete art form. It has rich performances from great actor like Gong Li and Leslie Cheung, though in the case of the latter his halo is dimmed somewhat by the knowledge that the singing parts at least have been dubbed. Don’t forget the child actors who played Xiaodouzi as a young boy and made us empathize with the character in the first place. It’s a rich examination of the difficult issues of gender identity and to what extent this is shaped by individual choices and the vagaries of life. The three way interplay between Dieyi, Xiaolou and Juxian makes for complex and mesmerizing drama. Finally, the effects on their lives as they live through the great events of history make for a powerful critique of China’s Communist Party. No matter how you slice it, this is a wonderfully crafted, multi-layered and multi-dimensional film.
There are so many things to love in this film that I don’t feel up to the task of doing justice to it. But one element that I do want to call special attention to is how completely exotic it makes Chinese opera seem to someone with Western sensibilities. As the training here shows, it’s very much all about physical fitness and rote memorization. Every sound and every movement must be replicated perfectly from a memorized template, so much so that the number of steps that the King of Chu takes in one scene becomes a point of contention between Xiaolou and Yuan Shiqing. There is neither room for individual creativity nor is it desirable. In fact, the whole point seems to be to evoke as closely as possible a story with which the audience is already intimately familiar so there are never any surprises. It’s far a point as anyone can imagine from art as it is conceived in the West, which makes it fascinating to me. I can’t say it’s entirely without merit either as surely this calls for an immense degree of technical skill and I can appreciate how powerful an effect it must feel to have a well known figure out of legend come to life on the stage.
If this film has a flaw, it might be that the historic events come to completely dominate its latter half. No film that takes place in China over the course of decades of the 20th century can avoid covering how the Sino-Japanese War or the Cultural Revolution touches the lives of the characters, yet there are only so many ways that these can play out and there are already so many films about these events. To me, the most novel and interesting part of the film is the ambiguous gender identity of Dieyi and the relationships that form as a result yet like everyone else he is just one more piece of flotsam that is washed away by the tides of change. My wife, however, cautions me that this is because I’m viewing this through the lens of a modern era in which the mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party and the brutality of the Cultural Revolution are widely acknowledged. Back when this film was first released, its critique was hailed as being shockingly courageous. Indeed, in one scene Dieyi even states that the Japanese were better than the Communists since they never beat him up.
Back in 1993, no one who worked on this film could have known how Leslie Cheung would die either. Watching the ending now, it is impossible not to be reminded of his suicide. I suppose we will never know how much of the real Leslie Cheung is in the character of Cheng Dieyi but this film could not be as perfect as it is without his amazing and enthusiastic performance. It goes without saying that I consider this as one of the great films and it has my highest recommendation.