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FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (Ba wang bie ji)(director: Chen Kaige; screenwriters: Lilian Lee/Lu Wei/based on the novel by Miss Lee; cinematographer: Gu Changwei; editor: Pei Xiaonan; music: Zhao Jiping; cast: Gong Li (Juxian), Leslie Cheung (Cheng Dieyi), Zhang Fengyi (Xiaolou), Lu Qi (Master Guan), Wenli Jiang (Douzi’s Mother), You Ge (Master Yuan), Yang Fei (Shitou as a Child), Mingwei Ma (Douzi as a Child), Zhi Yin (Douzi as a Teenager), Hailong Zhao (Shitou as a Teenager), Wenli Jiang (Douzi’s Mother); Runtime: 154; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Feng Hsu; Miramax Films; 1993-China-in Mandarin with English subtitles)
“Well-acted but limited because its drama is emotionally uninvolving.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige (“Life on a String”) is associated with the Fifth Generation movement (beginning in the mid-late 1980s, they were the first generation of filmmakers to produce Chinese films since the Cultural Revolution; they jettisoned traditional methods of storytelling and opted for a more free and unorthodox approach). His “Farewell” film is an overlong, violent, rhapsodic, ambitious and controversial (at least to the Communist authorities) big-scale epic shot in an operatic style that is sumptuous, magnificently costumed, seductive, given to broad overviews of the social and political situations, melodramatic, well-acted but limited because its drama is emotionally uninvolving. It’s adapted by Lilian Lee and Lu Wei from Miss Lee’s best-selling novel. It gives one a sweeping history lesson covering the time frame from 1925 to 1977, with the bold storytelling relating generalized events of the country’s troubled history to the troubled relationship of two Peking (Beijing) Opera actors and their intense love story triangle. This entertaining film shared the big prize (Palm d’or) at the Cannes International Film Festival with Jane Campion’s “The Piano.”

The film’s title relates to the Chinese opera repertory in the film and their acclaimed trademark production called Farewell My Concubine. It’s an ancient mythic tale about a loyal concubine who would not abandon her king as he faces military defeat and chooses to dance for him one last time and then to cut her throat with his sword.

The boys, Douzi and Shitou, meet when both are apprenticed to an opera/acting school in the mid-1920’s, at a time when China was ruled by warlords. Douzi is trained to play the women’s roles in the all-male opera company, and he plays the concubine while Xiaolou plays the king in the Farewell My Concubine opera where the two earned their reputations as great actors. Douzi is a gentle lad, dumped on the opera troupe by his prostitute mother who couldn’t afford to keep him in the brothel. At first the school’s administrator and teacher, Master Guan (Lu Qi), refuses to accept Douzi because he has six fingers on one hand, but he’s accepted when his mother takes an ax to his extra finger. That scene alone should tell you where we are going with this tragic story. It links a personal story with one pointing out China’s good intentions but bad results, and how the history of modern China is one of brutality and pounding it into the population, considered children, to conform or else.

Douzi and Shitou flirt with a gay relationship (at least the film hints at that) and eventually rise to stardom in the troupe after learning from their mistakes by receiving beatings on a regular basis from the Master. The film interweaves their personal story with such events as the Japanese conquest of China in the 1930’s, the surrender of the Japanese at the end of World War II, the rule of the Nationalist Government, the Chinese civil war, the Communist victory in 1949 and, finally, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). It’s just too much ground for any film to cover and though the filmmaker gets an A for effort, it nevertheless left me exhausted to sit through all that history and, I might add, I don’t think I was much the wiser.

Douzi and Shitou as adults become famous actors, whose names have been changed for the stage to Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi). The film’s love story involves their relationship with Juxian (Gong Li). She’s the beautiful prostitute from the brothel the House of Blossoms whom Xiaolou rescues from being ravaged and then marries. This makes his stage brother and closest friend Dieyi go into a jealous fit thinking he has been betrayed by Xiaolou, whom he thought would be his lifetime companion. Dieyi thus turns to a relationship with a wealthy, older opera patron Master Yuan (You Ge). The co-stars break up their act on the night the Japanese enter Peiping (as the capital was called then).

The film failed to satisfy for a number of reasons (besides the ones mentioned earlier) that include: its unfulfilling tease presentation of a homosexual relationship (granted it’s daring for a big-budget Chinese production, but still…it left things impenetrable as far as the Leslie Cheung character’s sexual identity); it had a stagy, unreal look; its political and historical background presentations were shallow at best; and its repeated use of violence to beat home its point with a sledge hammer, of a repressed China hiding behind its dark side, only dulled its message and made things seem inflated.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”