Farewell My Concubine Review
Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine represent a milestone in Chinese cinema; it is the first, and to date, only Chinese-language film to win the Palme D’Or; it was the first time a famous Hong Kong actor (Leslie Cheung, Happy Together) acted in a mainland China movie; it is one of the spearheads of the Fifth Generation movement, named after the fifth class of students graduating from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 which includes, among others, directors like Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum), Tuan Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite), Zhou Xiaomen (Ermo) and Chen Kaige; but it is also, and above all, a heart-breaking tale of friendship and love as well as a moving testament of the bicephalous madness of a country torn between tradition and evolution.
The central characters, Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi, Red Cliff) are two apprentices in the Peking Opera. The movie shows how their lives are affected by major political changes alongside the story of a woman (Gong Li, Raise the Red Lantern) who comes between them.
On one side it is a wonderful homage to the traditional Peking Opera; Kaige makes us discover a highly codified typical art of the country in which lavish outfit and makeup turn the actors into characters instantly recognisable to the public.
Kaige’s respect for this art can clearly be seen throughout the movie, even at the beginning while we witness the painful punishments that the young future performers endure in the name of their art.
Running through the film is the Peking Opera Farewell My Concubine, which gives the film its title. It is one of the most famous in the Peking Opera repertory. In the opera, the female lead is played by a man, as was the case traditionally. The opera becomes Dieyi and Xiaolou's staple act and scenes from it are performed throughout the film.
The opera tells the story of King Xiang Yu who battled for the unification of China with Liu Bang, the eventual founder of the Han Dynasty. Xiang Yu is surrounded by Liu Bang's forces and on the verge of total defeat he calls forth his horse and begs it to run away for the sake of its own safety. The horse refuses, against his wishes. He then calls for the company of his favorite concubine, Yu Qi. Realising the dire situation that has befallen them, she begs to die alongside her master, but he strongly refuses this wish. Afterwards, as he is distracted, Yu commits suicide with Xiang Yu's sword.
The events in the film parallel the opera which focuses on the loyalty of Yu Qi to Xiang Yu: Yu Qi’s fatal devotion to the doomed king echoes Dieyi’s devotion to Xialou and the transition to the Han Dynasty is similar to the transition to the People's Republic of China.
On the other side, the movie encompasses many very bold themes at the time, from politics and wartime occupation to homosexuality.
The Fifth Generation director’s education coincides with the Chinese Cultural Revolution which saw the country witness its major changes. Most of these students were born in the 50s and grew up at a time when Mao Zedong’s theory of permanent revolution was moving into its most radical expression generating various rebellious movements which ultimately led to the Cultural Revolution.
Early in the film, Dieyi and Xialou live in the old society which advocates suffering as the only way to success. The country will experience many changes which can be seen as the major cause of its own downfall and that of its art. Indeed this new political order will result in the disappearance of the remains of the old society. These changes in society are constantly present in the background, but also act on the characters themselves, for instance during the trial scene which reveals the characters true nature and in which Kaige clearly condemns China’s communist regime (while the country is still in the hands of the party!).
Homosexuality is also clearly present with Dieyi who is in love with his partner. This is another way for Kaige to tackle a major taboo which had never really been treated in Chinese cinema. The intelligence of the director, and his screenplay, is surprisingly to treat this aspect with an utmost modesty which manages to make its impact stronger. For the director, this aspect is also a way to show how Chinese society has pummeled the mind of a young actor by making him repeat that he is a woman to the point of becoming one.
Farewell My Concubine undoubtedly remains Kaige’s masterpiece. The director was in total control of its art, from the direction (each shot is perfectly staged) and the story (which he co-wrote with Lillian Lee, the author of the source novel) to the performances of the actors (firstly the late Leslie Cheung, probably one of the most talented actors of his generation, who give one of his best performances as Deiyi, the tormented main protagonist who appears at times both as brave and fragile, but also Zhang Fenyi, in a less appealing role, and Gong Li who portrays a character more complex than it seems.
Farewell My Concubine is released on blu-ray disc on 21 March by the BFI.
The British distributor has done a good job with this new blu-ray release.
It is a shame that the movie doesn’t seem to have benefited from a standout restoration but it has been given a solid 1080p transfer which definitely represents an upgrade compared to previous DVD edition. Furthermore, there are no apparent issues with the transfer other than the ones which are most likely due to the technical limitations of the cameras used at the time (grain and blurriness).
On the audio side, the blu-ray disc offers a LPCM 2.0 track in Mandarin with English subtitles which, again, doesn’t sound massively impressive but provides strong clarity and dynamism without apparent defaults.
The BFI has included only one bonus on the disc, but a very relevant one: a relatively vintage making-of featurette (2003) which allows to hear the director and two of his main actors (Leslie Cheung and Gong Li) discuss their involvement in the movie, and to enjoy some fascinating behind-the-scene footage, something usually rare in Chinese movie of this period (24min).