Farewell My Concubine Review

Noel Megahey has reviewed the Korean Region 3 release of Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine. A colourful epic featuring the lives of two singers in the Chinese opera set against the political upheavals of the country in the last century. Bold and ambitious, this is simply one the finest Chinese films ever made. The review features a comparison with the R1 release.

It is 1924 in Beijing, during the Chinese Warlord era. A prostitute takes her son, Douzi, to the opera school and begs them to take him from her. The boy is getting too old to live in a brothel and she can no longer afford his upkeep. The boy is delicately featured, but has the deformity of an extra finger on his right hand which is brutally excised so that the boy can join the troupe and be trained to be a female impersonator. “If you belong to the human race you go to the opera” their master tells them, as the boys are subjected to brutal beatings, tortures and punishments, all in the name of the strictest discipline that is necessary to accomplish to complex, ritualistic routines of Beijing opera. But Douzi and his best friend Shitou come through the experience to become the biggest stars in Chinese opera under the stage names of Cheng Deiyi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) and they are particularly famous for their performances of the King of Chu and Concubine Yu in the traditional opera ‘Farewell My Concubine’. Xiaolou rescues Juxian (Gong Li) from a brothel but his marriage to her has disasterous consequences on his relationship with Deiyi. Jealousy eventually forces the two men apart and in a dangerous political climate, this jealousy leads to betrayal.

The acting, as in all Chen Kaige’s Chinese films, is impeccable. It is difficult however to know quite what to make of the character Deiyi played by Leslie Cheung. It is hard to imagine another actor with the delicate features, mannerisms and the sensibility and skill to pull off a role like this, but something is still not entirely convincing. He looks rather posed, stiff and whistful and speaks in a light effeminate tone, but that could be appropriate considering the strict regime and trauma that has dictated every mannerism and personality trait. He is prone to sudden violent outbursts which would tend to suggest that he does feel restricted by the role that has been forced upon him. His character is a difficult one to sympathise with or fully comprehend as he battles with his inner demons and turns to the oblivion of opium. He plays a character with similar demons in Chen’s Temptress Moon much more successfully and to much greater effect. Zhang Fengyi puts in a strong performance as Duan, in appearance and character quite different from his superb performance as Jing Ke, the assassin in The Emperor and the Assassin. Gong Li is one of the finest actresses in the world and I have never seen her being anything less than brilliant in a film. Once again, she is mesmerising in her role of Juxian, her natural and down-to-earth performance a strong anchor that tempers the more dramatic, elevated characters of the two opera stars. It is this high standard of acting and strong characterisation that makes the film that much more interesting.

The film follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the characters set against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent period of Chinese history – the Japanese invasion in 1937, the Japanese surrender in 1945 and the formation of the People’s Republic of China, right through to the Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. The political upheavals mesh pretty well with the personal drama for the most part, although there is some awkward exposition. Outside a window, a crowd can be heard chanting – “Oppose Japan’s invasion of North China!” followed by the reaction, “Damn, it’s those student’s again” – but the politics are essential to the development of the film as no-one in China was left untouched by their effects. One of the film’s main themes is an examination of the contradiction between art and politics – “How can you put on make-up and sing opera at a time like this?”, Dieyi and Xiaolou are asked – and the film looks at the intellectual and cultural poverty of a political regime where tradition is seen as “decadent”. It is a question that must have surely tortured the director in his youth. As a young man, caught up in the fervour of the cultural revolution, Chen Kaige himself denounced his own father, also a film-maker, as an enemy of the people, a counter-revolutionary. Many of Chen’s films have been influenced by this, dealing with betrayal, family betrayal and this personal exorcism can be seen right through The Emperor and the Assassin and Temptress Moon.

Much more subtle are the clever political references used in the operas – “I hate only the lawless tyrant who plunges our people into misery”, sings Leslie Cheung as Concubine Yu at several points throughout the film, a line that represents at different times the invading Japanese, the Chinese Republican soldiers and the Communists. In this manner, Kaige succeeds brilliantly in Farewell My Concubine in bringing about the marriage of art and political commentary that has been and continues to be a difficult issue for him to resolve through his films.

The disc under review here is the Korean R3 release. The DVD comes in an amaray case in a red box set with a CD. The full 171 minute director’s cut of the film is included, which has not been seen theatrically in the UK as Miramax, with their customary disregard towards foreign language films, removed around 16 minutes of material during some more controversial scenes and the opera scenes that they felt would be too much for western viewers. Some of the restored scenes are quite significant, but I will not discuss those here for fear of spoilers. Anyone interested can see a full listing of the restored scenes on this web-site .

This is the only anamorphic presentation of the film available on DVD. It’s a pity therefore that there are some problems with the colour. The picture is swamped by a green cast that washes the full colours out of the film, giving it a sepia quality. Consequently, there are no full blacks, only a dull flat green/grey colour. Rather like the red tint problem with the DVD release of Spirited Away some people might not have a problem with the tint here as when the screen is full of colour the image can look extremely good. It’s a false impression however and unfortunately, there are too many dark scenes and shadows where the fault is quite evident. This is unfortunate because otherwise the quality of the print itself is excellent. There is a faint suggestion of grain, but a strong, steady picture and although a little soft, it is almost entirely free of any significant marks or scratches. One or two white dust spots can be seen occasionally, but this is quite rare. Bright images sometimes cast a hazy halo against dark backgrounds, but as this is an effect that is also very noticeable in Temptress Moon, it is probably an intentional filter effect used by the director. The only other problem with the picture is some slight edge-enhancement that sometimes creates stepping on diagonal edges.

English subtitles are provided and read fine, with very few grammatical or spelling errors. A not very attractive white typeface has been used however and it doesn’t blend in well with the picture. It is at least clearly visible and easy to read. The translation is for the most part close to the US R1 release, using the same names for characters, so that there aren’t too many jarring differences for anyone who has seen the film before. There are however some curious differences in the translation that I came across randomly. For example, in a scene where Juxian is applying make-up to Xiaolou, the line “Dieyi said it looks better if the eyebrow is very high” appears in the Korean release as “Dieyi looks like lifting his shoulders up”. This might lead you to conclude that the English translation on the Korean release is not always as good as it should be.

The Korean release comes with a brilliantly effective Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. It is mainly used for echo and ambience, but also carries movement to the surrounds. There is practically no background noise and the sound mix is strong, powerful and brings the film fully to life. Opera performances are magnificent and enveloping and effectively conveyed across all sound channels.

Special Features included on the DVD are a Synopsis in Korean text only, a Gallery of photos from the film and Cast & Crew listings for Chen, Cheung and Li in Korean text only. A CD is included in the box set, which contrary to what is often advertised is not the soundtrack of the film, but a collection of rather insipid Korean pop ballads. One or two of these in the context of a film is fine, such as in My Sassy Girl, but a whole album full of them in mind-numbing. There is no English translation on the CD case so I have no idea who the artist is, but there doesn’t appear to be any connection whatsoever with the film.

R1 comparison
A US Region 1 version of the film is available from Miramax. It also contains the full 171 minute director’s cut of the film. The R1 is not anamorphic, but has much stronger solid blacks and brighter colours. It also looks much sharper than the Korean R3, even when the image is zoomed to 16:9. The two scans below show the problems with the colour tint. The top image is the Korean R3 release, which looks perfectly good until you compare it to scan from the US R1 below, which shows full true colour and real blacks.

Subtitles on the R1 release are yellow and blend much better with the picture than the English subtitles on the Korean release. Opera titles are not translated on the Korean release, but they do at least translate all the opera sequences. On the R1 opera titles are shown, but only the first performance of ‘Farewell My Concubine’ is translated. The R1 contains the original Dolby Digital 2.0 Pro Logic soundtrack, which is effective, but is no match for the brilliant 5.1 remix on the Korean release. It is unfortunate that the drawbacks of the tint on the Korean release mean that, for me personally, I’d return to the R1 release before looking at the Korean R3 again.

As a film Farewell My Concubine is a remarkable piece of work, operating on many different levels – a historical document of the political regimes of China in the 20th century (not least of the reasons why it was of course banned in China), a new perspective on the cultural richness of traditional Chinese opera as well as an intense drama and a deeply personal confessional for the director. For the western viewer it is an unparalleled spectacle of an alien culture with different attitudes, behaviours and traditions. Marvellously filmed and superbly acted, like The Emperor and the Assassin, only a master like Chen Kaige can pull all these elements and performances together into a rich, emotional and powerful piece of cinema that can fully engage an audience. There are advantages and disadvantages to both DVD releases examined here, so the choice is your own, but do make the choice and see this film.

A comprehensive look at Chen Kaige’s work on DVD can be read here.


Updated: Nov 03, 2002

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Farewell My Concubine Review | The Digital Fix