'The World is Not What it Used to Be...': Farewell My Concubine Review (Chen Kaige, 1993)
'I am by nature a boy, not a girl...' Over and over does Dieyi mistakenly repeat these words before his master at the Beijing Opera House, with brutality closely following suit, unable to recite the lines from Dreaming of a World Outside the Nunnery. 'I am by nature a boy, not a girl... I am by nature a boy, not a girl... I am by nature a girl, not a boy.' And so Dieyei's life-long struggle ensues; are we defined by what we are told to be? Does one carry the burden of sin when it was not they that chose the path?
Thank goodness for the BFI offering and their delicious sale! I first heard of Farewell My Concubine during my time working at HMV. Always excited to put out new stock for World Cinema and Anime, I was particularly pumped when we had allocated areas for Criterion Collection, Eureka, Arrow Academy and so forth which welcomed a lot more films for the pickings. My favourite to peruse of these shelves was always the BFI; with their wonderful dual format editions, healthy special features and booklets containing essays that really titillate those underused braincells of mine. Best of all, their restorations are often stunning, providing film lovers with access to some truly wonderful filmmakers with quality visuals... This has turned into a an advertisement for them now but no matter.
Anyway, enjoying unloading all the exciting new stock coming my way, I spotted Chen Kaige's cinematic venture. I was first struck by the beautiful face on the cover. Now as an Asian cinema enthusiast, I know that it is the wonderfully effeminate face of legend Leslie Cheung, but at the time I thought I held some historical romance in my hands and the beautiful woman before me was at the centre of this tragedy. I was half right. What I got, years later, just days ago due to a wonderfully timed bargain hunt, was something overwhelmingly different and so much better.
Farewell My Concubine (an adaptation of Lillian Lee's 1985 novel of the same name) is an unusually underappreciated whilst highly revered Chinese epic following two men and their complicated relationship as Opera stars and friends during China's tumultuous political revolution in the early 20th century. Cheng Dieyi (played by the breath-taking Leslie Cheung), born in a brothel and sold off by his mother, a prostitute, to the Opera House is forced to endure severe abuse and rigorous training in the company's attempt to raise stars. He is befriended by Duan Xiaolou (Fengyi Zhang), who looks out for the young boy, and it is this relationship from which blooms an obsessive desire. With Dieyi assigned female roles, regardless of consent, (It was tradition of old that women did not participate in Opera's, female roles were played by men required to embody this new identity) and dedicated to the performance of traditional Opera, his character is perfectly balanced by Xiaolou's training in commanding male roles and haughty, carefree sensibility. Their performances are adored by all and Dieyi's feelings for his friend and co-star become romantic. But all this changes when Xiaolou marries a prostitute, Juxian (Li Gong), coming between their art and the men.
A tale spanning fifty years, all of this plays out against the backdrop of China's controversial and complicated history of which I knew only the bare minimum. All of these elements come together some how, knitting a coherent and powerful tale of betrayal, love, identity and condemnation. At nearly three hours long, I was astonished to find that I was neither bored nor feeling each minute; in fact it flew by. Not only did I receive a brilliant history lesson presented in a beautifully crafted package but possibly one of the most heart-breaking films I've ever had the pleasure to watch.
Equal parts homage to the classical Peking Opera, to art itself and condemnation of a nations history, the story is strikingly modern despite mirroring the narrative of the titular tale. The love triangle feels neither weighty nor unnecessary - for whenever such a thing is included one always recalls Pearl Harbour's distracting focus on romance - instead propelling each characters narrative and descent into despicableness. It's most powerful asset of all is a contemplation of identity and sexuality in the face of an ever-changing climate. The character of Dieyi is both adored and condemned for his role with each changing year, through pre-war China, the Japanese occupation to the eventual enforcement of a communist government, we see the burden of a choice never made. As the reflection of the all-male acting troupe comes into play and actions long in the past come under scrutiny repeatedly it seems that the actor cannot win in a world that sees him as nothing more than an idol.
Smoky beams of light, midnight blues, delectable reds, twinkling golds; Concubine has that looks that I simply die for in a film. A swoony nineties lavishness, a magical realism much like Neil Jordan's The Crying Game (1992) infused with that period richness similar to Amadeus (Forman, 1984) or Farinelli (Corbiau, 1994), a drizzling of opulence much like Sophie Muller's wonderful work on music video Walking on Broken Glass (Annie Lennox's banging track from 1992) and sprinkled with a tone similar to that of An Actor's Revenge (Ichikawa, 1963). Chen Kaige's choices as a director render every scene beautiful and complex, drawing as much from the mise-en-scene as he does from the actors. Cinematographer Changwei Gu enhances the experiences catching stunning angles, amazing set-ups creating an air of mysticism and romanticism with each frame. There is nothing I love more than films about the arts. Be it the great composers, actors and performers for the stage, with gaudy costumes and extreme hair and make up that screams melodrama. Better yet is when it is filmed to perfection.
But my favourite thing of all in this film has to be Leslie Cheung. Cheung stifles each scene with his powerful presence; I looked forward to each moment he graced the screen. His depiction of the troubled actor is both vain and conniving yet incredibly vulnerable as he walks the world in a persona to please no one but his audience and devotee's . His one and only true friend being that of Xiaolou, his reaction to the betrothal is both extreme but understandable as he sees his world being snatched from him. One cannot be without the other it seems. Worse still, his friend and Juxian are the only people in that world that can see past the idol. Cheung took this complex role despite not speaking much Mandarin (he is dubbed rather convincingly through most of the film by actor Yang Lixin) and allowed for a career defining performance to come through. Every teary-eyed gaze, disciplined fury and restrained desire is captured on his delicate face. What could be a character brimming with melodrama and possibly overacted is handled with grace and poise. Cheung shows us a man consumed by his art to embody a role not of his choosing, clinging to the one thing that defines and gives him purpose.
Not to say the other performances are not something to go wild for. The talent in this film is something to behold. But the films most engaging exchanges take place between Cheung and Li Gong, each carrying that femme fatale energy, creeping around one another like sparring panthers in one moment and then tenderly cradling one another in the next. Their relationship is both complex and filled with venom and bother actors know this. Gong enraptures the audience playing a bold woman who knows her mind well enough and understands as much as her rival that her husband is as many parts sincere as he is foolish.
The film has an interesting background. It was incredibly controversial upon release, with the Chinese government funding many projects in order recover some of the country's image following the 1989 massacre at the Tiananmen Square protests. Furthermore they wanted to re-stabilise the economy and assert their influence as a united front to the rest of the world in a post-cold war climate. Therefore a film criticizing the devastating effects that the cultural and political revolution made upon the arts was unwelcome, especially as it aired some of their even dirtier laundry. The last half an hour is devastating and a revelation to the fragile wills of men.
The films casting was taken into much consideration as filmmakers wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible with this new image. This led to the casting of Leslie Cheung, esteemed across Asian for his cinematic and musical efforts (He released thirty albums, many incredibly successful, in his short life). It was the same reason that Gong was chosen also. With all these elements in place to release a successful melodrama it is strange that the government had so many objections. Upon release, it was subjected to much scrutiny, being pulled from theatres and criticised for it's portrayals of homosexuality, violence and suicide under the Mao Zedong Communist government. It was then banned from theatrical release.
Despite all of this, Concubine won the Palm d'or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival forcing the ban to be lifted following public outrage. Unfortunately it was a censored version which cut much of the material it objected to. Meanwhile, abroad it had a distributed running time of 152 minutes. Blessed be the BFI for releasing this masterpiece to it's full 171 minutes! And so it should be, an often brutal and shocking depiction of the early 20th century, it probes and dissects many traditional and revolutionary institutions in the film. It serves as both informative, eye-opening and a stark exploration of the reality behind the art. Especially during such troubled times.
I suppose I've gone on enough about everything surrounding this film, from my discovery to it's context to simply why I adore it so... But I can't help it. From a casual decision to stick the film on last night (another late start because I'm grown-up mess) I discovered another amazingly vital film that I would urge many to watch. It's bold in it's depiction of the events leading up to the implemented communist rule whilst masking an incredibly political piece in an identity story oozing with power, heartbreak and sensibility.
I could speak about it for days and still have more I would want to say. Yet I am surprised. I am surprised that it is not spoken of more. Stricken with awe even. That today, in such a progressive climate, in a world in dire need of representation and exploration of controversial and complex characters and narratives that this gem could be lost amongst the heaps of barely palatable pandering. For here we have something brave, genre-defying and politically charged. For here we have a masterwork from it's collaborators. For here we have one of the most enlightening films on the arts available. It's a beauty in face of the ugliness of the human race.
Farewell My Concubine is available to buy