Farewell My Concubine

Hong Kong (Tomson HK Films Production)
Released in the US by Miramax

Chinese director Chen Kaige's “Farewell My Concubine” is a visually impressive and emotionally complex historical epic. The film, which won the Cannes Festival top prize, the Palme d'Or, is always fascinating to watch, despite a running time of 2 hours and 36 minutes and other problems.

The historical canvas begins and ends in 1977, with two aging performers of the Peking Opera in an empty theatre. In between these brief segments is the tumultuous story of China, a country that has gone through numerous social and political upheavals. The narrative is guided by a fascinating idea, how half-a-century politics affect the artistry of two friends who meet as children.

Dieyi (Leslie Cheung), the more interesting character of the two, is introduced as the sensitive boy of a prostitute, a tough woman who insists that he goes to the Peking Opera School. Slender and delicate, Dieyi is soon specializing in playing female roles. Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) is exactly the opposite: big, strong, and masculine. From the very beginning, the bond between the two has sexual overtones. Maturing to be a gay man, Dieyi doesn't conceal his physical attraction to Xiaolou and his jealousy when the latter “betrays” him and gets married. Both men are committed–and go out of their way–to practice their art.

It may be an interesting exercise to watch “Farewell My Concubine” back to back with Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 Oscar-winning epic, The Last Emperor, since they cover the same historical era. In some respects, The Last Emperor benefited from similar strengths–and suffered from the same problems. Both movies are visually stunning and both boast such huge scope that they end up being facile and sketchy, rapidly jumping from one historical era to the next.

However, unlike The Last Emperor, in Farewell My Concubine, we do get a better sense of the director's historical sensibility, particularly in the sequences depicting the Japanese invasion of China in WWII and the tragic effects of Mao's 1966 Cultural Revolution on an ancient yet magnificent institution like the Peking Opera.

The most perceptive and detailed observations concern the school, where the boys are physically tortured by their demanding masters and where they vow for a lifelong bond. The brutality of punishment that Chinese children go through during their training to become performers is quite shocking. In fact, the two men had been so intensely indoctrinated that, years later, when they revisit the school, they are willing to take more abuse from their aging master.

However, in the film's later chapters, which are brief, the attraction of Dieyi for Xiaolou, their differing approaches to their art, and their personalities are glossed over, and the film rushes to establish the impact of external, ever-changing politics on the status of the Peking Opera and its performers.

The production's technical aspects and the recreation of the stylized operas are wonderful, and they almost make up for the fact that, at the end of the film, the two characters still remain enigmatic.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Foreign Language Film
Cinematography: Gu Cahngwei

Oscar Context

In 1993, the winner of the Foreign Language Film Oscar was the Spanish entry, “Belle Epoque,” and of the Cinematography Award ace Polish lenser Janusz Kaminski for Spielberg's Holocaust drama, “Schindler's List,” which swept most of the Oscars.

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