Farewell My Concubine (China, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Farewell My Concubine spans fifty-three years, presenting the lives of two men against the historical backdrop of a country in upheaval. Initially banned in China but shown to international acclaim, Chen Kaige's film is one of the year's true masterpieces. Deserving of its award at Cannes and of its prominent position in 1993's New York Film Festival, Farewell My Concubine is a motion picture experience that few will soon forget after leaving the theater.

In 1924 Beijing, the youthful Douzi and Shitou are brought together under the thumb of the strict master of a small acting troupe. It quickly becomes apparent that these are the most talented of the master's pupils, and he pushes them harder than his other students. Thirteen years later, their suffering has paid off. Douzi, now going by the name of Chen Dieyi (Leslie Cheung), and Shitou, called Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi), are major opera stars, and their production, "Farewell My Concubine" is nationally known. The two are inseparable, until the woman Juxian (Gong Li) comes between them.

Farewell My Concubine is neatly divided into eight chapters, including a 1977 prologue and epilogue that bookend the story. Each section represents a different era in Chinese history and the lives of the characters. The historical background from the time of the Warlords through the Cultural Revolution, including the Japanese invasion of 1937 and the Communist takeover, is integral to the plot.

The first portion of the film is devoted to the early lives of Dieyi and Xiaolou as they form an unshakable bond under the often-cruel punishments of their master. Years later, when we meet them again as well-known actors, the bond has only strengthened. These two are as close as men can be - yet Dieyi wishes for even greater intimacy. The subject of homosexuality is only once overtly referred to in Farewell My Concubine, but its presence is never far from the surface. While Xiaolou remains blissfully unaware of the nature of his friend's love, Dieyi is tortured by it. The introduction of Juxian, a prostitute who becomes Xiaolou's companion, creates a moral dilemma for Dieyi that he is unable to fully resolve. Chen Kaige has done a fabulous job portraying these various relationships with depth, sensitivity, and realism. This is a real and powerful illustration of human interaction that depicts layers of hatred and love.

Dieyi is the most fascinating character. From the beginning, his sense of identity is confused. Not only is he attracted to men, but his role as a woman in "Farewell My Concubine" creates a certain ambivalence about his own gender. In childhood, the refrain of "I am a girl" is drilled into him so that he can effectively assume the role of the concubine in the opera but, as another character observes, the line between reality and acting has become blurred. Dieyi has a prostitute for a mother, is raped by an old man, and has his best friend stolen from him by a woman. It's no wonder that his soul is so tortured.

Xiaolou has a more straightforward personality, at least on the surface. Nevertheless, through his ever-changing relationships with Dieyi and Juxian, he proves that this apparent simplicity often hides strong undercurrents. One of his actions ultimately propels the movie to its literal and emotional climax.

Juxian appears to be little more than a scheming whore frantic to capture a wealthy husband but, like everyone else, she is capable of a few surprises, including an entirely-unexpected streak of kindness towards Dieyi, who shows her nothing but contempt. Starting out as a wedge between the two friends, Juxian ends up a crucial element in their relationship.

The only member of the cast likely to be known to (some) American viewers is Gong Li, whose credits include Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qui Ju. She is, as usual, excellent, but no more so than her two co-stars, both of whom effectively realize difficult and complex personalities. For the supporting actors, there's not a weak performance to be found.

It's no wonder that this film was initially banned in China (although the government eventually relented and there was one showing; more may be forthcoming). The Communist movement is not shown in a positive light. While not specifically a force for evil, Communist attitudes contribute to one of the movie's most emotionally-shocking scenes. Those unfamiliar with twentieth-century Chinese history are in for a crash course. No film can ever hope to convey the complex mosaic of cultural upheaval caused by everything that happened between 1924 and 1977, but Farewell My Concubine does an excellent job presenting samples of the flavor while telling a story that is both epic and intimate.

Farewell My Concubine (China, 1993)

Director: Chen Kaige
Cast: Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, Gong Li
Screenplay: Lilian Lee and Lu Wei based on the novel by Lilian Lee
Cinematography: Gu Changwei
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Ranked #3 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1993
Run Time: 2:38
U.S. Release Date: 1993-10-20
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Mandarin Chinese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: