2 Hrs., 44 Mins.
Farewell, My Concubine March 31, 2020
ouzi and Shitou, the protagonists of Chen Kaige’s visually lustrous, decades-spanning historical melodrama Farewell, My Concubine
(1993), are inextricable from each other for most of their lives. They meet for the first time as children, in late-1920s China. Shitou is one of several boys training with a Peking opera troupe, which has similar customs to a boarding school. Early in the movie, Douzi is carted off to
to the group’s leader, the abusive Master Guan (Lü Qi), by the former’s sex worker mother, who is no longer able to take care of him. She hopes Guan will be able to make something of her son.
Douzi and Shitou become fast friends under Guan’s scarily perfectionism-driven tutelage. Conditions are miserable; Douzi at one point even tries to escape. But both boys find themselves, after they've undergone a good portion of their foundational training, committed to their art, not because of but perhaps in spite of Guan’s force. Years later, they are at the head of the troupe. By adulthood, they’re top stars. For decades the friends spend most of their time performing the eponymous opera, in which Douzi (Leslie Cheung), gay and effeminate, takes on the lead female role, while the brawnier, more classically masculine Shitou (Zhang Fengyi) serves as his male counterpart.
Farewell, My Concubine is centrally about the complicated relationship between Douzi, Shitou, and, soon, Juxian (Gong Li), Shitou’s former sex-worker wife who stands unwaveringly by both even as she’s antagonized by Douzi from the outset. (All this is complicated by the fact that Douzi develops lasting romantic feelings for his friend that will never be requited.) This triangular relationship is made particularly epic by Kaige, who uses the changing cultural conditions of China from the 1920s through the ‘70s as the film’s backdrop. The movie endures typically trivial frenemy-specific tiffs, then gets increasingly austere. The last part of the film homes in on how Douzi and Shitou’s undeveloped, early-in-life political savvy will, eventually, play a part in their respective ruins.
There is an emotional richness already inherent to the characterizations. But by so cannily juxtaposing them against the ever-changing discord of the outside world, Kaige, who imbues the film with some elements of autobiography, lends the narrative of Farewell, My Concubine the dramatic bigness of the opera to which its characters have dedicated their lives. The luscious visual style of the feature adds to its sense of grandeur; impressively, whenever the movie travels
into darker territories — which it often does — the near-cerebral cinematography by Gu Changwei will have an almost nauseating quality suddenly. It’s as if his camera knew the limitations of superficial beauty, and how easily its effect can change. The three leads give ardent, nervy performances; Gong is especially good as a consistently undervalued woman whose resilience is nonetheless so sturdy that she can only really be knocked down physically.
Farewell, My Concubine is one of several Chinese movies released in the 1990s to dramatize the major shifts in the country during the first half of the 20th century. (Its closest counterpart, I think, is 1994’s To Live, which was directed by Zhang Yimou, one of Kaige’s peers, and which also starred Gong, who was Zhang’s muse and romantic partner at the time.) Few, though, have its same sense of scale, or replicate its stunning way of making smaller dramas reverberate more by affixing them to the larger-scale action happening elsewhere. It isn’t an easy film. But part of what makes it so remarkable is that
refusal to relent. Kaige has a bold vision, and he stands by it. A-