Chen Kaige’s 1993 Cannes Palm d’Or winning film, Farewell My Concubine provides a story of endurance, loyalty, and nationalistic values. Chen himself is a fifth generation Chinese director who graduated from Beijing Film academy in 1982 and emerged on the international stage with Farewell My Concubine. In the film, he touches on the themes of masculinity, loyalty, and nationalistic values among others by effectively recreating the exotic world of Beijing Opera and perhaps Beijing itself through the experiences of two young boys named Douzi and Shitou.
Douzi and Shitou meet at an opera academy as children. Their experience at the academy was not a positive one as they were often beaten by their master. However, the two create a very close relationship that carries over when they are recognized as talented actors and even later as professional opera actors Beijing. The acting careers of Douzi and Shitou blossom during the most tumultuous half century of Chinese history. The relationship is often tested between the two actors as events happening around them often change how they are perceived. This causes the relationship between the two of them to go through many phases, but despite that the opera and its place do not change in Chinese society.
The film and editing techniques employed by Chen in Farewell My Concubine does not make him an exemplary director. Chen is not an auteur such as Kurosawa or Ozu instead he edits his film in a very chronological way that is easy to follow known as continuity editing. However, this does not take away from the film which is perhaps best told in this matter. Additionally, certain elements such as setting, costuming, and props give it an exciting and vibrant edge. This not only includes the costumes of the opera actors, but also the detail of outfits and items seen on other actors and extras such as soldiers and Red Guards. With such a heavy focus on detail, Farewell My Concubine has very genuine representation of the events occurring outside of the opera house which speaks to a Chinese national narrative. This narrative seems to be a persistent theme throughout the film since it is used as a backdrop against the lives of Douzi and Shitou.
Chen’s story brings a variety of themes to the forefront. This includes questions of loyalty, masculinity and nationhood to the forefront. As already mentioned, the events happening around the opera help bring the idea of a Chinese national narrative to the forefront. However, the theme of masculinity arises from the relationship between Douzi and Shitou. Ironically, their relationship can perhaps be best manifested as the two characters they play in the opera with Douzi playing the concubine and Shitou playing the King. Furthermore, Douzi is a homosexual, challenging traditional ideas of gender and masculinity in conservative China.
Farewell My Concubine is a film that has universal appeal. Farewell My Concubine is a film that vibrantly brings Chinese history over the past half century to life and challenges traditional Chinese preconceptions of gender.