Farewell My Concubine Review

Farewell My Concubine is a 1993 Chinese film directed by Chen Kaige.   Concubine was a huge international success that brought worldwide appreciation for Chinese cinema.  It was given many prestigious awards upon its release including the Cannes Palme d’Or and Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Film and Best Cinematography.  This critical acclaim helped boost its box office numbers, especially in Mainland China and Hong Kong (Lau, pg. 21).  Chen, along with Zhang Yimou, was one of the key Fifth Generation Filmmakers of the 1980s and 90s.  While his 1984 film Yellow Earth garnered praise in the international film festival circuit, Concubine was one of the first Chinese films to balance mass commercial appeal with critical film festival acclaim.  Like many other Fifth Generation films, it is set in the cultural and political upheavals of twentieth century China.  The protagonists of the film struggle to adapt to these changes as actors of the dying art of the Peking Opera.

 

Farewell My Concubine itself has two dimensions as both a deeply personal love story and a culturally shared experience.  It stars Leslie Cheung as Dieyi and Zhang Fengyi as Xiaolou, two boys who grew up in a Peking Opera acting troupe.  Their training is often cruelly strict and Dieyi is forced to act in women’s roles against his will, but the two are determined to succeed as leading actors.  Their shared hardships bring them together and Dieyi falls in love with Xiaolou.  But just as their popularity reaches a national fervor, the men’s relationship strains when Xiaolou falls in love with a courtesan named Juxian (played by Gong Li).   In the background of the character conflict and development, the movie plays out the Japanese invasion of China during World War II and the onset of the Cultural Revolution, reflecting the shifting attitudes of the Chinese people.

The visual spectacle is one of the biggest draws of Farewell My Concubine.  The film features lavish sets, gorgeous colorful costuming, and emotionally powerful characterization.  This allows the viewer to immerse themselves in the setting and feel the extravagant, but ultimately hollow life Dieyi lives.  Costuming also provides an important historical marker for the film.  Depending on whether a character wears traditional Chinese dress, Western clothing, or Communist worker clothing, the viewer can understand both their place in history and their personal allegiances.

One of the primary themes of the film is gender identity and sexuality.  Due to his feminine appearance and voice, Dieyi is forced to play female roles.  He fails, over and over again, to recite the lines, “I am by nature a girl, not a boy,” instead switching the genders.  He is beaten many times for his mistake, but it is only when Xiaolou punishes him that he can say the line correctly.

Dieyi’s unrequited love for Xiaolou is also a major focus of the film.  He gets increasingly jealous of Jinxian and even nearly destroys his working relationship with Xiaolou when he hears of their engagement.   These issues reflect in his acting, shown as patrons of the opera comment on Dieyi’s unparalleled ability to blend gender roles onstage.

It is easy to see how Concubine received a warm reception from critics and audiences alike.  It is rightly referred to as a visual spectacle in the striking beauty of its set pieces and the Peking Operas sprinkled throughout the film.  Its story is emotionally moving, grounded particularly in Leslie Cheung’s powerful acting.  It has great value as a product of both Chinese culture and history.

Souce: Lau, Jenny Kwok Wah (1995). “‘Farewell My Concubine’: History, Melodrama, and Ideology in Contemporary Pan-Chinese Cinema.” University of California Press 49 (1): 16–27.