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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.

Film Review For Farewell My Concubine

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.

Farewell My Concubine


Dieyi (left) and Xioulou (right) in partial costume as the concubine and king.

In the Chinese film, Farewell My Concubine, director Chen Kaige examines the impact of cultural and political upheaval in Beijing through the viewpoints of opera performers. Arguably one of Chan’s most successful films, Farewell My Concubine won the Palm d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film festival, the same year it was produced.   A work of art as much as it is a production, this movie emphasizes the artistic abilities of Chen and demonstrates his abilities as a remarkable director.

A beautiful (if somewhat long) movie, Farewell My Concubine follows the journey of two young boys, known as Douzi and Shitou, as they develop their lives and careers as famous opera performers. Following the effeminate Douzi’s abandonment by his mother at a Beijing opera training school, he quickly develops a close relationship with the hardy/masculine Shitou as they learn the tricks of the trade. Following a quickly developed shared dream of becoming famous performers, the two train together to perfect their respective roles, with Douzi as the Concubine and Shitou as his King. Cutting to the future, Douzi and Shitou, now under the stage names Dieyi and Xioulou, have achieved stardom as political tensions begin to brew in China. While events such as the Japanese occupation of Beijing, the Nationalist Resurgence, and the Communist revolution occur in the background, Dieyi and Xiolou continue to perform their respective roles as the concubine and king, all the while dealing with problems in their personal and professional relationship.

Watching this film, it is almost as if one is looking at two different stories unfolding side by side. On one hand you have the story of the two protagonists and their relationship; on the other hand, there is the narrative of cultural change occurring within China and its impact on cultural works like the opera. Perhaps the more fascinating of the two stories, Douzi and Shitou’s relationship invites questions on the concepts of masculinity, sexuality, and the distinction between the real world and the stage. Further complicating matters is the story of cultural change constantly running in the background, as political forces, constantly test the relationship between the two actors.

Produced after the rule of Mao Zedong, Farewell My Concubine has caused a good deal of contention over what the actual focus of the movie is. This film invites a multitude of interpretations, which range from a twisted love story to a glorification of opera. Some academic critics argue that  the film is something of a “national narrative” while others, such as Yomi Braester, see it more as a tribute to the director’s memories of Beijing, separate from the politics that turned China into a communist stronghold (Braester 89-90). I personally view this film as a tribute to the artistry of performers and the dedication they show to the trade. Despite the various interpretations of this film, the beauty of the story and the portrayal of the characters is undeniably of remarkable quality.

There are many aspects of this film that deserve praise. From the fluidity of the story to the complex but easily understood character relationships, Chen has created a masterpiece well deserving of a Palm d’Or. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this film, other than its character complexity, is the costuming. The costuming of this film is significant in the way that it is able to draw attention to certain characters both on and off of the stage.  Seeing Chen’s costuming alerts one immediately to the role of a specific person when they are not performing; however, once on stage, costuming is used to bring characters to life in a brilliant display of vibrant color and detailed clothing. In particular, when Chen has Dieyi don flowing golden robes and makeup that turns his face into a porcelain mask, one cannot help picture him as the concubine he portrays on stage. In some sense, this brilliant use of costuming is a further testament to the director’s own skills as an artist.

Ultimately Farewell My Concubine is an enjoyable blend of culture, memory, and artistry. Even though the near two and a half hour run time of the movie may seem long by Hollywood standards, Chen has earned every second. The unique character relationships will occupy the viewer’s attention for most of the movie while the fine details will evoke a plethora of emotions that further add to viewer interest. A wonderfully artistic film, this movie will inspire a true appreciation for the work that Chen puts into film to make it come to life.

Works Cited

  1. Braester, Yomi. “Farewell My Concubine: National Myth and City Memories”, in Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes. Ed. Chris Berry. bfi Publishing, 2003. Print.
  2. Cineplex. “Farewell My Concubine”.