Farewell, My Concubine follows the lives of two Beijing Opera Actors, Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xialou, who perform the leads in an Opera of the same name.
Starting with the two as children being trained in the 1920s through the Japanese invasion during World War Two, finally the rise of communism in China and the Cultural Revolution, Farewell, My Concubine reveals the effect of these large historical events on the two men and their small circle of friends and family.
Directed by Chen Kaige, who is part of the fifth generation of Chinese filmmakers, Farwell, My Concubine remains the only mandarin language film to win the Palm d’Or at Cannes. It is easy to see why. The Cinematography and set design is astounding, each period of Chinese history is bought to life through the careful construction of space. Similarly the film feels lived in with very clever sound design that hints to a place beyond the frame. Furthermore the narrative structure is superb, re-situating historical grand narratives to tell an almost “bottom-up” history rather than the “top-down” that we are used to.
However this lush visual aesthetic has been criticized by some to be an orientalised version of China, one that focuses on the exotic costume and stylistic motions of Beijing Opera. While a valid argument could be made along those lines I feel that there is something more complex at work in the film.
Due to its close ties with the Beijing Opera and the theatrical the audience becomes aware of a certain performance due to a level of self-reflexivity that is gained from referencing the theatre in a film. The reason for this is due to the audience seeing behind the curtain as it were. There are many scenes where Cheng and Duan are putting on Make-Up or are behind the stage. This reveals the artificiality in the ornate garments and outlandish music and provides a more realistic vision of China dealing with its turbulent past. A theme which is enhanced when the films plot seems to echo that of the Opera.
The film can be compared to Tsui Harks Peking Opera Blues both in terms of time period, and subject, but also its use of the theatrical format as a means to subvert and critique the oriental perspective that has pervaded the Western reception of Asian Cinema. The two films deal with issues of performance in terms of orientalisation, but also gender, as well attitudes to Chinese history.
It is perhaps clear that the historical narrative that Farewell My Concubine presents is cyclical in nature, no sooner has one tragedy ended than another one begins. What is interesting however, is that this history is not national rather it is a personal history. The story of the two men is told in theatres and courtyards, small spaces to reflect the scale of the story. However the history becomes even more personal as Cheng revealed that he denounced his father during the Cultural Revolution, and suffered from the guilt of his action. In a sense then the film is a means to rewrite Cheng’s personal history for the better.
Farewell My Concubine then reminds us that history is not one story, rather it is made up of many each as important as the others.
Credits and Stats
Directed by Chan Kaige
Produced by Hsu Feng
Written by Lilian Lee and Lu Wei
Based on Farewell My Concubine by Lilian Lee Rewritten from Qiuhaitang by Qin Shouou
Starring Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi and Gong Li
Music by Zhao Jiping
Cinematography Gu Changwei
Edited by Pei Xiaonan
Production Company Beijing Film Studio
Distributed by Miramax Films
Release dates January 1 1993 (Hong Kong)
Running Time 171 Minutes
Box Office $5,216,888