Farewell My Con­cu­bine

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE EAST

Empire (UK) - - THE VIEWING GUIDE - LIZ BEARDSWORTH

1993 / FROM MARCH 21 / CERT. 15

NOM­I­NATED FOR two Os­cars and still China’s sole Palme D’OR suc­cess, Chen Kaige’s el­e­gant epic is a key work of the ‘Fifth Gen­er­a­tion’ — the ti­tles that in­tro­duced Chi­nese film­mak­ers of the mid 1980s to early ’90s to broader Western au­di­ences. It’s also just been re­leased in HD (cou­pled with a short ‘mak­ing of’ fea­ture) — about time, too, given one of those Academy nods was for Gu Chang­wei’s gor­geous, painterly cin­e­matog­ra­phy.

Self-adapted from Lil­ian Lee’s 1985 novel (in an un­usual move the au­thor pub­lished a re­vised ver­sion in 1993, tak­ing in the film’s al­ter­ations), it’s an am­bi­tious piece, the tale of two life­long friends set against the many cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal up­heavals ex­pe­ri­enced by China over the 20th cen­tury. From the start, in 1930s Pek­ing, it’s a bru­tal watch, as a boy stu­dent from the opera school smashes a brick against his head purely to dis­tract a ri­ot­ing crowd. Min­utes later, we see the mother of young would-be ac­tor Douzi hack off a su­per­flu­ous (and in pro­fes­sional terms ru­inous) sixth fin­ger with a cleaver, ‘sign­ing’ his train­ing con­tract in the child’s blood. Let us be un­der no il­lu­sion: these are des­per­ate times.

Yet such cir­cum­stances can forge the strong­est bonds. So it is for Douzi and fel­low stu­dent Shi­tou, who sur­vive the school’s sav­age regime to be­come opera’s most cel­e­brated dou­ble act, the adult Douzi (Les­lie Che­ung) tak­ing the dan (fe­male) roles, Shi­tou (Zhang Fengyi) the jing (male). Life mir­ror­ing art, on-stage con­cu­bine Douzi is by now un­re­quit­edly in love with Shi­tou, so you can be sure the emo­tional pitch will rise higher still when Gong Li’s cour­te­san shows up to come be­tween them.

It’s a love tri­an­gle that could seem hack­neyed, es­pe­cially to a Western au­di­ence steeped in for­mula rom­coms. Yet Kaige grace­fully matches form with con­tent — our two opera stars live as if in one, buf­feted by its key tropes of love, death and, cru­cially, be­trayal — while also draw­ing out the com­plex­i­ties of these cen­tral re­la­tion­ships, aided by three ter­rific lead per­for­mances. Melo­drama this cer­tainly is, but you be­lieve in these peo­ple, their acute pain, their quiet heart­breaks, their even smaller hopes.

Nearly three hours long, the pace is stately, and as the de­struc­tive power of the po­lit­i­cal over the per­sonal be­comes ever more ex­plicit, the weight of such mis­ery threat­ens to crush the film. Yet Kaige and Lee leaven the piece with timely in­jec­tions of black hu­mour and in­sight, while mo­ments of ten­der­ness an­chor the more lurid twists in emo­tional truth. Come the shat­ter­ing end, pa­tience has been well re­warded.

Above: “I’ll be off then.” “Right, see ya.” Be­low: Not so much as a bro­ken Rich Tea left in the tin.

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