Farewell My Concubine
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE EAST
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.