Aditi Singh's ode to Farewell my Concubine
For: My mom, Shanthi Mohan.
Thank you for inspiring and encouraging me to do things that make me happy- one such thing being this review.
Happy birthday, Amma. I wish you the best year ahead. I love you.
Farewell my Concubine
Hong Kong, 1993
Direction: Chen Kaige
Screenplay: Adapted by Lilian Lee, Lu Wei
Cinematography: Gu Changwei
Editing: Pei Xiaonan
Cast: Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, Gong Li
Farewell My Concubine follows the tragic trials and turbulences of two Beijing Opera actors that act in an epic of the same name.
The epic tells the story of the King of Chu, who is defeated by the King of Han. He pleads with his royal steed to run away, and his fiercely loyal Consort Yu to escape before his inevitable death. Consort Yu refuses to ever leave the object of her devotion, and decides to entertain the King of Chu one last time before using his sword to slit her throat.
The film focuses on the relationship of the two actors, named Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) and Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) who meet as children. Dieyi, a lithe and gentle child, is instructed to play ‘dan’ (female) roles in plays, an adopted identity that is brutally beaten into him. Xiaolou is the only person to bestow kindness upon him, and a deep personal bond is formed between the children.
As years go by, the two go on to become Beijing Opera superstars. For Dieyi, the lines between boy and girl, between friendship and romantic love towards Xiaolou, and between stage and real life lose distinction. Adding Juxian (Gong Li), a cunning escort and Xiaolou’s love interest into the mix, results in a terse love triangle brimming with conflict, causing Xiaolou to betray Dieyi’s trust. Dieyi and Xiaolou go their separate ways, before reuniting one final time as the King of Chu and his Consort Yu.
The narrative of the film spans over a formidable 50-year timeline- starting from the times of the Republic of China in 1924, threading through Imperial Japanese occupation, continuing steadfast to the end of the second world war, and finding its ending with the rise of the Communist Party. The plot, with all its complex relationships and intricacies is already quite layered. Set against the backdrop of rapidly changing political environments, the whopping (original) 3-hour runtime is completely justifiable and also necessary for this rich narrative to unfold.
Farewell My Concubine is a story of love, loyalty and betrayal. It depicts relationships through obstacles, love that bleeds into obsession, and a save-my-skin throw-you-under-the-bus instinct that only comes out of sheer heartbreak and helplessness.
The ‘taboo’ themes of homosexuality, gender identity and crossdressing are depicted through the lens of the times. It is painful to watch Dieyi lose parts of himself to the expectations of the norm, and an unrequited love that consumes his entire being. The ever-convincing Leslie Cheung portrays a pain so real and a love so genuine, that the audience sees him blend into his role as Dieyi, much like how Dieyi blends into his own role as Concubine Yu. Many have drawn comparisons between Cheng Dieyi and Leslie Cheung, right from their matching professions and sexual orientations, to their unfortunate and untimely demises, but that is an abstract, speculative conversation for another day.
Each moment of Farewell My Concubine is dramatic. The plot with all its twists and turns, the sharp and evocative dialogues, the stark use of makeup, the contrast of light and darkness in frames; they all mingle to create the numerous rises and ebbs that make this movie so memorable. There aren’t many notable instances of close-ups to direct attention to specific emotions; rather, the mise-en-scène- the set design, the lighting, the focal point of the camera as well as supporting characters in a frame- contributes greatly into creating pivotal moments charged with tension.
Scenes that depict Dieyi’s Opium addiction are filmed behind a translucent veil that covers his bedframe, a part of the set design. For the audience, this literal visual obstruction translates directly into the uncomfortable and nauseating drug-induced haze Dieyi is in. Furthermore, it creates a permeable division between the two entities- the viewer can feel Dieyi slipping away, but can’t do much to reach out to him. One will find that the other characters feel the same way, too.
Another instance of the camera filming through a layer occurs when the Beijing Opera performers are publicly humiliated by the CCP during the Cultural Revolution, centered around a fire. The camera films a conflicted Xiaolou and a distraught Dieyi through the flickering tips of bright orange flames. Making the camera’s viewpoint a metaphor for ‘trial by fire’ adds an abstract and artistic layer to the scene, which prompts the audience to infer and predict what could come next with gripping suspense.
It is 11 years after the CCP’s Cultural Revolution purge that saw Xiaolou betray Dieyi, that the two reunite to rehearse Farewell My Concubine once again. As the rusty actors reacquaint themselves with the epic that defined them for most of their lives, one can’t help but notice the usually vivacious Dieyi adorn the garb of introspection.
Theatre, Consort Yu and femininity were beaten into Dieyi. Is it now, after all the troubles his obsession with the Opera and Xiaolou brought him, after all the years he spent living in the limbo between stage and reality, after all the pain that has come from the burning heat of the spotlight- is it now that Dieyi finds his true self that he lost so long ago, resurfacing?
But is his existence not defined by the Opera? Is he really Cheng Dieyi, and not Consort Yu? Is he not made for Xiaolou, like their on-stage roles are made for each other? The enlightening epiphany fades.
What is love without Xiaolou? What is he, if not Consort Yu? What is his life without the Opera?
The final shot of the film, mirroring the ending of the epic, explains it all.
As the narrative bleeds through multiple changes in governing bodies, the aspect of state policing is heavily touched upon. What starts with the argument that the Beijing Opera is overzealously opulent and does not represent the labouring class, moves onto strict state policing leading to friends betraying each other to the state to save their own skins, and ends with the public humiliation of ‘anti-party elements’ (i.e., artists).
Fun fact: Farewell My Concubine was released in Hong Kong in July 1993. The depiction of homosexuality, suicide and the Communist Party’s brutality resulted a Mainland China backed swift ban on screenings two weeks later. This provoked serious international outcry, and China, who at that time was bidding to host the 2000 Olympics, allowed limited screenings of a censored version of the film to take place in September 1993 for better chances to win the bid.
Farewell My Concubine won the 1993 Palme D’or, and China didn’t host the 2000 Olympics.
Over the years, the Chinese ‘cultural revolution’ has been no stranger to criticism and controversy. Drawing parallels with a globally noticeable pattern of state-backed policing and censorship of media today, one wonders if hindsight really has perfect vision.
Farewell My Concubine- with its admirably layered screenplay, brilliant performances, complex metaphors and cultural relevance to this day - continues to haunt you, well after it has ended.
Aditi Singh is pursuing her Bachelor's degree in Human CenteredDesign from Srishti Institute of Art, Design & Technology, Bangalore. She is learning Mandarin, plays the violin and uses pen and brush technique to sketch her favorite stills from noteworthy films. Aditi is a self-proclaimed film enthusiast.