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Close-Up on "Farewell My Concubine": A Spectacular Ode to Life, Love, and Art

Exploring the 5th generation Chinese director's epoch-spanning Palme d'Or winner.
 Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Farewell My Concubine (1993) is playing on MUBI May 22 - June 21, 2016 in the United States.

Farewell My Concubine, the Cannes-winning, Oscar-nominated, internationally-heralded 1993 film from director Chen Kaige, is quite the busy movie. Extensive in its meticulous depiction of Chinese history, the film charts the tumultuous course of the country from 1924 to 1977, including the ups and downs of political strife, the correspondingly fluctuating social conditions, and the general upheaval brought forth by 20th century modernity. With this as its framework, and with such large-scale concerns seeping into the primary narrative one minute and delicately fading away the next, the film is all the while essentially focused on two people, actors Douzi and Shitou. From their first encounter as young boys training for the Peking Opera, to their maturation on and off the stage as full-fledged stars and complex human beings, to a seemingly sedate middle-age conclusion, despite all the national noise in the background, Farewell My Concubine is at its most intimate a film about these two and their shared and individual trials.
Shitou (Yang Fei) is already a student at the opera academy when Douzi (Mingwei Ma) arrives, or more accurately, is abandoned. Douzi's prostitute mother can no longer tend to him at her brothel, so in her desperation, she leaves him at the school, hoping he may amount to something, even offering herself up as a bargaining chip if necessary. When the academy’s master first rebukes the new pupil on the basis of the boy’s disqualifying 11th finger, mom swiftly lops it off—that seals the deal. In a somewhat foreshadowing observation, the troupe leader acknowledges a connection between the ostensibly incongruent occupations of prostitution and acting, stating they are both equally despised by society. While one could make a symbolic argument for their similarity (as we will see, these are individuals paid to play a part, there is a literal and representational stress on one’s body, and there is a related consumerist dependency), as Farewell My Concubine plays out, such a statement seems quite the exaggeration. Indeed, insofar as what is actually shown in this particular story, the actors are royally revered when they attain peak success. But before that point, there is work to be done.
The world of this opera academy is a harsh one. The crude, juvenile existence of the boys is reflected by the abrasive conditions of the bleak facility. Frequently teased for being—cruelly but true enough—the son of a whore, Douzi is among the weaker of the children, but all are subjected to the same extreme abuse and exertion. They are relentlessly coached as if in a militaristic regiment built upon discipline, strength, and uniformity. Optimum physicality is crucial to the budding performers, so they are forcefully indoctrinated in the significance of endurance, body manipulation, and the outward appearance of a good figure.
The prominence of one’s physique in Farewell My Concubine goes beyond the requisites of actual performance, however. On one hand, the bodily emphasis is similarly carried over to the sexuality that appears inescapably connected to the proximity of the students, starting with the innocent curiosity of youth and growing to a more profound crisis of sexual identity. On the other side of the physical spectrum, there is some shockingly severe violence that goes along with the assorted drills. Still, when Douzi has the chance to run away, he turns back. Faithfulness is a central theme to Farewell My Concubine, and it is apparent in not only this devotion to the opera but in the overriding relationship between Douzi and Shitou, which is where the emotional crux of the picture lies and where the film, from this introductory sequence of events on, begins to most engagingly develop.
Within the context of an ever-evolving opera scene, Farewell My Concubine continues years later as the boys have become men and apprentices have become stars. Under the stage names of Cheng Dieyi (Douzi), now played by Leslie Cheung, and Duan Xiaolou (Shitou), now Zhang Fengyi, the two friends and partners are touted by admirers and are now confronted by adult dilemmas. Around them, the two bear witness to a Japanese invasion and, later, surrender; then there are shifts in their own government, from the Nationalists to the Communists; then, ultimately, there is the nearly decade-long Cultural Revolution. These intervals of significant domestic turmoil frame the concurrent, more personal dramas of the film, specifically Dieyi’s love for Xiaolou, which is mutually endearing on occasion but is never fully reciprocated, and Xiaolou’s marriage to prostitute Juxian (the extraordinarily enchanting Gong Li), which raises the ire of a jealous Dieyi, who greets the young woman with scorn and insults. While Xiaolou’s engagement to Juxian is perceived by Dieyi as a personal threat—and surely her occupational background serves as a none-too-pleasant reminder of his own mother and the similar sense of abandonment—the newcomer is also conspicuous on a professional level, causing Dieyi to fret about Xiaolou’s theatrical attention getting diverted.
Yet through everything Dieyi and Xiaolou endure, no matter the era, a constant in their lives is the opera. It is a vital part of their being, a place of security, stability, and the grounding site for their own collaborative bond since youth. In the face of inevitable social and political change, the durability of the opera is of utmost importance. Xiaolou says Dieyi’s dedication borders on—if not breaches—obsession. Possibly, but Dieyi counters it is their shared enthusiasm that has been the key to their success. Dieyi’s reverential refuge in his art causes a further rift in the duo when political concessions divide them along ideological lines and a discrepancy between resistance and accommodation arises. Dieyi is content to perform no matter the audience, demographic, or political allegiance—“Even the Communists have to have opera,” as one jaded gentleman puts it. While he may not always agree with such partisan blindness, Xiaolou recognizes Dieyi does at least give it his all. That he would preserve regardless of the sociopolitical perspective is even more to the point.
As a film that is ambitious in scope and grand in its design, Farewell My Concubine fittingly and successfully conveys the art of opera in all its own distinct pageantry and spectacle. But opera is more than just the pomp of the theatrics (though it is certainly that, too). It is a sanctified setting and tradition treated with a tremendous degree of veneration. As for the specific famous story enacted by Dieyi and Xiaolou, the Farewell My Concubine of the film’s title, their roles as the feminized concubine and the masculine king, respectively, repeatedly inform their own real-life relationship. These are the characters that made them famous and made them forever inseparable in the public eye—and in their own private way. The plots of this opera and that of Farewell My Concubine the film present an analogous affiliation, one stressing the value of fidelity (the play tells the story of a king who faces defeat and finds his sole consolation in the company of his unwavering concubine). This constancy motif manifests itself in the Peking Opera’s survival amidst the local chaos and in the indelible professional, spiritual, and emotional attachment between these men.
Their collective past never escapes Dieyi and Xiaolou. In adulthood, they visit their now elderly teacher and are willingly subjected to the same punishment they faced when children at the academy. They also attempt to instill some experienced wisdom on the younger generation at one point, but times have changed, students have changed, and teacher expectations have changed. The youth of the Cultural Revolution would not stand for what these two tolerated to achieve their goal. And finally, when the film begins (and ends) in 1977 Beijing, Dieyi and Xiaolou have been brought together once more after a 22-year gap in performances and 11 years since they have even seen one another. Again, they assume the roles of the esteemed king and his loyal concubine.
This opening and concluding scene results in one minor quibble for what is an otherwise exceptional film. Starting off with Dieyi and Xiaolou reunited, then flashing back to their childhood, does diminish some of the film’s suspense. Certainly, Farewell My Concubine is not intended to be a thriller, but by knowing the two protagonists will not only reconcile but ultimately survive, the anxious intensity of the emotionally devastating sequences in the past are somewhat reduced in impact. To be sure, there are many obstacles Dieyi and Xiaolou face, and the vulnerability of their friendship is an essential concern of the film, yet by opening the movie this way, we are never once worried about death, a permanent separation, or their total abandonment of the opera.
Nevertheless, Farewell My Concubine is a wonderful movie, a heartfelt epic and a studied ode to a particular profession.It is a magnificently visual film as well, with detailed and elaborate set-pieces heightened by a unified interplay of sights and sounds, color and music. Chen Kaige and cinematographer Changwei Gu (who received one of those Oscar nods) employ gliding camera movements that converge with more painterly static compositions, both establishing an authentic continuity of space and a showcase for the production design. It doesn’t consistently carry over to every scene of the flashback, but there are additionally instances of surreal, dreamlike imagery, as if the memories of Dieyi and Xiaolou are seen through the hazy, illusory sheen of distorted recollection. Even the music by Jiping Zhao achieves a spectral sensation of audible reverie.
Like films as diverse as Orphans of the Storm (1921), Gone with the Wind (1939), and, years later, Gangs of New York (2002), Farewell My Concubine successfully recreates an historical moment in time (or several, in the case of Chen’s film), and within that world drops a handful of characters embroiled in their own reduced drama. Those comparatively small-scale plotlines should not be underestimated, though, for as with Farewell My Concubine, the individual stories yield expressive and insightful examinations of what often matters most. This film, for example, gains its greatest emotional resonance as it chronicles the life-altering moments that bring Dieyi and Xiaolou together and sends them apart: opium addiction, suicide, the loss of a child, molestation, unrequited love, and, more than anything, a collective passion for their chosen art form.
G.
"we are never once worried about death, a permanent separation, or their total abandonment of the opera" But isn't this an effective way of underscoring the ending's shock value?

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