Winnie Khaw graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with an English M.A. (concentration in creative writing).
Chen Kaige directs the sweeping dramatic panorama Farewell My Concubine (1993), an enthralling yet horrifying film about the momentous change in China during the 20th century. Spanning 53 years from the Warlord Era to World War II through the Cultural Revolution, this epic follows the lives of two Beijing Opera actors, Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi), from adolescence to adulthood, as well as the courtesan Juxian (Gong Li) who comes between them. The script in the opera of Farewell My Concubine will eternally remain tragic and unchangeable: the concubine will always remain faithful to her king and give up her life for him in every performance.
Likewise, the consummate aesthete Dieyi, for whom the line between theatre and reality, male and female have been blurred, will inevitably destroy himself after immeasurably harsh trials. Set in the foreground against the frenzied, volatile, and violent political time of the Sino-Japanese and then the Communist rise to power, this ambitious film portrays with intimate focus repressed love, triumph, betrayal, sacrifice, and tragedy.
The film begins with Douzi’s (later self-renamed Dieyi) prostitute mother desperate to find her child a place to live; inspired by a troupe of opera actors, she tries to give him to an opera training academy, but the master refuses to accept Douzi on account of his sixth finger—accordingly, the mother cuts it off.
The despairing brutality of the act foreshadows the visceral look at the torturous experience the boy will endure as an opera student. After undergoing a constant rain of punishment at the school, some years later Douzi (now Dieyi) and Shitou (now Xiaolou) achieve celebrity status as the transvestite dan (female impersonator) and jing (male role). Xiaolou takes a fancy to Juxian at the brothel House of Flowers, and at the marriage ceremony all present hear of the Japanese invasion. As local entertainment, Xiaolou and Dieyi perform for the Japanese, a fateful act that will haunt them during the Communist Revolution, when they will be accused of collaborating with the invaders.
The child actors of Douzi and Shitou deliver riveting, heartrending performances, with the forced confused androgyny of the former and the protective masculinity of the latter painfully poignant. Cheung is astonishingly, agonizingly real in his part and Fengyi does almost well, though admittedly he has less personality to work with. Li as usual is superb if in a relatively limited role. The first half is of a more personal nature than the latter part, in which the tumultuous historical backdrop interposes into the lives of the characters who already suffer from hidden emotional currents.
The overt suggestion of homosexuality is understandably and gracefully handled though still agonizingly raw in depth. Dieyi’s unrequited romantic love for his opera partner has a third element added when Juxian enters the story and creates a triangle with Xiaolou as its apex. Kaige and writer Lillian Lee use the uneven relationships between s the characters to explore in beguiling detail the greater turmoil of China in the mid-20th century.
When the Chinese government began a policy of semi-liberalization in the 80’s after years of social-realist filmmaking, the creative stream of media and art flowed forth from decades of oppression. Even now officials must approve a script before production. Kaige, one of the best known members of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers who graduated from Beijing Film Academy in 1982, grew up during the Cultural Revolution.
Having renounced his own father at one point, Kaige understood the feelings running so terribly hot in the climactic scene in which the hostile crowd forces Dieyi and Xiaolou to denounce each other. Farewell My Concubine possesses a riot of violence and colorful language, and the constrictions on art placed upon them by fanatical Communists have more than a touch of the contemporary situation. Kaige has painted a picture terrifying in accuracy of the chaos of the time, although perhaps the context can override the perosna lives of Dieyi, Xiaolou and Juxian.
The sumptuous and controversial Farewell My Concubine was banned twice in its native China for its unrelenting portrayal of the realities of the Communist Revolution. Not coincidentally, at the same time that China found its national identity as a Communist state, Peking Opera was in death throes in terms of popularity because it was associated with the old royalist regime. Gazing at the beginnings of modern China through the eyes of two performers in a fading art might seem ludicrous, but Kaige accomplishes this feat with aplomb and visual splendor on a grand scale. In an approximate parallel, the Chinese and Japanese struggle for control of China while Dieyi and Juxian fight for the love of Xialou. Remnants of personal loyalty, of allegiance to loved ones, are crushed for the sake of self-preservation in the face of terrible persecution.
Gorgeously shot, the film boasts brilliant use of lighting and color which enhance the highlights of feeling in each scene, such as the redness in the audience’s first glimpse of Juxian and Xiaolou’s impromptu announcement of their engagement. Altogether Farewell My Concubine is a resplendent tour de force, a positive contribution to cinematic art based on a turbulent period in Chinese history.