FILM

Film appreciation: Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine

Film that follows the lives of two fictional Peking opera stars is a complex examination of both China's political history and sexual identity. It's also about art.

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 July, 2015, 11:22pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 July, 2015, 11:22pm

Epic, grandiose and beautiful, Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine follows the lives of two fictional Peking opera stars from the warlord era to the end of the Cultural Revolution. Although Chen relentlessly depicts the suffering that China's rulers - be they warlords, Japanese, Nationalists or Communists - have inflicted on ordinary people, the movie is essentially a love story about two men and the woman who comes between them.

Today, the presence of the late Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing in one of the leading roles gives it extra poignancy. Cheung's fragile character kills himself in the movie, while Cheung himself committed suicide in 2003.

The story began as a novel by Lillian Lee (who also wrote the screenplay), and Chen said his aim was to demonstrate how the overwhelming force of history renders individual actions futile. The film focuses on the details of the lives of the characters, who are often forced along paths that are not of their own choosing, as well as major historical events. Its success lies in the way it keeps a perfect balance between the macro and the micro.

In the 1920s, young Cheng Dieyi is abandoned in a Peking opera school, and feisty student Duan takes the child under his wing. Cheng, who is gay, falls in love with Duan, and a close friendship ensues. The duo's star performance is the opera Farewell My Concubine, in which Cheng plays the female role.

The story flashes forward to the '30s, when Cheng (now played by Cheung) and Duan (now played by Zhang Fengyi) are opera stars. When Duan marries prostitute Juxian (Gong Li), Cheng becomes bitterly jealous. Although the trio maintain their relationships until the early '60s, they are riven by betrayals during the Cultural Revolution. In 1977, the year after the Cultural Revolution ends, Cheng and Duan meet and run through some lines from the opera; Cheng, still in character, follows the fate of the concubine and kills himself.

This is a complex examination of both China's political history and sexual identity. It's also about art. Cheng is so committed to opera, he mixes up the storylines with his own offstage life, and refuses to acknowledge that politics could ever hold more power over him than art.

The film was banned briefly in China. The reasons are still unclear, but it was rumoured than Deng Xiaoping objected to the homosexual elements, or that officials were worried these would offend Deng, so they banned the film. It has also been suggested that the authorities were furious Cheng committed suicide in 1977 while under communist rule.

Farewell My Concubine  Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, Gong Li  Director: Chen Kaige