Farewell My Concubine

Farewell My Concubine

1993, R, 171 min. Directed by Chen Kaige. Starring Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, Gong Li.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 24, 1993

Though twice-banned in its homeland by Chinese authorities, Chen Kaige's epic drama has emerged a winner on the international circuit. This year at Cannes, Farewell My Concubine shared the best film prize with The Piano and has been picking up steady steam and word of mouth as it slowly makes its way around the United States. Its arthouse success is all the more unusual considering the hermetically Chinese nature of its story. A tale that spans 50 years -- from 1925 to 1977 -- the story is at once that of three individuals and that of the history of China. The title Farewell My Concubine is the name of a classic Chinese opera that relates the story of a concubine so loyal to her king as he is facing military defeat that she kills herself during one last dance for his benefit. The action of the movie also takes place on the stage of the world-esteemed Peking Opera, focusing on two men Dieyl (Cheung) and Xialou (Zhang). Steeped in tradition, pageantry, fixed body motions and vocal articulations, the opera was both a high art and a popular entertainment appreciated by both the elite and peasant classes and its performers were the celebrity superstars of their time. There were just a few basic character types in every opera and the players have each been groomed to play one type exclusively. At the Dickensian opera academy where we first meet Dieyl and Xialou as youths, Dieyl is trained to play the female roles, a decision that affects his emotional and sexual orientation for life. Xialou and Dieyl become paired as the king and the concubine and achieve success and acclaim throughout pre-revolutionary China. For Dieyl, the attachment extends off-stage; indeed, he finds little separation between the stages of theatre and life. But Xialou is assertively heterosexual and marries the top prostitute at the House of Blossoms, Juxian (Gong Li of Raise the Red Lantern). The movie takes the shape of a three-way love story which includes jealousy, betrayal, miscarriage, drug addiction, loyalty and suicide. Yet, always, this romantic saga is wed to the tumultuous political history of the country: the Japanese invasion, the Nationalist-Communist struggle, the Communist overthrow and the Cultural Revolution which re-educated the opera stalwarts to the egalitarianism of socialist realism. Director Chen and screenwriters Lilian Lee and Lu Wei (based on Lee's original novel) create a tapestry of detail woven with visual spectacle, historical saga and human drama. At over 2 1/2 hours running time, Farewell My Concubine is both too brief and too luxurious. While always entertaining, many of its historical nuances are likely to zip past American audiences. Clearly, they didn't zip past the Chinese censors.

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More Chen Kaige Films
The Promise
This fantastical story from the Chinese director Chen Kaige mixes battles, magic, romance, and mistaken identities for a lovely but unsatisfying blend.

Marjorie Baumgarten, May 5, 2006

The Emperor and the Assassin
Remember a few years back when they dug up all those fiercely mysterious terra cotta warriors standing guard in front of an ancient Chinese grave? ...

Marjorie Baumgarten, Feb. 18, 2000

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

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