Directed by Chen Kaige
Written by Lu Wei and Lilian Lee (based on the novel by Lilian Lee)
In terms of defining an entire epoch of a national film industry, they do not come bigger than Farewell My Concubine. It occupies a place in the history of mainland Chinese film tenuously analogous to that which Gone With the Wind occupied for Hollywood in 1939, and even for some of the same reasons—both are long and ornate sweep-of-history period pieces based on hit novels written roughly seventy years after the beginning of their narratives and centered upon the turmoil of civil war and the difficult-to-define inner drives of a beautiful lead; more trivially, but suggesting that he would've been gratified by the comparison, the film's star was a Gone With the Wind fan who took his stage name from Leslie Howard. One difference, anyway, is that the attempts to suppress Farewell may've been more successful—this is obviously difficult for me to determine, but for a generation-defining motion picture, it is surprisingly annoying to acquire, though I suppose that if I can import a Hong Kongese blu-ray, mainland Chinese viewers can too.
It was, famously, suppressed quite completely in China in the year of its release. Chinese censors had signed off on it initially; but it ran for just two weeks before it was removed from theaters and banned outright. Months before its disastrous roll-out on the mainland, however, it had played in Hong Kong with an expected amount of controversy, but no restriction, and I assume that it enjoyed the normal lifespan of an arthouse film. Moreover, in the May of 1993, it had played at Cannes. There it won the Palme d'Or, the first (to date only) Chinese-language film to achieve the festival's highest prize. (And, technically, it still shares the '93 Palme with The Piano.) And that left the Chinese government in the humiliatingly untenable position of having banned the most internationally-celebrated Chinese film ever made up till that point in history. Subsequently, Farewell got itself unbanned, albeit with attendant cuts: I suspect the "full" version I saw is still a censored version, as, amongst other things, its final scene was reportedly "softened." It's a deeply powerful scene and all, but it's not like anybody's head flies off. (Of course, the customarily-savage Miramax cut for its U.S. release has just confused things further.)
It's not always clear what upsets Chinese censors—to learn Raise the Red Lantern was banned is to elicit bafflement—but here, at least, it's obvious. (And while there are arguments for its American R-rating—it's terribly heavy material—it's as easy to reckon that some of the same prejudices that animated the Communists likewise animated the MPAA.) In any event, you know what this is, namely one of the foundational texts of Chinese queer cinema, which had its heyday in the 90s for several reasons, not least of which was the presence of Farewell's own leading man, Leslie Cheung, if not the first then by far the biggest openly bisexual star in Chinese-language film. (The government also didn't like the prevalence of suicide in the movie—three in all, so, on average, more than one per hour—so perhaps our cultures aren't so different, though, you know, if you've come to the same conclusions as Chinese censors about what constitutes "responsible and worthwhile art," maybe you've gone wrong somewhere.) It certainly didn't help that director Chen Kaige, along with his fellow Fifth Generation filmmakers, were, as a cohort as well as in this film, aggressively testing just how much they could criticize the Communist Party specifically. They managed to get away with enough that thirty years later the limits established in the 1990s seem to be pretty much the same limits as today, so that you can, theoretically, talk shit about the Cultural Revolution, and this might or might not be allowed depending on a bureaucrat's mood and, obviously, your own clout.
The Cultural Revolution is only a slice of Farewell, however, and we do not arrive upon it for some time. We begin in what I will tentatively call the late 1970s—if it's any later, our protagonists would be enormously old, but honestly they should be anyway—but I have my doubts about whether it matters if the film's wraparound framing narrative is actually "real," or if it's simply a vivid rendering of its underlying emotional truths. It is, nevertheless, no earlier than 1977 when a pair of gaudily-costumed figures enter a darkened arena. A stagehand recognizes them, two of the great stars of Beijing opera (this referring to a genre, incidentally, not an institution as such): the one dressed as the King of Western Chu, the hero of the opera Farewell My Concubine, is Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi); and that means the one dressed in the resplendent attire of his faithful concubine, Yu, must be Cheng Dieyi (Cheung). They have not performed together in many years—Dieyi must correct Xiaolou as to precisely how many. They haven't even seen each other in a decade, and we'll learn why.
So we're cast way, way back to Beijing in the winter of 1924, the capital and its environs presently under the warlordship of Feng Yuxiang. (You can tell it's the old old days, because it begins in "black-and-white" that's actually desaturated color that clicks back to full color about three minutes into the story. It's fair to mention that this is the only aesthetic gambit that Chen pursues in this entire 171 minute picture that doesn't really work; but it does, frankly, kind of suck. Incredibly, this concludes the "negative" portion of this review.) Well: the fluid politics of the warlord era are not the chief concern of young Douzi (currently Ma Mingwei, but mostly Yin Zhi as a teenager, before becoming Cheung after we time-skip to his adulthood and he's adopted the stage name "Cheng Dieyi"), nor his mother, a brothel prostitute. Witnessing a street performance by a young opera troupe that would, presumably, ward off any mother who wasn't being pressured to get rid of her kid, Douzi is entrusted to the troupe's safekeeping—after suitably horrific modifications to a deformity of his fingers. Here Dieyi meets the boy who'll grow up to be called Duan Xiaolou (Fei Yang as a child and Zhao Hailong as a teen). Dieyi, though a truculent student, is singled out for his looks—for lack of a better term, he's "pretty" and his new owners recognize that he'll grow up to be ideal for dan (cross-dressing) roles. They have some trouble, however, breaking him of the habit of fucking up the lines to Dreaming of the World Outside the Nunnery, repeatedly asserting, contrary to the script, that "I am, by nature, a boy."
Presumably you get it, as it's not terribly subtle. The childhood of Dieyi and Xiaolou occupies a protracted stretch of the film—about a full third—and it's by some measure the objectively "nastiest" part of it. It's all about the increasing brutalization of their lives in a threadbare Beijing opera troupe that appears to operate, economically, mostly as a slave farm for the theaters, with barrack-like appointments and severe discipline, preparing new generations of opera performers to be sold one-by-one or in blocks to big wheels like Na Kun (Ying Da).
Xiaolou weathers his childhood reasonably well—rather better than some of their "stage brothers"—and there is a subtle but fascinating counter-current within the horror that Chen's film clearly holds for their suffering, a certain awestruck quality that almost rises to admiration, if not for their teachers, then for the capacity of the students who endured the crucible. (Then again, one of the most ghastly beautiful touches that Chen provides comes alongside the fate of Laizi (Li Dan), a student without such capacity, who gulps down the candied crabapples he'd obtained on an abortive escape attempt, before an annihilating top-lighting effect, along with the tilt of Li's head, preface his suicide by hanging.) By the same token, of course, it's just as much adopting the adult perspective of its leads, who did endure that suffering, but only because they accepted it as inescapable and necessary, and have internalized all its awful lessons, which is how decades later Dieyi and Xiaolou, grown men, can submit themselves to a beating from their old master (Lu Qi)—though it's also how they can come across the eunuch ex-Qing grandee (Yidi) who raped Dieyi, and greet him with ambivalence approaching pity, perplexed at this figure of primordial terror reduced by the vicissitudes of time to selling loose cigarettes on the street.
"Vicissitudes of time" is, after all, Farewell's overriding theme, and as the young apprentices and Dieyi especially become giant stars, time does indeed march on, the warlord era giving way to even more tumultuous times—the Japanese invasion, the Civil War, the Communist victory, and finally Mao's maniac bid to retake control in the form of the Cultural Revolution. This is where the parallelism that I expect was already a part of Lillian Lee's novel (she co-wrote the screenplay with Lu Wei) begins to make an impact, for the rough tutelage of the opera troupe, whatever its dubious merits, destroyed whatever could have become of "Douzi," and left only the fragments that rearranged themselves into "Cheng Dieyi," a hollow vessel for the various characters, but especially Concubine Yu, that Dieyi plays. And Dieyi's myopic obsession with losing his identity within the role is contrasted with obliterating grace against China's increasingly dysfunctional search for a new society amidst the cultural wreckage of years and years of war and grief.
So Dieyi finds purpose, but only in retracing the same exact steps for half a century, in impersonation of a woman who died two thousand years before he was born, if she ever existed in the first place. So even this search for ineradicable roots leads back to nowhere. Of course, the choice of Farewell My Concubine really has everything to do with how it ends, and this miserable excursion through the cycles of history, one power being little better than the other—every single one extracts some price of Dieyi, and most of them accuse him of treason—can really only have one conclusion. It's one of the most grimly fatalistic things you will ever see—you know exactly how this will end the moment young Dieyi evinces a fascination with a certain sword, and there is a ghoulish awfulness to it since 2003, when Cheung's own life was cut short, imitating his most famous role—but it's driven by the kind of reckless, boundless ambition you do not usually get from "sweep of history" epics, even when they're trying. Chen, Lee, and Wu attempt and I'd say, from this side of the Pacific, actually succeed in embodying this cyclic rise and fall of history within their hero, who executes the grand mythic cycle of the concubine who dies, over, and over, and over, until she decides that enough has truly been enough and brings the cycle to a definitive end, without any encore, only painful legacy.
To this end, Chen has built a film that reflects itself frequently, in just the most cleverly elaborate ways, moments of the past and future echoing across three hours, most obviously in repeated shot set-ups and the events that seem to mirror one another. (It struck me only writing this that the removal of an offending member from Dieyi's hand is symbolism, and reflected in his rape by a eunuch, years later.*) For that matter, there's the preponderance of mirrors in shots, so that one of the most quietly devastating moments of the film—where Dieyi looks in the mirror and sees, for a fleeting moment, the life with Xiaolou he desires; I know, I haven't even gotten to that major aspect—is a disorienting experience for us, coming off like editing continuity errors before we realize that one shot's a reflection and the other is "real." It is also, in keeping with Chen's tendencies during his formative years when he was making full-tilt art films, oddly floaty in its chronology—onscreen dates are a frequent companion, so we have that anchor, but there's an elliptical sense of memory as it's remembered that courses through the film's editing rhythms and a plot constructed out of seemingly only the most significant moments of Dieyi and Xiaolou's lives. (The framing sequence, after all, suggests they are remembering their lives together.) It's an impression that's furthered all the more by Gu Changwei's indispensable photography—between his collaborations with Chen and Zhang Yimou, Gu staked a claim to being the best cinematographer in the world in the early 1990s—which captures this sweep of history with a constant haze and a certain artful murk, saturated colors almost always coexisting with underlit gloom or obscuring streams of light or both. There is, also, the brazenly mobile camera. Truthfully, that's probably as much down to Chen simply liking dynamic camera movement for its own sake (this is the first film I've seen of his where that dynamism was technologically possible for him, but Farewell and Legend of the Demon Cat twenty-four years later are obviously fruit of the same tree). But, whether it's director's fun or not, even the tracking shots and muscular dollies give a distinct sensation of a loss of control as we barrel through time. It is, and I should have mentioned this before, never a dull sweep of history.
But that does have as much to do with its human element, and entwined within this tapestry of the 20th century is a romance, if only a doomed romance, and a very sad one: along with Concubine Yu, the other constant of Dieyi's life has been Xiaolou, and he has, quite naturally, fallen in love with his childhood friend. Xiaolou, as an adult, has never known quite what to do about this, and so allowed his life to fall ass-backwards into chaotic rivalry by never addressing it and instead blithely introducing his co-star to his ex-prostitute fiancee Juxian (Gong Li; as fellow jianmin, they occupy roughly the same social class). But such is the nature of love that Dieyi cannot simply let Xiaolou go, and so they collide again and again over the decades, eventually hurting each other very badly.
And yoking this melodrama to this plunge through the depths of a terrible five decades gives it impassioned feeling, but in Cheung's performance they become one and the same thing, and Cheung is just downright amazing, and deceptively deep. More deceptive, indeed, than you might guess—despite the publicity that touted this as Cheung's first performance in Mandarin (his native dialect being Cantonese), his dialogue was largely overdubbed by Yang Lixin. It is, from this side of the language barrier, not really a performance that depends on line readings, and in any given still or even twenty-second clip Cheung would, I think, come off severely stereotyped or, at the very least, narrowly-channeled towards the role's basic requirement of, well, mincing around in effeminate fashion. (Part of the character is that we may well see Dieyi in Yu's makeup, if not her full regalia, more often than we just see Cheung's bare face. Yu's countenance is, in any case, by default the overriding image of the film.) And there is something to that stereotyped movement, the indication that Cheung is playing Dieyi as Yu at basically all times. Even animal fear is couched in terms of stagey, overarticulated gasps; but the act of being Yu, and the ferocious adherence to the aesthetics of his art, is itself an act of resistance to the irresistible crush of history.
When the mask does drop, it hits like a hammer. But it almost never does; I don't know if it happens even more than three times, in fact, once during a trial, once during a struggle session, and finally in the epilogue. So it's from within this tightly-constrained pantomime that Cheung is asked to give the film's most nuanced and important performance. He does: given an epic canvass to paint his character, he does so in alternately bold and delicate strokes, and the latter, where Dieyi is impassive—where the limitations of Yu are insufficient and Cheung almost freezes—become the most memorable moments of the film. From these moments, Cheung generates astounding layers of mesmerizing ambiguity, and it is not only possible to read three, or four, or five distinct emotions in his face, it's virtually obligatory. It is, for example, not certain whether transactionality is all that he felt in his relationship with his opera sugardaddy (Ge You), though we can see it has certainly not made him happy; and there are a multitude of emotions all in stalemate in Cheung's face when he goes to visit his old friend, and winds up peeping on his and his wife's post-Cultural Revolution domestic languor. In an expression that barely moves, lit dimly by fire (this being another visual echo, now that I think about it) and intermittently by lightning, we see all of these emotions at once: simple yearning for Xianlou; jealousy of Juxian; jealousy of Xianlou, for the happiness he's been able to catch for himself; resentment that this meager happiness has been built upon the bodily sacrifices Dieyi has made for their success; and perhaps even contentment with this lot, and a farewell to his king.
Zhang and Gong are really good too (Zhang is honestly really fantastic; Juxian, characterized mainly by pragmatism, has trouble rising above being two-dimensional figure, but even Gong gets a really stellar moment of ambiguity of her own late in the film). And this is necessary because their interplay, their small moments of affection interrupted by enormous pains and grandiose betrayals, are the heart of the film. But it is Cheung's movie, all three hours of it, even though he doesn't appear till the first is almost over—the continuity of performance between Cheung and Yin is pretty remarkable all by itself. Yet it's also Chen's movie, and it cemented his reputation as one of the leading lights of the Fifth Generation for damned good reason. It's a wonderful thing to arrive on a consensus masterpiece and find out, yeah, it really is that good.
*There is, additionally, the onscreen slaughter of a turtle, which is a strong symbolic image, though I obviously don't like it.