Year of Release: 1993 Directed by Kaige Chen. Starring Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang, Gong Li, Qi Lu, and You Ge.
Being a big fan of Together with You, director Kaige Chen’s skilled and heartwarming 2003 film about the relationship between a young prodigy violinist and his father, I had high expectations for his earlier, more highly acclaimed work Farewell My Concubine. Alas, the empathetic believable characters and compelling storytelling which made Together with You so memorable and enjoyable, are nowhere to be found in Farewell My Concubine.
That is not to say Farewell My Concubine is a bad film; its problem is that it is too ambitious a film. Even with a two hour and fifty minute run time, there are so many storylines and themes that none of them are fully developed. The film initially focuses on Chinese opera and the schools that trained the boys who would become opera stars. It then shifts to a Chinese history lesson as it covers the conflict between China and Japan in WWII, as well as the multiple stages of the Chinese Civil War and Communist Revolution. Throughout the entire film the relationship between the two opera stars Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Xiaolou (Fengyi Zhang) forms center of the story, but how their struggles relate to the rest of the film is constantly changing.
The film opens with the two aging opera stars slowly walking on stage and reminiscing about the days when they were the famous performers. The film then flashes back to their childhood when they first met in the opera school. Dieyi’s mother was a prostitute, and she abandoned him to the school, because she could no longer care for him and so he could have a career. Xiaolou quickly befriended him, and both of them helped each other cope with the harsh milieu of the school run by the no-nonsense teachers, who would severely beat the students at the slightest provocation.
At this point it seems like the film is going to focus on critiquing the perfectionist work ethic and merciless expectations that performers are held to. Dieyi was born with a sixth finger, an abnormality which would have kept him out of the opera school, but his mother numbed his hand in the snow and then cut off the finger with a knife. There are countless shots of the naked rear ends of the boys being beaten with the broadside of swords by the teachers. Training exercises consist of kneeling while holding a large bowl of water for a straight twenty-four hours or standing on one’s head for an entire day. At one point, Dieyi weeps, “How many beatings does it take to become a star?” To add to the misery of the boys, it is implied that a famous opera singer rapes one of them after a guest performance.
All of this tragedy is jettisoned as the film shifts to the next idea that it explores without fully developing. Once Dieyi and Xiaolou are young adults, they have landed the lead roles in one of China’s most difficult and important operas: Farewell My Concubine. At this point Dieyi is so obsessed with the opera and his role as the King’s Concubine Lu (no female performers in the 1930’s) that he starts failing to differentiate reality from the fantasy of the opera. When he was a young, he could not sing a nun’s line: “I am by nature a girl,” until he believed he *was* a girl. As a result, when Xiaolou gets engaged, Dieyi feels personally betrayed and interacts with Xiaolou’s betrothed, Juxian (Gong Li), like a spurned ex-girlfriend. Later in the movie, another character insinuates that Dieyi may have actually been a male concubine to one of the theatre’s patrons. But all this is forgotten as well.
The next major focus is the changing political climates in twentieth century China. Regardless of who is in power, Dieyi only wants to perform opera. Xiaolou and Juxian are more concerned for their own safety and to remain loyal to China. Conflicts of interest eventually lead several characters to run afoul of the Communist Party, but for an unexplained reason they are forgiven or allowed to escape.
I understand that the overarching theme was supposed to be the danger of a slavish obsession to fame and a specific art form, but the film abruptly shifts tone too many times for that theme to connect. Each one of the sections makes a compelling part of the film, but the whole is much less than the sum of those parts. There are a few throwaway references to earlier events towards the film’s conclusion, but mentioning an early event later in the film does not constitute tying it into the story, especially if it has no relevance to the scene in which it is mentioned. That is a weak attempt at creating continuity in a story that desperately needs more.
The opera performances are beautifully staged, and Chen shows that he has a real flair for directing musical numbers, grand sets, and large scale events. The costumes and colors are exquisite. In many ways, the film is like a grand opera: spectacular sets, costumes, and performances mask a weak, absurd, and bloated storyline. In Farewell My Concubine, it works just well enough to hold the viewer’s attention.
Sunset Boulevard (blurring fantasy and reality due to the dangerous underside of fame), Amadeus (rivalry and dangerous consequences of envy between two musicians), The Pianist (pursuing music in an increasingly hostile political environment), and Fanny and Alexander (children coping with the harshness of their environment) are all different movies (and all masterpieces I would argue). Farewell My Concubine wants to be all of them, which is simply not possible. It is an impressive attempt, and it pulls it off better than one would think possible, but ultimately the film bit off more than it could chew.
Content Advisory: An implied scene of child molestation, gruesome violence including an amputation, drug use, many harsh scenes of child beating, an implied encounter, several scenes of nonsexual nudity, sexual references, and some obscene and profane language. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: B-