Farewell My Concubine (1993)

Director:  Chen Kaige
Cast:  Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, Gong Li
Plot:  The story of two men, who met as apprentices in the Peking Opera, and stayed friends for over 50 years.

Genre:  Drama / Music / Romance
Awards:  Won Palme d'Or and FIPRESCI (Cannes).  Nom. for 2 Oscars - Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography
Runtime:  171min
Rating:  PG for language and strong depiction of thematic material.

It is near impossible for anyone who admires Chinese cinema to profess a distaste for this film.  Without a doubt, Farewell My Concubine is arguably director Chen Kaige’s most famous and critically-acclaimed work.  Perhaps the second best known filmmaker to emerge from China after Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou, 1990; Raise the Red Lantern, 1991) in the late eighties, Chen often has to perform in the shadow of his ex-cinematographer. 

But it is Farewell My Concubine that finally landed him the accolade he so deserved – the Palme d’Or from Cannes, and the fame that resulted from it.  The film stars two actors at the top of their game – Leslie Cheung and Zhang Fengyi.  They play two opera singers who enthrall countless legions of fans with their skillful rendition of the opera which the film is named after.  

Cheung plays “The Concubine”, a feminine character of grace and elegance while Zhang plays “The Gangster King” who is forced to leave his concubine and escape from an invading army.  Chen’s film chronicles the friendship and struggles of the actors who play these two characters over a span of more than half a century, with China’s tumultuous modern history set as the temporal backdrop.

Farewell My Concubine begins on a very impressive note with its first hour being one of the most compelling examples of the hypnotic power of great Chinese cinema.  The consequence of such a potent beginning is that the film’s power would start to fade, and this is evident from a second act that occasionally meanders due to the film’s loose narrative structure, which could be improved upon with tighter editing.  Maybe there isn’t this issue with the theatrical version, which runs about twenty minutes shorter.

Nevertheless, Farewell My Concubine is still highly engaging, and an eye opener even for Chinese viewers, let alone Western audiences.  The cultural value of Chen’s film is highly obvious with its very detailed depiction of the intricacy and artistic elaboration of the Peking Opera style as much a revelation as it is striking.  Coupled with the traditional use of percussion and suona (a high-pitched Chinese trumpet), the opera sequences open the door to a mystical experience never before felt on the big screen. In other words, an obsolete art form becomes fascinatingly alive through the medium of film.

Chen’s direction is supreme.  His mastery of tracking shots, handling of large crowds, and eye for period detail are impeccable.  His treatment of the film’s story is also well-handled despite some of its flaws.  But strangely, even though the acting is strong, there is still not enough emotional pull to make us fully empathize with the characters, most notably that of Gong Li’s.  She plays a classy prostitute who after coaxed by Zhang’s character, falls in love and marries him, an act that causes tremendous strain on his friendship with Cheung’s character.

Banned in China for some time because of its negative portrayal of communism and its implicit homosexual content, Farewell My Concubine remains to be Chen’s finest hour as a filmmaker.  In some ways similar to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), this epic spans across five decades and is a splendid showcase of the exemplary use of color and lighting to tell what is one of the most memorable stories to emerge from nineties Chinese cinema.


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