The Chinese Cultural Revolution seems to be on a lot of people's minds lately and it's gotten me thinking about how much I loved Fifth Generation Chinese films in the 90s. I used to prowl the video stores and sit through Bravo marathons of movies like Ju Dou and To Live, innumerable movies, most of them starring the amazing Gong Li. I didn't know anything about Chinese history, I'd never even heard the term "Fifth Generation", all I knew is there seemed to be an awful lot of Chinese movies that followed characters over the tumultuous decades of the 20th century in China. By far my favourite, though, was 1993's Farewell My Concubine (霸王別姬).
I really loved this movie. Long before the days of internet piracy, I used to have two VCRs connected to each other to copy gems from the video store. These copies were pretty lousy, as you might imagine, and it wasn't good enough for me when it came to Farewell My Concubine so I eventually bought it in widescreen on VHS--back when widescreen versions were still hard to find because it was only loonies who wanted movies with black bars on the top and bottom. But the earliest mention of Farewell My Concubine in my blog is a 2003 entry where all I said of it was, "I should also note that on Tuesday I purchased Farewell My Concubine at Tower Records for just fifteen dollars." Fifteen dollars really was a good price for a DVD at that point. Though to-day Farewell My Concubine is listed on Amazon for $54.98 with only one copy left in stock--and it looks like exactly the same DVD edition I found in a bargain bin in 2003. Apparently not as many people remember it as fondly as I do. There's a Chinese Blu-Ray on Pirate Bay but it's not the director's cut, lacking 14 minutes. Like a lot of Chinese movies, it was only editions released in other countries that showed viewers the version without the input of Chinese censors.
I didn't know it at the time but when I bought it in August 2003 it was only a few months after the film's star, Leslie Cheung, had committed suicide, jumping from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong. According to Wikipedia, "Before his death, Cheung mentioned in interviews that he had become depressed because of negative comments about gender-crossing in his Passion Tour concert. He had planned to retire from stage performance because of the strain of being a gay artist in Hong Kong, facing stigmatization, surveillance, and marginalization."
It's hard not to think about how this resembles the life of Cheng Dieyi, the character he played in Farewell My Concubine. Trained from an early age in the brutal Beijing theatre world, Dieyi becomes associated with the role of the concubine in a famous Beijing opera, also called "Farewell My Concubine", who commits suicide before her lover's, the king's, defeat. The movie, like other Fifth Generation films, has the changing cultural and political world of China interwoven with the foreground story, in this case Dieyi's lifelong troubled love for his co-star, Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi), a love frustrated further when Xiaolou marries a prostitute named Juxian (Gong Li).
In 2007, I revisited the film and wrote a lengthy entry on it. I remember at the time not quite understanding why I'd been so in love with it six or seven years earlier. Now I find myself much more in agreement with late 90s me than with 2007 me. Part of the problem, I think, is I was really happy at that point in 2007, possibly the happiest I've been in my life, and I'm not sure it's a movie you can fully appreciate if you're that happy. But watching it again a few nights ago, it really became clear to me why it was so important to me. In 2007 I wrote, "I could have done without a lot of the political aspects of the movie, as it's more often a distraction from the far more interesting personal drama than a vehicle for it." Now I couldn't disagree with myself more. For one thing, the movie really avoids taking a side--it portrays politics but the story itself is apolitical, which in itself was a pretty audacious political move compared to art in China under Mao. Just this morning I read this article at Atlas Obscura about a former Chinese propaganda artist who says: "in that era, every artist must do propaganda work, because Mao told us that art is merely a tool for the revolution."
Farewell My Concubine's director, Chen Kaige, pulls no punches in portraying life for aspiring actors in pre-World War II Beijing. He shows a school where children lived and trained, subject to regular physical abuse. The troupe's existence depends on wealthy patrons and everyone quietly looks the other way when pre-pubescent Dieyi is at one point taken behind closed doors where it's quietly understood the patron will rape the child.
Then, in Japanese occupied China, political favour from the Japanese is essential for survival but immediately afterwards draws popular rebuke. Dieyi and Xiaolou find themselves having to carefully navigate the balance of political sympathies as adults, now famous opera singers. Then the Cultural Revolution happens and the opera itself, as something old and, even worse, decadent, is irredeemable. As bad as everything is shown to be before the Cultural Revolution, there's a surpassing ugliness in the scenes where the opera troupe are dragged out into a public square in full makeup and forced to confess their personal relationships before the People.
What really made the movie important to me in the late 90s was Dieyi's perspective throughout all this. This was at the same time I was obsessed with Oscar Wilde and the "art for art's sake" ideal. In one trial scene, Xiaolou vents his exasperation at Dieyi's personality, how Dieyi seems as though he would live the role of the concubine, how the mad Dieyi would sing for Chinese, Japanese, Capitalists, or Communists, he didn't care. All that mattered to him was the opera. We see this all through the movie. When Dieyi is a kid and he and another actor in training temporarily escape from the school, the two go straight to an opera house where adults are performing the operas the two have been training for from dawn to dusk every day. In spite of the pain and abuse, Dieyi is captivated by the costumes and performance.
This was years before I saw Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes. I wonder if it was an influence on Kaige. In any case, it was good watching Farewell My Concubine again. In these weird years, it was good to have a reminder of how I came to think and feel the way I do about art. I'm amazed my DVD still works.