Farewell My Concubine (Bàwáng Bié Jī)
1993 Directed by Chen Kaige
A film with gorgeous visuals, spanning the central years of the twentieth century from the early 1920s to the 1970s, it follows the life of a Beijing Opera star named Cheng Dieyi like a big Victorian novel. Like most fifth generation Chinese films, the social and political landscape of China figures prominently in the tale, but the meat of the story is undeniably Dieyi. His story is one of a person caught always between fantasy and reality, male and female, and love and isolation.
This is an old favourite of mine, though I haven't watched it in more than four years. Four years ago was when I bought the DVD after I'd owned a VHS copy for several years. There was a period in the late nineties and early oughts when I was strongly interested in Chinese films, partly because I stayed up late several nights watching a lot of fifth generation films like Ju Dou and Huozhe on Bravo, back when that channel still showed movies unedited and commercial free. I've long been a lover of long movies and books, especially those that follow a character's entire life, as these movies often did. Also, the fact that my living situation at the time was in a near constant state of flux probably contributed to my enjoyment of them, as they often feature characters constantly flung from one attempt to settle into life to another.
I started seeking these movies out at video stores, and Farewell My Concubine emerged as my favourite. I hadn't watched it in a while when I picked up the DVD in 2003, and I found to my surprise I wasn't able to watch much of the movie which suddenly seemed to me overly melodramatic. It wasn't until a few days ago, when I saw it on a list of great non-English language films, that I decided to give it another shot. I'm happy to say I was able to enjoy it again, though I find it to be a movie with several significant flaws.
Cheng Dieyi and his partner in opera, Duan Xiaolou, are introduced at the beginning of the movie as old men, though it's difficult to guess their age, not only because of the overwhelming makeup and costumes of the Bejieng opera they wear, but also because this is a movie that makes no attempt to age their actors, something that usually bothers me, though substantially less so here than in a movie like Walk the Line, perhaps because Farewell My Concubine has virtues.
The scene promptly flashes back to Dieyi's and Xiaolou's childhood, before they'd taken their stage names and they were known as Douzi and Shitou. This movie sets out to employ one of those movie conventions I find deeply annoying, which is to show early twentieth century scenes in black and white or sepia (in this case sepia). Since the entire movie is told from this flashback onwards, Kaige is forced to fade colours into existence in the very next scene. So much for that old-timey feel, huh?
Douzi's a kid with six fingers on one hand, but his prostitute mother hacks off the extra finger so that she might give him to an opera troupe, who otherwise would not take him in. Douzi's mother is the first of two prostitutes in the movie to figure prominently and catastrophically in Douzi's life, the second being Juxian, played by Gong Li, who's introduced much later to become Xiaolou's wife. I like Gong Li a lot, and she turned up frequently in fifth generation Chinese films, but I feel she may have been the cause of many of this film's problems as I suspect the role was padded significantly in consideration of the actress's stature.
These prostitutes influence and are at odds with Dieyi's signature role of Concubine Yu in the opera Farewell My Concubine opposite Xiaolou's Xiang Yu, a powerful warlord who faces insurmountable odds. In a display of loyalty, the concubine commits suicide with the lord's own sword before she can be taken by the enemy.
The film is quite good at portraying the brutality of training for Beijing Opera, as from a very early age the actors are moulded for their roles through rigorous recitations and physical beatings. In one of the movie's more curious scenes, Dieyi and Xiaolou return to their old troupe master after they've become famous stars. The two of them, particularly Xiaolou, seem to quickly dissolve psychologically back into terrified children as they kneel again before the master, who whips Xiaolou with a wooden scimitar as punishment for the personal strife between the two. Juxian coolly attempts to stay the master's hand at one point by smiling and saying she's in charge of Xiaolou these days, and permission from her is required for any beating the man receives. The master simply bids Juxian to sit down and enjoy the show, though, and continues the beating. When Juxian suggests Dieyi be beaten instead of Xiaolou, Xiaolou becomes fiercely defensive, refers to this as a man's business, and strikes Juxian across the face, something he'd not done to her before.
The subtext here is that the physical punishment is an intensely integral aspect of the two actors' personalities, and it also relates to the bond between them forged from childhood. Xiaolou regards it as a brotherhood of actors, but Dieyi's lifelong problem is that he sees it as a relationship between lovers.
Dieyi's obviously attracted to men, though I'm not sure if it's because he's gay or if it's because he's a woman in a man's body. Dieyi seems himself not to know the tangled secrets of his own mind.
He's trained from early age not only to perform female roles, but also to behave as a girl at all times, onstage and off. Early on, he had trouble with a line from a play called The Record of an Evil Sea; "I am by nature a girl, not a boy." Despite several beatings, Douzi invariably says, "I am by nature a boy, not a girl." He doesn't deliver the line correctly until a eunuch visits the troupe on the behalf of a prospective patron, and even then Douzi's not able to deliver the line until Shitou physically punishes him.
But even before this, Douzi's feminine behaviour seems entirely natural and he certainly seems inclined to female roles in life offstage forever afterwards.
One thing that's undeniably certain is that Dieyi's in love with Xiaolou, and Dieyi's love persists for his entire life, despite the fact that Xiaolou remains utterly incapable of reciprocating it, having for Dieyi only the love of a brother. The mismatch of their affections manifests in varying but always damaging ways as they live through Japanese occupation, the Communist revolution, and the Cultural Revolution, where the opera troupe is forced by armed forces to parade in the streets in full makeup and wardrobe until they're brought to their knees around a bonfire. Officers force them to make confessions, but signifying the political confusion of that notorious national upheaval, Dieyi and Xiaolou have no idea what they're supposed to confess, and instead begin screaming the ills of their personal relationship.
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. But I love Dieyi, so I call it a good movie.
Here's a track from the soundtrack.
And here are some icons;