Oriental Opera: Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993) – Blu-ray review
Chinese history in the making, as local politics and global panache combine in Chen’s Palme D’Or winning epic.
Farewell My Concubine
(Chen Kaige, 1993)
There was a period of roughly a decade or so when China was responsible for some of the world’s most exciting cinema. It is apt, therefore, that Chen Kaige – whose debut, Yellow Earth, spearheaded the breakthrough – became the first Chinese director to win a Palme D’Or, for Farewell My Concubine. Even then, it had to share the honour with The Piano, but the uncanny similarities with Jane Campion’s film underline what is so interesting about Chen’s work.
Like The Piano, this is a story about art and identity, and the painful sacrifices that must be made in their pursuit; by strange coincidence, major characters have fingers cut off in both. That suggests a universality to Farewell My Concubine and, in so much of its styling, it is a sumptuous melodrama of the type that Hollywood used to make, ravishing in its use of décor, costume and music, and unabashedly tragic.
And yet – this could not be a more Chinese story if it tried. After the oblique allegories of so much of this generation’s movies, Chen here delivers a lucid study of forty years of his country’s history. It’s a period of social and political tumult, taking in Japanese invasion, WWII, the rise of the Communist Party and the Cultural Revolution. Throughout, art – in the form of traditional Peking Opera – serves as the bellwether of China’s soul.
The key scene occurs late on, when famous ‘stage brothers’ Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) are giving a lecture on their craft. Their protégé has become a card-carrying Maoist, insistent that opera should be stripped of aesthetics and turned into a bludgeoning propaganda. Chen speaks up for the importance of beauty; Duan – more circumspect – keeps his counsel. It’s the story of 5th Generation Cinema in a nutshell, at once a glorious reclamation of Chinese art (like so many films of its period, the colours are to die for) but still cautious enough to worry about what the censors might think.
The film offers multiple examples of this discourse. It’s there in Gong Li’s brilliant performance as Duan’s wife Juxian, who moves from typically fiery dame to a horrified, impotent witness to the Cultural Revolution. It’s there in the repeated shots of mirrors-within-mirrors, turning perspective inside out. And it’s there in Chen’s mix of static-camera formalism and an exhilarating, rampant Steadicam.
The difference is, by this point, Chen (and peers like Zhang Yimou) have figured out that the interest from a global audience outweighs domestic pressures, so here’s a film that is out and proud about its critique of Communist’s worst excesses and the importance of a historical continuity, symbolised by the classic opera that gives the film its title. There is much talk of fate and self-determination, but what Chen shows is the symbotic relationship between tradition and the sudden, violent leaps that signify progress.
That this takes the form of a homoerotic, gender-bending menage à trois makes it all the more satisfying, as Chen defiantly flouts his gay identity through his on-stage roleplay. It might be a cliché that the homosexual man is the sensual aesthete, but Cheung – himself gay – is excellent. In a bizarre echo of his character’s immersion between life and art, the actor would eventually commit suicide, adding an unwanted but acute resonance to the film.
Farewell My Concubine is released on Blu-ray on Monday 21st March.