This is my third Chen Kaige’s film after The Emperor and the Assassin 荆轲刺秦王 and The Orphan Zhao 赵氏孤儿 and as taught by my film professor, his films generally revolve around more complicated ideas. This was certainly the case in Chen’s 1993 work Farewell My Concubine which traces the lives of two Peking opera singers and best friends (played by Leslie Cheung and Zhang Feng Yi) against the backdrop of a changing Chinese society from its early Republic of China days to the end of the infamous Chinese Cultural Revolution.
While the movie itself is about the rigorous training sessions under the tutelage of the strict and stern Master Guan, who in modern context can be regarded as a person exploits child labour for profits, Farewell My Concubine is also a tale of blurred identities (real vs reel) and socio-political disturbances. When I watched this, I felt that the movie had a overall grim and sinister feels and I was constantly on the guard for something terrible that would happen to the characters. The opening scene, which introduced the two main characters Cheng Dieyi/Xiao Douzi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou/Xiao Shizi (Zhang Fengyi) in their complete make-up and opera costume, still gives me the creeps today. And it was also in this short 2 minutes did we get a brief understanding of the political effects (Gang of Four 四人帮) on the characters.
BEFORE CURTAIN’S CALL
Chinese opera has been an irreplaceable and timeless cultural element in China and is fairly easily distinguishable from their almost fully white-painted faces and vivid costumes. Among the other genres of opera in Chinese culture such as Cantonese opera, kunqu, huangmei opera, the form seen in Farewell My Concubine is the Peking opera. Since the Qing Dynasty where the Hui opera was first brought into the Chinese capital Beijing, Peking opera has continuously evolved over the centuries to be the most well-known genre today.
One feature of the Peking opera is the use of males for all characters on stage, even for the female parts dan. This would later form the basis of confusion of Xiao Douzi/Cheng Dieyi’s gender identity in the movie.
“台上三分钟，台下十年功”“A performance on stage may just be three minutes but it requires ten years of practice.”
Loosely translated to English, this Chinese quote means “A performance on stage may just be three minutes but it requires ten years of practice.” and this quote has never been more true. In the 1924 segment, we see a young Xiao Shizi and other young boys attempting to escape the public performance of his opera troupe only to end up getting disciplined by their master. What is interesting to note is the screen gradually transits from black-and-white to pale and depressing shades of colours. The change in colours suggests the role Peking opera does in reinstalling energy and life into society but the dull tones express a darker truth lurking beneath it.
The subsequent few minutes are about the boys, scrawny and seemingly disciplined, engaged in a diverse form of physical training while reciting lines from the opera. Though one may have recited accurately, he is beaten on his hands so that he will remember the lines in the future. Meanwhile, Xiao Douzi, a boy with feminine looks, is taught the dan roles. While training for the opera si fan (思凡）, Xiao Douzi frequently messes the line “I am by nature a girl, not a boy” with “I am by nature a boy, not a girl” and this irritates the master who gave Xiao Douzi a severe whipping that left his hands bleeding. In one instance, the character was also sexually abused by eunuch Zhang after the troupe performed for him.
我本是男儿郎．又不是女娇娥I am a male, not a female
The near absence of non-diegetic sounds, formal conversations and low lighting used in the characters’ teenage period only set the show for a gloomier tone. In the adult years, we subsequently see the emotional struggles Xiao Shizi, now known as Cheng Dieyi, who wrestles between his sexual identity and his love for his best friend and co-worker Xiao Shizi/Duan Xiaolou who is attracted to courtesan Juxian (played by Gong Li). Topping it off, the Peking opera comes under attack during the infamous Mao’s Cultural Revolution which rid a huge part of the Chinese culture.
REAL LIFE VS REEL LIFE
Having suffered under the tutelage of the troupe owners over the “I am by nature a girl, not a boy” line which Cheng Dieyi is forced to remember, he MAY have grown up and chose to identify as a girl liking a boy (Duan Xiaolou). And this is when the lines get blurred. While Duan Xiaolou was able to differentiate his life career and his personal life, Cheng Dieyi longs for a relationship with his on-stage partner. It is not explicitly stated whether Duan Xiaolou is aware of Cheng’s interest for him but their relationship became awkward and complicated with the former’s marriage to Juxian.
The series of unfortunate and tragic events is sadly not resolved in the story line and went on till the final scene where Cheng Dieyi resolved to commit suicide. Fast forward to the Cultural Revolution period where many were persecuted, we soon enter a period dominated by fear and terror especially for those in the arts and theater industry. Unfortunately for our main characters, famous stage actors before the Cultural Revolution, they are not left out either. When confronted by the Red Guards in a public struggle session, the two friends betray each other and let out each other’s secrets including the ones where Cheng performed for the Japanese during the Japanese Occupation and Xiaolou’s relationship with Juxian, a courtesan. Feeling betrayed by Xiaolou’s actions, Juxian hung herself in her apartment – the second of the third suicide cases in the film.
Once again there was a time jump and we are presented a China after Mao’s death. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China was preparing its way for economic liberalisation. The best friends, Xiaolou and Dieyi, have amended their friendship and are seen performing the play Farewell My Concubine except that in this version, Dieyi chose to kill himself with the sword as though marking symbolic death of the opera culture.
The movie aims to show and not tell, making audiences speculate on what has and is about to happen next. Its plot has few comical scenes and overall, just serious dialogues between the characters. As mentioned earlier, Farewell My Concubine has little to no non-diegetic sounds and this creates a feeling that we audience are there experiencing the tragedy that befalls the characters, as though what we are viewing is real and not made-up.
Overall, the movie is great in showcasing themes such as homosexuality, the brutality of the Communist China regime under Mao and of course Chinese culture.