[REVIEW] Farewell My Concubine 霸王别姬

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.

“我本是男儿郎.又不是女娇娥”

Rating: 4 out of 5.

[REVIEW] Days of Being Wild 阿飞正传

Days of Being Wild (阿飞正传) is my third Wong Kar-Wai film and like many other Wong’s other works, the film at its first viewing was rather confusing. Forget the first viewing, the first few minutes were already a puzzle on its own. It is definitively not your usual Hollywood or Hong Kong cinema where the story presents itself. In WKW’s films, I guess the director requires the audiences have to decipher and attach a meaning to his films.

Days of Being Wild marks the start of an informal trilogy alongside In the Mood for Love(花样年华) and 2046. This trilogy, however, has featured various actors and actresses in each part with only Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung though her character appears only for a short while in 2046) recurring in these three films.

TIME, TIME AND TIME

It seems that Wong has a strong nostalgic sentiment as seen by his decision to feature the time concept in his films (1994 Chungking Express (重庆森林)and 2046).

Perhaps to mark the beginning of this informal trilogy, time is likewise portrayed to be passing by subtly and unnoticed, a pattern we later see in ITMFL. There is a lack of significant narrative and the fairly slow pace of the film forces viewers to be patient and demanding for more action (in fact silence is used to push the story forwards). We constantly see clocks or watches in the film as though it is reminding us that time is ticking away while we enjoy (or waste) our youth away. In some scenes you can hear the ticking noises of a clock too.

Table clock

The movie begins with womanizer and charismatic Ah Fei/Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) purchasing and flirting with a convenience shop lady Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) whom we later know turns out to be another of Yuddy’s play toy. What started as a daily “one-minute” interaction soon doubled to two minutes and ultimately, an “hour-long” friend.

Yuddy spends his day without meaning; It is nothing more than a cycle of tricking and breaking ladies’ heart. Raised by his adoptive toxic mom and prostitute Mrs Suen (played by Rebecca Pan), Yuddy yearns to seek the whereabouts of his birth mother. But, his impulsive and temperamental personality eventually got him killed in the Philippines when he crossed, presumably, a local triad member there. Yuddy’s murder fits the English title “Days of Being Wild” well and also the common knowledge of how time slowly slips away when we are wasting our lives away.

Wall clock

十六號,四月十六號。一九六零年四月十六號下午三點之前的一分鐘你和我在一起,因為你我會記住這一分鐘. 16 April 1960, 2.59 PM you and I were together and because of you, I will always remember this minute

旭仔 /Yuddy


The motif of time was significantly reiterated in the scene when Andy Lau’s character Tide told Li-Zhen to forget about Yuddy from this minute onward. At that moment, the brassy sound of a grandfather’s clock was heard and the doors closed to reveal a clock face. Something as trivial as a minute is nothing to the cop but it meant everything to Li-Zhen. Similarly, time is nothing to Yuddy yet Li-Zhen is someone wise enough to learn to move on. This may be precisely what Wong is trying to convey. Time means different things to each person and it may just be impossible to be with someone who does not share the same “time-view” as you.

LOVE IS IN THE AIR, JUST NOT MATERIALISED

Almost all the characters are infatuated with someone else in this show with the exception of Yuddy who seems unwilling to be romantically involved with either Li-Zhen or his later romance Mimi, a sensual dancer-singer (Carina Lau). Wong invites us to compare and contrast the attitudes towards love the ladies have. While the former is able to move on with this breakup (that is if a real relationship was ever formed) and get on with life, Mimi is the persistent one who kept throwing herself at him, questioning him on his past and even tracking him down in Philippines. Then again, logically speaking and also as a means of understanding Yuddy from his shoes, how can he love when he received none from his birth mom and Mrs Suen?

While love is in the air, no romance is fulfilled in this Wong Kar-Wai’s picture. Our female leads do not end up with Yuddy and neither did the shy and sympathetic cop who graciously extends his listening ear and assistance to the heart-broken Li-Zhen. Jacky Cheung’s character Zeb, a childhood friend of Yuddy, expresses his affection for Mimi and sadly albeit unexpectedly, it is an unrequited love.

Perhaps such is the nature of life and exactly Wong’s intentions. Life is not as rosy as depicted in Hollywood movies and certainly not the case for love life. In actual fact, the movie is heavily saturated with hues of green, a colour that ironically gives off a calming effect represents not just youthfulness but also envy.

UNSAID WORDS, BURST OF EMOTIONS

To say that Yuddy’s life is depressing is an understatement. Towards the ending of the film, even his murder is de-dramatised. We witnessed how the gun shots are overshadowed by the train sounds, creating an impression that his murder is not of grave significance. There is a sudden straight cut where we see a fortunate Mrs Suen who receives $50 monthly in exchange for raising Yuddy. These two scenes contrast greatly in terms of life and death. The juxtaposition emphasises the depressing impression that Yuddy’s life is after all sad and lifeless. Yuddy desires to see his birth mother, who later refuses to acknowledge him, but we also observed how his life is nothing more than a source of income to Mrs Suen.

In the final scene, we see a young Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) in baggy and loose-fitting suit combing his slicked gelled hair in a cramped one-room apartment as he prepares to go out at night. There seems to be no relation between this and the main story and we can only formulate theories for this inclusion into the movie. From the way I see it, Mo-Wan is simply another illustration of a youth in his wild days (hence the title Days of Being Wild). Stretching this thought a little further, this could be the younger days of our Mo-Wan before he decided to settle down with his wife in ITMFL. Nonetheless, this is highly not plausible on grounds of realism as the second movie is also set in 1960s Hong Kong.

Having watched some of the cast’s works, I have to admit that they truly are versatile actors and actresses who played their characters well. Not forgetting Jacky Cheung and Andy Lau themselves who are talented singers in the Chinese Pop industry. Would be splendid if there was scenes between Carina Lau and to-be husband in real life Tony Leung in DOBW though we later see few moments of them in 2046. Then again, out of professional reasons I doubt Tony Leung is interested in acting alongside his wife.

Days of Being Wild is a story that easily appeals to those who have experienced disappointing and failed relationships and obstacles in reaching desires but have successfully done so. Be it a stand-alone film or a prequel to In the Mood for Love, this 1990 film proves to be another masterpiece of Wong.

Ending track as sung by the late Cantopop diva Anita Mui.

Not related but I personally enjoyed this ending track a lot. it’d be great if Anita ever worked with WKW.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.