Sunday, January 6, 2013

Film # 93: Farewell, My Concubine (1993)

Original Chinese Title: Ba wang bie ji

Director: Kaige Chen

Initial Release Country: China

Times Previously Seen: none

Rapid-Fire Summary

For a more complete synopsis, you can check out this one at wikipedia. Here is my simplified version:

In China in 1924, the young boy Douzi is given by his prostitute mother to an academy for opera performers. His mother even goes to the extreme length of chopping off little Douzi’s unusual sixth finger, to make him appealing enough to the school’s exacting headmaster, Guan. This is just the first of many forms of suffering that Douzi will face in the course of his next decade of training. For another decade, Douzi and his peers are put through a brutal regimen – one which even results in the suicide of one of his closest friends. Douzi does, however, become very close with Shitou, who becomes his “stage brother” in operatic performances.

Douzi and Shitou graduate from the academy and become opera sensations, taking on the stage names of Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Fengyi Zhang). The two are most noted for their performances of the classic Chinese opera, Farewell, My Concubine, with Cheng playing the role of the royal concubine and Duan playing the role of the king. Cheng clearly has deeper feelings for Duan and wishes for them to be together in all ways, not merely as operatic partners. Duan, however, refuses Cheng’s advances and eventually marries Juxian, a courtesan who manipulates Duan into the union.

Cheng (right) prepares Duan's makeup before another of their famous performances. The care shown here echoes the tenderness that Cheng harbors for his stage brother.

Over the succeeding four decades, Cheng and Duan’s relationship undergoes several changes, due in no small part to the massive political upheavals of the times. From the Japanese invasion in the late 1930s to the return of nationalism in the late 40s, and all through Mao’s forms of revolution, the two actors experience equally tumultuous emotional shifts. Though they continue to perform their most famous opera intermittently, they must fight through Cheng’s opium addiction, accusations of being counter-revolutionaries, and the ever-present resentment of Cheng towards Juxian. In 1966, after the Cultural Revolution, the two men are forced by a raving communist mob to turn on each other and abandon their passion for the opera and each other.

In 1977, eleven years after their public renunciation of each other and their craft, the two men join up one more time. As they are practicing for a return performance of Farewell, My Concubine, they share a tender moment of recollection at how their close friendship began several decades earlier. Then, in imitation of the forlorn character that he has played so famously, Cheng commits suicide.

My Gut Reaction to the Film:

For as long and ultimately tragic as the story is, I found this movie quite compelling. Though it may be a case of trying to do more than can be done in 180 minutes, there’s still a lot to be said for how strong a film this is.

The most immediately striking feature to anyone who watches even a few brief moments of the movie is the visual aesthetic. The vibrancy and majesty of the emotional, political, and artistic themes explored in the movie come through the stunning sets and costumes. Put simply, the movie is a joy to look at. It calls to my mind another fantastic Chinese epic film – The Last Emperor, which made similar use of color, shading, and lighting to build atmosphere so effectively.

This still shot of Duan and Cheng in costume only gives the slightest hint of just how lavish the film's visuals are. Virtually every scene, including those away from the opera stage, is brilliantly composed and drawn the eye.

The visuals, though, are the window dressing for the real heart of the movie – the tortured existences of Cheng and Duan. The story of these two men could easily be seen as the struggle of artistry and human emotions against overwhelming social pressures towards conformity. Even before the political upheavals begin, it is clear that the Chinese cultural concepts of fate and hard work leave the young Douzi and Shitou no option but to be beaten into what society tells them – actors. There is beauty in the tragedy, as seen by the successes that the two men find on the stage, but it is ultimately doomed to be crushed by blind ideologies that do not seem to allow for individual feelings. Normally, I would not be so interested in the emotional turmoil of a depressive dramatist such as Douzi/Cheng. Yet with this film, I found the tale extremely engaging.

One of the amazing feats of this movie is its dealing with desire and sexuality. I honestly don’t know what the popular Chinese conception is of homosexuality, but it is presented in Farewell, My Concubine as a simple matter of course. Yes, Cheng is gay and seeks to be the lover of his stage partner, but Cheng’s homosexuality is not really the focal point of the issue. The movie makes clear that the driving force is his fierce desire for something that cannot be.

In similar fashion, the tale’s portrayal of political machinery is pleasantly unpatriotic. China is, without a doubt, one of the more fiercely nationalistic countries in the world. I can only assume that a fair amount of “art” produced there in the last century can well be classified as mere propaganda. A film like Farewell, My Concubine not only avoids that label, but even castigates such hive-mindedness by showing how damaging it is to individual liberty. The psychological toll on Cheng and Duan both transcends and is dwarfed by the onward march of Chinese history, making their story both intriguingly regional and surprisingly universal.

As the communist revolution sweep the country, a frightening zeal for conformity and blandness overtakes the populace. Independent thinkers and artists are just some of the many who suffer the rise of this humorless movement. 

There are some aspects of the film that would most likely prevent me from watching it again, however. In a general sense, there is a certain cultural gap that I, as an American, couldn’t completely traverse. Though I consider myself more culturally aware and sensitive that most people, some of the behaviors and attitudes in the film seem to require an understanding of the subtler aspects of Chinese codes and mores. There is a reverence for the Confucian master/student relationships that is puzzling, if not outright perplexing, to someone of my Western upbringing. It can be fascinating at times, but frustratingly enigmatic at others.

On a technical level, the pacing of the film is occasionally herky-jerky. I suppose that it is inevitable when trying to tell a tale that spans 50 years while maintaining emotional depth, and the film probably does it as well as possible. Still, there are some tremendous time jumps that are a tad disorienting. This is exactly the kind of story that would benefit from being told as a television series over the course of six or eight hours, rather than crushed into three.

My most subjective, and probably most lasting, gripe is my feeling towards classic Chinese opera, something that understandably and necessarily is featured throughout the picture. I find the singing style absolutely intolerable. I know, I know. This is my “ethnocentric, Western ear,” but I can’t help it. Try and I might (and I tried the same thing with Japanese noh theater when I lived in that country for two years), I can’t find any pleasure in listening to the high, whining vocalizations that are the hallmark of the art. I’m sure someone with an ear for it would find Cheng’s performances breathtaking. Alas, I found myself simply wishing them to be over so that the story could continue.

The actual opera performance scenes are visual spectacles, but I simply do not have the ear to appreciate the style of the art. 

Farewell, My Concubine is a great film, and I one that enjoyed. It features all that any fan of epic tales of touching, personal tragedy would surely enjoy. I don’t see myself watching it again, but it’s an easy one to recommend.

That’s a wrap. 93 shows down, 12 to go.

Coming Soon: Schindler’s List (1993):

And rounding out the current trilogy of tragedy is Spielberg’s holocaust offering. I’ve seen it a few times, and I found it flawed. I’ll see if my opinion holds after this next (and probably final) viewing.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.