Blu-ray Review: Chen Kaige's FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE From The BFI
For many mainstream filmgoers, Farewell My Concubine is perhaps the best-known Chinese language film of the 1990s, helped in no end by its success at the Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Chen Kaige (Yellow Earth, Temptress Moon), the film traces the troubled friendship between two Peking Opera performers during 50 years of war-ravaged Chinese history. Leslie Cheung (A Better Tomorrow, Days Of Being Wild) and Zhang Fengyi (The Emperor And The Assassin, Red Cliff) play the central duo Dieyi and Xiaolou, while Gong Li (Red Sorghum, Raise The Red Lantern) portrays Jiuxian, the former prostitute who drives them apart.
Beginning in 1924, Farewell My Concubine follows a country in turmoil, from the Japanese occupation, through the resistance movement by the Kuomintang and ultimately the Cultural Revolution. Dieyi and Xiaolou’s relationship is tested every step of the way, as is the fate of traditional Peking Opera, the great celebration of traditional Chinese culture to which both have dedicated their entire lives. This is especially true for Dieyi, who has faced abandonment issues ever since his mother left him at the opera school when he was just a small child. Taking on the female courtesan roles, the naturally effeminate Dieyi grows increasingly devoted to Xiaolou, and when his on-stage leading man takes a wife, Dieyi sees this as yet another betrayal.
Dieyi’s devotion to opera also becomes a frequent lightening rod for controversy. During the Japanese occupation, Dieyi continues to perform for the Japanese troops, excited by their appreciation for his craft and enthusiasm to introduce the artform to audiences back home. Of course, when the KMT takes over following the end of World War II, Dieyi’s performances are interpreted as collusion with the enemy. When the proletariat mob of Mao’s Cultural Revolution appear on the scene, Dieyi’s devotion to these opulent indulgences of the “Old Society” get him in yet further trouble.
At its centre, the film becomes an emotional contest between Dieyi and Juxian for Xiaolou’s affections. Dieyi is clearly besotted by his childhood friend, yet cannot find the courage to openly express his feelings, instead falling foul to predatory older men in positions of power. Juxian, conversely, sees her marriage to a celebrated actor as a way out of her previous life. She feels constantly threatened by Dieyi, digging her claws deeper into Xiaolou - convincing him to quit acting and start a family, only to tragically lose the baby during an onstage scuffle. Xiaolou meanwhile remains somewhat passive to this unfolding tragedy that encircles him. It is only when the youthful revolutionaries set their sights on him directly that he seems to become legitimately engaged.
The film is based on the 1985 novel by Lillian Lee, whose work has been frequently adapted for the big screen in Hong Kong (most notably Rouge by Stanley Kwan and Green Snake by Tsui Hark). It follows the structure and themes of the classic Peking Opera The Hegemon-King Bids Farewell to His Concubine, which is featured throughout the film and becomes the signature performance between Deiyi and Xiaolou. The story tells of a royal concubine, Yu, who remains loyal to her king, even after he has become cornered by his enemy and lost his entire army. It ends with Yu drawing her King’s sword and using it to cut her own throat.
Farewell My Concubine arrived at a pivotal time for Chinese Cinema. Chen Kaige is one of a collective of filmmakers who came to prominence during the eighties and nineties, known as the Fifth Generation. Other members of this group include Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang. For the first time ever, Chinese cinema was gaining frequent enthusiastic attention at international film festivals and from audiences outside of Asia. Zhang's films (Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise The Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju) - all of which star his muse Gong Li - won prizes at Berlin and Venice, played in competition at Cannes and earned Oscar nominations.
Likewise, Chen Kaige’s early work was honoured at Locarno and Montreal, before his next three films all played in competition at Cannes. The third of these, Farewell My Concubine, won the Palme d’Or. Sharing the award with Jane Campion’s The Piano, it became - and to this day remains - the only Chinese language film to have received top honours from the world’s most prestigious film festival. It also received the FIPRESCI prize for Best Film In Competition, and went on to win the Golden Globe and the BAFTA for Best Foreign Language Film, losing the Oscar to the long-since-forgotten Spanish entrant, Belle Epoque.
To this day, Farewell My Concubine remains a sumptuous cinematic experience. A tragic story of betrayal and forbidden love; a ravishing portrait of artistic passion and the treasure trove of delights that is Peking Opera; as well as an historical document of how the fate of a nation was repeatedly torn up and rewritten year after year. Through a trio of heart-breaking performances, the film details the joys and hardships endured by those who lived through it, and those who were defeated by it. The BFI's new Blu-ray release of the film presents the full uncut 171-minute version of the film in a pristine transfer, devoid of the scratches, blemishes and judders that too often haunt Hong Kong films on this format. However, what the film desperately needs is a brand new 2K or 4K transfer, in order to truly bring the film’s radiant colour palette to life. Here the image is too often soft and muted, when it should be leaping off the screen.
The sole supplement on the disc is a 23-minute vintage Making-Of documentary, which includes interviews with the three principle cast members, as well as director Chen. It also features on-set footage and a rather quaint music video montage, culminating in footage from the film’s Cannes victory and Hong Kong premiere. It is with no small amount of heartbreak that a youthful and enthusiastic Leslie Cheung is seen claiming to be nothing like his character of Dieyi in real life. As events unfolded in the decade following the film’s release, the beloved Hong Kong star would wrestle with depression and his own sexual identity. Cheung ultimately committed suicide on 1 April 2003, adding yet another layer to the story of how life continues to imitate art in Farewell My Concubine.
Farewell My Concubine arrives on dual-format Blu-ray/DVD in the UK, Courtesy of the BFI, today.
Farewell My Concubine
- Kaige Chen
- Pik Wah Lee (novel)
- Pik Wah Lee (screenplay)
- Wei Lu
- Leslie Cheung
- Fengyi Zhang
- Li Gong
- Qi Lü