I watched Farewell my Concubine on the same day that I finished reading The Chevalier and found it interesting to compare these two very different stories about the mimesis of femininity. Directed by Chen Kaige in 1993, the film resonates much more strongly, which is unsurprising considering its status as a modern classic. It takes a deep and moving look at the psychological toll of assuming another sex and, using one enduring friendship, tells the story of China’s tumultuous relationship with its own cultural history during the course of the 20th century. Moreover it was my introduction to traditional Chinese opera, which fascinated me of course, even though I feel that the singing is something of an acquired taste for Western ears.
At the age of around six or seven, little Douzi is sold to the local opera troupe by his mother, who is no longer able to support him through her trade as a prostitute. He enters a bewildering and frequently brutal world in which he and his fellow pupils are trained to move with grace and to memorise the great roles of the operatic canon. Any failure or disobedience is punished with a harsh whipping from their teachers, who demand excellence on all counts. It is a hard initiation but, as the years pass, Douzi turns out to have considerable talent. He also becomes close friends with the older Shitou, who does his best to protect and encourage him, even when Douzi struggles against his situation.
The nature of this training is that every boy is assigned to a particular kind of role. Due to his beauty and delicacy, Douzi is marked out early as a future actor of female parts. Forced to think of himself as female, until the conviction pervades every detail of his movement and behaviour, he veers between professional pride and psychological despair. But the training, and Shitou’s support, pay off. Some years later, as teenagers, the two boys are plucked from the ranks and offered the chance of stardom in their first opera, Farewell My Concubine. It gives them the roles that will come to define them for a lifetime: Shitou as a proud king defeated by his enemies and Douzi as his faithful, tragic concubine.
The film explores the way in which the two actors’ friendship and partnership is tested by very different attitudes to their work. For the adult Shitou, now celebrated by his stage name Duan Xiaolou, the role of the king is simply that: a part to play. He’s in character on stage but, when the curtain falls and his makeup comes off, he pursues the opportunities that life has to offer, not least the companionship of the beautiful courtesan Juxian at the House of Blossoms. But for Douzi, now called Cheng Dieyi, things are different. His entire life has been defined by his role, and so art bleeds into life. His powerful, unspoken feelings for Xiaolou are transmuted into a bitter jealousy of Juxian, who has come between them and changed the balance of their perfect partnership for ever. As bitterness explodes into conflict, each man tries to find a way to live independently of the other: Xiaolou struggles to be a responsible family man, while Dieyi finds a form of sanctuary – a shadow of what he really desires – with the opera-loving Minister Yang.
But the world around them is changing too. As the Japanese invade, and are expelled, and the ancient empire gives way to a Communist republic, Dieyi and Xiaolou find themselves at the heart of a battle for a nation’s cultural memory. That struggle threatens to destroy not only their livelihoods, but – in an age of informers and suspicion – their very lives.
Although the film is superficially about the artistic partnership, the focus is very much on Dieyi. He isn’t always sympathetic – far from it – but his story is the one that moves the most. I was reminded of Stage Beauty, where the 17th-century actor Ned Kynaston finds himself in a comparable situation. When every hint of masculinity has been beaten out of you, to better fit you to the role you have to play, how do you cope when that role – and its support system – risk being swept away from you? How do you separate what is acting from what is real? When you lose the things that are vital to your survival, how can you carry on?
Leslie Cheung’s performance is haunting, and all the more moving in retrospect, once I’d read about his own tragic story. His Dieyi is taciturn, proud, arrogant, vulnerable, bitchy and fragile by turn: a beautiful face masking a deeply damaged soul. He also looks far younger than his 36 years. As Xiaolou, Fengyi Zhang is bluff, good-natured, slightly gauche, loyal and protective of Dieyi but not intuitive enough to realise how deeply he is needed. He’s a good man pushed to the point of fracture by the clash between his pretty wife and his friend and, perhaps, is entirely oblivious to the emotional currents bubbling under the surface. Like so many of the most affecting stories, the film plays on the fact that those who know each other best are best able to hurt one another.
I’m not remotely qualified to judge the music, because it’s about as different as can be from the melodies of Handel or Vivaldi, but I trust it was of a fine standard. Is anyone more familiar with traditional Chinese opera? If so, I’d love to know your thoughts. But the costumes! And the makeup! The film looks gorgeous and the operatic scenes have a slick, breathtaking choreography. Frustratingly, I’ve just missed the China National Peking Opera Company, who came to London last autumn and actually performed Farewell My Concubine (the proper traditional opera, not an adaptation of the film) at Sadlers Wells. It must have been quite an experience. I only hope they come back to do a repeat performance soon, because I’d love to see it, now that I’ll be able to follow the story.
All in all, it was a captivating introduction to an art form of which I know nothing, a country of whose history I am shamefully ignorant, and a story which will linger with me for some time to come.