Farewell My Concubine

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★★★★

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.

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Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Xiaolou (Fengyi Zhang) apply their makeup: Farewell My 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?

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Dieyi (Leslie Cheung): Farewell My Concubine

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.

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Xiaolou (Fengyi Zhang) and Dieyi (Leslie Cheung): Farewell My Concubine

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9 thoughts on “Farewell My Concubine

  1. Baroque Bird says:

    You need to watch A Better Tomorrow. Leslie Cheung is AMAZING in that (as are Ti Lung and Chow Yun-Fat), and it is a fine example of the heroic bloodshed genre. John Woo directs (it was before he went to Hollywood).

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thank you for commenting! ❤️

      Ah, I was going to ask you whether you’d seen this; I thought you might have done. And thanks for the recommendation. My heroic bloodshedding normally takes place exclusively in historical costume (as well you know), so a gangster movie will be an interesting development 😉 Speaking of historical bloodletting, I have The Warlords lined up and I’m going to order Red Cliff as well. Perhaps it’s part of a mission to absorb Chinese culture before my autumn travels? 😜

      P.S. In another stunning example of autocorrect, my phone just corrected ‘gangster’ to ‘hamster’. Nearly invented a whole new genre there.

      • Baroque Bird says:

        Some recommendations: The Grandmaster (Tony Leung Chiu-wai stars, Wong Kar-wai directs) and Ip Man trilogy (Donnie Yen stars, Wilson Yip directs). They’re both more kung-fu / wuxia flicks than drama, I would think. (I use the work “flicks” in a general sense, not to imply that these are insubstantial or vacuous.) I have seen the first two of the latter and really enjoyed it (it’s been on my very long Amazon list for a while – has been bumped in favour of my beloved Baroque), and have not seen the former but the pedigree of those involved suggests that it should be amazing.

        The Infernal Affairs trilogy (Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu-wai star, Wilson Yip directs) is apparently heroic bloodshed, although I’d put it more in the category of thriller. Whichever box you put it in though, there’s no denying that they are some of the finest movies ever to come out of Hong Kong, especially the first one. The Departed (Leo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson star, Martin Scorsese directs) was based on this, but I thought the original was so much better. I never did finish The Departed; I got about 20 minutes into it and gave up because it was boring. I’m sure it’s very good, but if you’ve seen Infernal Affairs, it just can’t compare.

        In terms of actual Chinese culture, I am completely the wrong person to talk to about this, but I did really enjoy this book. OK, it’s Hong Kong and not mainland Chinese (trust me, there is a difference and you don’t want to get the two confused – a bit like the Scots and the English), but it is beautifully written and captures and explores the clash of cultures and the to-assimilate-or-not issue so wonderfully. Wild Swans by Jung Chang gives an excellent overview of recent Chinese history as seen through the eyes of three generations of women. It’s been a while since I’ve read it (more than a decade!), so I wouldn’t want to comment on it other than in the most general terms, but I did find it a very insightful book. It’s a bit thicker than Gweilo, but given the rate at which you read books it shouldn’t be a problem finishing it before the summer is up!

        Now you’ve got me all excited about this stuff. I’m going to watch Infernal Affairs again tonight! Hamsters galore!!!

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Baroque Bird: Well you’ve certainly listed enough there to keep me busy. I’m still a bit wary of modern-day gangster films – I think Red Cliff is going to be far more up my street – but with such strong recommendations I think I have to watch Infernal Affairs at some point. Added to the list. As are the two books. I started reading Wild Swans years ago in secondary school, but I don’t think I got very far into it (I read slower in those days) 😉

  3. Baroque Bird says:

    While I’m thinking China-related things, a few others have sprung to mind:

    (a) The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. It was made into a movie in the early 90s, but read the book first. And once you’ve read one by Amy Tan, I wouldn’t bother with the rest because it gets a bit samey (East-meets-West, Mums-and-Daughters). Well, if you need to read another one, read The Kitchen God’s Wife.

    (b) The White-Boned Demon. It’s a biography of Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife. You mentioned you were interested in the Cultural Revolution, and I suddenly recalled I had read this book ages ago. For me, I started reading this as part of a general interest in strong women in political revolutions (I blame Evita for that phase), but I soon realised what happened in China was much, much more complex. I can’t comment as to how good it was (again, it was a long time ago), but I remember it being quite a dark book, as you can probably tell from its less-than-jocular title.

    (c) The Soong Sisters. It’s the story of 3 sisters in a political family, and how each of them takes a different path in life, which at times conflict with one another. One marries an entrepreneur, the second marries Sun Yat-sen, and the third, Chiang Kai-shek. It was a good movie, with an excellent cast – Maggie Cheung has been in many Chinese / Hong Kong art and popular films (she’ll pop up quite a lot if you start watching Wong Kar-wai films) and Michelle Yeoh has been in many films AND a James Bond movie. After watching this, I read (part of) a book about the family as a whole (there were brothers as well). I can’t remember the name of it and I can’t find it on Amazon; the only one I can find is by Sterling Seagrave, and the tone he appears to take in respect of the family does not accord with the posture taken by the one I read, so I don’t think that’s it.

    (d) The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck. I really enjoyed this, and tried reading some of her other books, but none of them did it for me the same way this one did. It’s about several generations of a family, and how everything goes in a circle. I don’t want to say more than that in case you do end up reading it, but it is a lovely book. I’ve just discovered (i) it is a trilogy, which I did not know before (it was before I discovered the internet…), so I should read the other two at some point, and (ii) Pearl S Buck was a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Gosh. Lots to absorb there. Thank you! Keep thinking… 😉 It’s not so much that I have an interest in the Cultural Revolution as the fact that I know nothing about it and feel that I should… so that book could well be very useful.

      Thank you so much, once again!

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