MOVIE REVIEW : A Visionary Journey Through Space, Time : Chen Kaige’s ‘Farewell My Concubine,’ an epic personal and political tale, marks the coming of age of Chinese cinema.
“Farewell My Concubine” is a slow boat through China, and why shouldn’t it be? An unhurried journey on the great tide of modern Chinese history, this gorgeous, intoxicating epic is confident enough of its visual and narrative power not to rush the telling. Old-fashioned in form but modern in psychological dynamic, it’s a film that you can lose yourself in, that washes over you like a warm and enveloping mist.
“Concubine’s” selection as co-winner (with Jane Campion’s “The Piano”) of the Palme d’Or merely confirmed what everyone at Cannes felt, that this remarkable film marked the coming of age of Chinese cinema both artistically and politically, and that its subject matter, panoramic scope and stately length (here trimmed to a relatively svelte two hours and 36 minutes) marked it as the “Gone With the Wind” of modern Chinese cinema.
Directed by Chen Kaige, one of the most prominent of China’s current “Fifth Generation” of directors and featuring Hong Kong heartthrob Leslie Cheung, mainland star Zhang Fengyi and the alluring Gong Li, “Concubine” (selected theaters) concerns itself with more than half a century of the most turbulent political doings.
Starting in the warlord era of 1925 and expanding through the war with Japan, the return of the Nationalists, the eventual triumph of the Communists and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution before it ends in the relative tranquillity of 1977, “Concubine” not only covers a lot of territory, its sense of visual pageantry brings all of it vividly to life.
But “Concubine” is more than just another dazzling face. It also traces the complex emotional relationship between its three protagonists, shaped and reshaped in response to both political events and the demands of their own hearts. But here “Concubine,” written by Lilian Lee and Lu Wei from Lee’s novel, throws in something of a twist. Rather than the usual romantic triangle, it has both a man and a woman passionately in love with the same man.
“Concubine” opens with a brief prologue set in 1977. Into an empty arena totter a pair of beautifully costumed Peking Opera stars, Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) wearing the broad black beard of the King of Chu and Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) exquisitely dressed as the Concubine Yu. They have not worked together for 22 years, not seen each other for 11, but on this day they will once again perform the finale from the opera that made them famous and gives this film its name.
Having established the longevity of this relationship, “Concubine” now flashes back to 1925 and its beginnings. A shy and slender boy (the future Cheng) is apprenticed to a harsh school for potential opera actors and singers by his prostitute mother. His origins lead the others to tease him, but the group’s bluff natural leader (the future Duan) takes a liking to the new boy and good-heartedly takes him under his wing. “Concubine” does not hesitate to spend time showing this bond developing, a stratagem that pays off emotionally once they become adults.
Though unfamiliar to most Westerners, Chinese opera has been a popular art form for centuries, combining as it does furious acrobatics, stunning costumes and elegant, stylized gestures and singing in a spectacle that fully lives up to the word. Unfortunately, Chinese opera also believes in physical typecasting and Cheng is literally forced to train for exclusively female parts while Duan is allowed to sing as a robust male.
When we see Duan and Cheng as adults in 1937, time and training have beautifully suited them to their trademark yin and yang performances in the title opera, which tells of a loyal concubine who refuses to abandon the defeated King of Chu even though to stay and dance for him and pour his wine will inevitably mean death.
Generally good-natured and easy-going, though with a pugnacious streak, Duan considers Cheng a “stage brother” he feels a great deal of familial affection for. Cheng, however, who onstage “blurs the distinction between theater and life, between male and female,” has begun to live his opera role offstage and fallen in love with the man who plays his king.
Into this volatile mix comes Juxian (Gong Li), the top prostitute at the House of Blossoms brothel. Partly out of love and partly out of calculation, she maneuvers to have the affable Duan marry her, an act that so enrages Cheng that he announces, almost at the same moment as Japanese troops enter the city, that he will never sing with Duan again.
For the rest of the film, through all that political turmoil, Juxian and Cheng scramble, with sporadic success, to undercut each other, one trying to break up the marriage, the other intent on killing the partnership, and both having to deal with that childhood bond that can never totally go away.
Given that this film is set in the world of opera, it should be no surprise that “Concubine’s” script makes considerable use of melodramatic plot elements, including such standards as the foundling, the convenient pregnancy and even the lecherous eunuch.
Keeping things honest, however, are two factors, one being the depth of feeling and skill the actors bring to the three principal roles. Zhang Fengyi is casually powerful as the man everyone is in love with, and Gong Li, the star of “Ju Dou” and “Raise the Red Lantern,” puts her steely temperament and expressive face to excellent use. Most memorable is Leslie Cheung, who gives an exceptional performance that manages to gracefully emphasize the feminine in Cheng’s nature without descending into camp.
Finally, the high level of filmmaking skill of both director Chen and cinematographer Gu Changwei (who shot “Ju Dou” and “Red Sorghum” for director Zhang Yimou) provide a kind of momentum that is difficult to resist. In its superb use of composition, color and light, “Concubine” is practically a textbook of lush visual pleasures.
Though they were not the only cause of “Farewell My Concubine’s” (rated R for language and strongly depicted thematic material) celebrated battles with the Chinese censors, some of the strongest and most memorable scenes in the film concern the brutal humiliations and denunciations of the “struggle sessions” that marked the Cultural Revolution.
Director Chen, who as a teen-aged Red Guard publicly denounced his own father (director Chen Huaikai, who works as artistic director here), clearly had a deep personal stake in making those sections of “Concubine” as honest and powerful as possible. That concern has infused the rest of his film as well, turning it into a vision of another time and another place that won’t be forgotten any time soon.
‘Farewell My Concubine’
Leslie Cheung: Cheng Dieyi
Zhang Fengyi: Duan Xiaolou
Gong Li: Juxian
Lu Qi: Guan Jifa
Ge You: Master Yuan
A Tomson Films production, released by Miramax Films. Director Chen Kaige. Producer Hsu Feng. Executive producers Hsu Bin, Jade Hsu. Screenplay Lilian Lee and Lu Wei, based on the novel by LiliancLee. Cinematographer Gu Changwei. Editor Pei Xiaonan. Costumes Chen Changmin. Music Zhao Jiping. Production coordinator Sunday Sun. Art director Yang Yuhe. Set decorators Wang Chunpu, Zhang Ruihe, Song Wanxiang, Cui Xiurong. Running time: 2 hours, 36 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (language and strongly depicted thematic material).