Touching Stories Do Not Happen Only in America

23/06/2010 21:15
Review of Farewell My Concubine (1993), dir. Chen Kaige


Close your eyes for a minute and let your spirit fly to the most distant and mysterious parts of the world. Imagine that you have a possibility to look under the surface of things that you have only heard of and you know only something more than nothing about them. That is the reason why I always get excited when an element of an exotic culture gets into my hands. This was the case of the movie Farewell My Concubine.

This movie is very important for the Chinese history. It is the only Chinese-language film to win an important award such as the Cannes Palme d’Or. It was directed by Chen Kaige in 1993 and immediately won the hearts of foreign viewers. No surprise, the director let us see both sides of the Chinese opera. The story is always the same – a loyal concubine Yuji devoted to her Xiang Yu, the defeated king of the Western Chu. The music is always the same. The actors and their performance are always the same. The only thing that changes is the atmosphere of the spectacle. The opera is always set against a particular political background – once it is the Japanese invasion, then WWII etc.

The story begins in 1924. A mother carrying her child is hurrying through the crowd to a training school. The master is not willing to accept this new trainee as the boy suffers a superfluous finger. The desperate mother decides to resolve the problem by cutting off her son Douzi’s finger. Now his life is going to change radically. The life of a trainee is difficult, sad, and full of beatings and punishments. The boys are supposed to become actors. Douzi is special. The master makes him play female parts only even if Douzi does not like it at the beginning. Together with another trainee called Shitou, they become a famous couple playing the king and his concubine. Douzi changes his name into Cheng Dieyi and Shitou into Duan Xiaolou. Their lives seem to be perfect until Xialou announces his engagement with a courtesan Juxian. Dieyi, who is in love with Xiaolou, never gets a chance to consummate the sexual aspect of their relationship – although he sleeps with some important men. He tries to persuade Xiaolou to stay with him forever, which Xiaolou refuses. At one point in the movie Xiaolou says to Dieyi: ’I am just an actor playing a king, you really are Yuji.’ They undergo many hardships – Juxian loses her baby in a theatre fight, Xiaolou is prosecuted by the new regime, and Dieyi becomes an opium addict. The story ends in 1977 after many other events such as Juxian’s suicide. Xiaolou and Dieyi reunite on the stage once again and play the opera for the last time. However, the auditorium is empty and the opera ends with Dieyi’s cutting his own throat with a sword.

So what is it that fascinates me so much about this movie? In the first place, it is the atmosphere that is so exotic for an ordinary European like me. The Beijing Opera is totally different from the opera we are used to. The costumes and masks breathe with luxury and the music that accompanies the story brings shivers down my spine.

The next plus is the authenticity of the movie. The actors are Chinese, they speak Chinese… To put it in simple words, everything is Chinese. It is not like those American movies which are trying to be authentic – Anna Karenina (1997) is played by a French actress Sophie Marceau and Dr. Zhivago’s Larissa (2002) by an English actress Keira Knightley. Let’s not forget about the fact that except for the names of the characters the actresses play, there is nothing Russian about them.

The performance of the actors in Farewell My Concubine is brilliant. Sometimes they make you feel like you are looking through a hole in the wall at the lives of real people. The expressions on their faces tell you much more than their words. The director did not try to distort the image of China. He did not want his characters to be heroes. They all have their dark sides and that is what makes the movie so realistic.

I have been thinking about the possible weaknesses of the movie but the only thing that occurred to me is the length of the film. The standard length is up to two hours, so if a film is three hours long, it runs the risk of tiring its audience. However, Farewell My Concubine is different: every scene is like a fragment without which the movie would not be complete.

I definitely recommend the movie to those who are fascinated by Eastern cultures. It is a masterpiece and proof that touching stories do not happen only in America.

Zuzana Hlubinová