Farewell My Concubine (1993)

128.

★★★★

Directed by: Kaige Chen
Written by: Pik Wah Li
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang and Li Gong

Director Kaige Chen experienced the Cultural Revolution of China firsthand. Even in the midst of political turmoil and unrelenting censorship, Kaige Chen belonged to a generation of Chinese filmmakers who boasted their directorial achievements overseas, landing in film festivals all over the world with films that directly and indirectly drew attention to what was happening domestically. In Chen’s Cannes Grand Prix winner Farewell My Concubine, the trials and tribulations of a love triangle spans half a century of China’s contemporary history, moving from World War II to the communist takeover and the Cultural Revolution. As epic and melodramatic as Gone With The WindFarewell My Concubine is a visually extravagant work that blends the ritualistic quality of Chinese opera with the tragedies and pains that cannot be detached from tumultuous political movements.

Chinese history on stage.

Two boys who are trained within the harsh and violent environment of the Peking Opera grow to become the leading Opera performers Cheng Dieyi (Cheung) and Duan Xioulou (Zhang). While they initially experience fame and fortune as highly respected artists, the changing nature of their nation’s political climate test the depth of their friendship, loyalty, and commitment to the Opera. While Dieyi plunges into self-destructive habits as a result of Xioulou’s marrying strong-willed prostitue, Juxian (Li), China’s world of art, culture, and music is met with destructive ideologies that challenge even the oldest of relationships.

The remarkable level of freedom and flow with which Chen guides a heavily emotional and politically charged film is something to be noted considering the film was banned in China under censorship laws. Farewell My Concubine is not only daring in its representation of modern China, but also in its handling of homosexual themes and representations, which is largely embodied in the portrayal of Dieyi whose gender-bending role as the Concubine in a traditional opera extends to his own personal life. As an epic, Farewell My Concubine sustains its energy and level of entertainment to compelling ends and delivers performances that take audiences to a historical context brought to life through vibrant colors and movement anchored in the theatrical tradition.

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