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‘Farewell My Concubine’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 27, 1993


Chen Kaige
Leslie Cheung;
Zhang Fengyi;
Gong Li
Under 17 restricted

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The most compelling aspect of "Farewell My Concubine," the sumptuous, controversial new film from Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige, is its swooning infatuation with the theater -- with its colors, its vitality and even its cruel rigors.

The main focus of this sweeping epic is Douzi, a delicate young boy who is dropped by his mother, a prostitute, into the hands of Master Guan (Lu Qi), the head of the Peking Opera in 1925. And the early scenes, in which this shy, stubborn lad is introduced to the torturous discipline and physical training that all students of the opera must endure, have the bustle and textured squalor of the orphanage scenes in Dickens.

Nearly all of these boys -- the Peking Opera is an all-male cult -- are like Douzi, unwanted, abandoned or left at the front steps of the opera's living quarters by parents too poor to raise them. Essentially they are sold into slavery to the theater. And to prove themselves worthy of the opera's past, they train, like soldiers in boot camp, stretching and contorting and disciplining their bodies, to learn the precise and demanding techniques of makeup and song.

Even though the peasants are nearly penniless, the opera is more popular than ever, its glamorous stars worshiped like deities. When Douzi watches them perform, the stage transformed and radiant with light and magic, his eyes double in size. He longs to be like them, and for the sake of this dream he endures the beatings and other sadistic punishments that are dished out every day.

And Douzi's dream comes true. He makes it to the top and, even better, so does his best friend, Shitou, who was the only one to stand up for Douzi when he arrived. By now Douzi and Shitou have changed their names to Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) and are known throughout the provinces. Because of Cheng's slender build and soft features, he is trained to play female roles, while the brawny, imposingly athletic Duan is groomed to play kings and warriors. As performers, they are wed for life to these roles, and in a sense, so are the two friends.

The director carries us through this early history with impressive sensitivity; he has a beautiful, graceful touch, both with the camera and with his actors. Chen Kaige details the relations between these two children grown into men with exquisite delicacy, revealing that Cheng has fallen madly in love with Duan, who, while he loves his friend, is susceptible to other charms. It is only when this partnership is threatened -- by Duan's relationship with a former prostitute named Juxian (Gong Li) -- that we begin to understand what a velvet coffin their lives and careers have become. The line between their art and their lives is smudged, and so they play their roles, both onstage and off, without deviation or variation.

This is the film's fundamental point. And to convey it the director draws parallels between theater and history, between the perpetual order of art and the chaos of real life. Duan and Cheng represent this order, and yet according to the politics of the time, their relationship is a distortion of natural law and must not be allowed to stand.

The movie, which Chen and Lilian Lee adapted from Lee's novel, follows these friends from the brutalities of the feudal age through the occupation by the Japanese and the tidal wave of Mao's Cultural Revolution. And again and again history drives a wedge between the two friends. Somehow, though, the film -- which was censored, then banned and un-banned twice by Communist officials in China -- isn't as gripping in its second half as it was in the first. When his characters are children, Chen is completely plugged into them emotionally, and yet after they become adults he abandons emotion and psychology in favor of a more distanced historical perspective.

In the process, we lose contact with the characters, who instead of moving closer, seem to wander farther away. Human motives disappear, to be replaced with ideology. As a result, "Farewell My Concubine," doesn't build dramatically; instead, it sort of peters out. It's a lovely film, but a little inert. It reaches its high point with glorious close-ups of the children. From there, it's all downhill.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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