After the news that the legendary Leslie Cheung had committed suicide in 2003, my family has never mentioned Farewell My Concubine. Not that my 5 year old self at the time could understand, but after revisiting Chen Kai Ge's masterpiece yesterday, I have not been able to brush away the idea that it is a perfect film.
If we put aside Gu Chang Wei's stunning cinematography, the film itself is both a heart-wrenching story of self-discovery and the result of a cultural revolution that shaped Asia's history. I would separate the story into three chapters, essentially by looking at the three actors who played the main character Douzi/Dieyi, respectively Ma Ming Wei, Zhi Yin, and Leslie Cheung. Casting Ming Wei, a female actress, to play the young Douzi, is only the beginning of Douzi's pursuit and struggle with his gender identity.
There can be no analysis of Farewell My Concubine, not that this is an analysis, without mentioning the infamous line Douzi repeatedly wrongly recites. The protagonist in fact says "I am by nature a boy, not a girl" instead of "I am by nature a girl, not a boy". His repetition of the latter is the viewer's, at least mine, first glance at his internal struggle. His punishment for mistaking the crucial line and almost costing them funding for the show results in Shitou, the other male protagonist who is later Douzi's love interest, shoves a pipe in the boy's mouth -- which Douzi receives without complaining. We are provided another hint at his sexuality.
The movie flashes forward and Shitou and Douzi are shown to be popular actors under the names Xiaolou and Dieyi respectively, with Dieyi playing the feminine character beautifully. The director here incorporates all aspects of Peking Opera, which had a monumental importance in Chinese culture, and still does. Between a cultural revolution and the Sino-Japanese war, Dieyi juggles his identity crisis with a seemingly clueless Xiaolou, who takes interest in a beautiful prostitute from an upscale brothel. Their falling in love causes Dieyi to breakdown and become extremely passive-aggressive. His hatred of Xiaolou's new woman is undeniable, and to me was the second depiction of Cheung's stellar acting skills, the first one being when he tells Xiaolou that he wants to be with him forever -- which Xiaolou obviously did not interpret correctly.
Dieyi's deterioration is worsened by Xiaolou's "betrayal" when he loses his role to a young boy trained in the same type of roles as he is. The friends' falling out leads to a disgusting confrontation, during which Xiaolou confesses that his former concubine performed for the enemy and led homosexual relationships, leading an angry Dieyi to tell the mob that Xiaolou's wife is a prostitute. The "brouhaha" leads to Xiaolou's wife committing suicide, furthering the deterioration of the protagonists' friendship.
The final scene of the movie is what made me and many viewers see that this movie is, in fact, flawless. Xiaolou's final stare after distinct sound effects lead us to believe that Dieyi in fact commits suicide with the sword may remind some of the final stare in Oldboy by Park Chan Wook. As haunting and distressing, but with much more emotion (I'm not critiquing Oldboy here; it's also one of my favorites).
I've purposely decided to skip through some aspects of the film, and believe me a lot more happens. But the scenes I mention above are to me the highest points of the plot. I've also decided to not mention Xiaolou's wife's name, because despite her irreplaceable presence in this film, I wholeheartedly believe this is the tale of these two men -- one who is in love and one who does not see the love. I cannot imagine how controversial this film, or the book, must have been when it first came out in China, a nation known for being homophobic and bigoted. Cheung's performance was acclaimed for obvious reasons, one of them being that he portrayed a character in such an ambitious film perfectly, hurting the viewer as much as him.
The director tells two, even three, stories at the same time, however never overwhelming the viewer but instead delivering serious undertones in every aspect of the film. From the cutting off of a young Douzi's (when played by a female character) finger to the same imagery with blood later, every shot is meticulously planned and could not have been replaced. The depiction of the Peking Opera, whether first-hand or in the background, adds to the cultural development of the time, one that the director is extremely familiar with, and has made familiar to his viewers through this film. This is the moment in my review where I have nothing to say but to be in awe over how good this film was.
All in all, a character struggling with his (their) gender identity, an era of revolution, a tasteful look at the Peking Opera and a whole lot of blood were enough to make me fall in love all over again with Chinese cinema. There's a reason why although this film is over 2 hours and 45 minutes, it is still called a must-watch by everyone who has seen it.
Read previous PoeticBookTours reviews here.