At its heart, Farewell My Concubine is the story of a love triangle. It tells the story of two men, Douzi and Shitou, who are trained to play the two lead roles in ‘Farewell My Concubine’, a traditional Chinese opera, as the loyal concubine Consort Yu and her king Ziang Yu respectively. The shadows of these two roles will pervade the two men their whole life, not just as the staple roles in their career, but because the story of the opera begins to echo, and possibly shape, events in real life. Douzi is in love with Shitou, but Shitou does not return the affection, who pursues Xiulan, a free-spirited courtesan at the House of Blossoms. She stands by the two men despite the heated emotions and intensity of their friendship.

5.bdch

This is only the foreground of an epic film that spans the entirety of the modern history of China. The film begins in the Old World of 1920s China in the brutal, Draconian training academy of Peking Opera. Douzi is left their by his mother, whose final act before she leaves him is to chop off his sixth finger in order for the academy to accept him. This brutal act at the outset sets the tone for a lot of cruelty and betrayal to follow. Shitou latches himself onto Douzi, and both quickly stand out as star students, and so are both trained with even more intensity. Their friendship is forged in the training academy, and is tested through the tumult of the rest of the century; as China changes hands between the Japanese, Kuomintang, the Communists, the People’s Liberation Army and the Cultural Revolution, the fortunes of the characters change, providing strains on their kinships and inviting opportunities to make some very bad decisions. They find themselves at different points as both Chinese heroes and downtrodden pariahs.

The film is also a fascinating exploration of homosexuality, a subject that helped the film get banned twice in its native country. Homosexuality is hardly mentioned in the film, but is always bubbling just beneath the surface. Douzi is trained all his life to play female roles (there is an operatic monologue he is forced to repeat multiple times because he constantly flubs the line ‘I am by nature a girl, not a boy’), and his dedication to opera blurs his demarcation between art and reality, so that his identity is forever disturbed. The resulting mess of emotions that this causes between him and his ‘stage brother’ is brilliantly played by Leslie Cheung, a Cantopop star cast to attract audiences because of the anxiety about whether a melodrama could be successful. However, he plays the role as perfectly as Douzi plays Concubine Yu, with all of the subtlety and feminine poise needed to reflect the complex relationship between the two men with acumen and sensitivity.

FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE [China/Hong Kong 1993] aka Ba wang bie ji (1993) Leslie Cheung

Chen Kaing presents here an ambitious sweeping vision of 50 years of Chinese history, from the grandness of the Revolution to The Peking Opera itself, beautifully filmed in intricate detail that rivals the production design of Milos Forman’s Amadeus. The sprawling scope of the film combined with its emotional nuance presents a film that is both intimate and lavishly impressive.

4 / 5

Dir: Kaige Chen

Scr: Pik Wah Lee

Cast: Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang, Li Gong

DOP: Changwei Gu

Music: Jiping Zhao

Country: China

Year: 1993

Run time: 171 mins

Farewell My Concubine is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from the 21st March.

By Matthew Hayhow

Writer and journalist. Watches movies. Shouts at pidgeons. Twitter - @Machooo Email mhayhow.enquires@hotmail.com