At times difficult viewing, but always mesmerising, Farewell My Concubine is a gorgeous, emotional tragedy of a film. From beginning to end, this is what cinema is about.
Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) grow up enduring the harsh training of the Peking Opera Academy, where instructors regularly beat the students to instil in them the discipline needed to master the complex physical and vocal techniques of this ancient art. As the two boys mature, they develop complementary talents: Dieyi, with his fine, delicate features, assumes the female roles while Xiaolou plays masculine warlords. Their dramatic identities become real for Dieyi when he falls in love with Xiaolou, who fails to fully reciprocate Dieyi’s affections and marries a courtesan, Juxian (Gong Li), creating a dangerous, jealousy-filled romantic triangle.
Spanning over 50 years, Farewell My Concubine is a masterclass in directing from Chen Kaige, a piece of cinema 30 years after its release that has rarely been matched. While the film covers the war-laden history of China at certain junctures, the relationship between the two men compels. As ambitious a film as you will see from China in the 90s, even with its melodrama, it is an epic piece of cinema that emotionally grabs you by the neck and refuses to let you go, even long after the film has finished.
For a film that is 170 minutes, not one second of Farewell My Concubine drags, it is a film that just keeps moving along multiple decades effortlessly, plopping us into these integral moments of Dieyi and Xiaolou’s lives. This is due to how real each portion feels to the audience, when we see the very uncomfortable training conditions both go through as children, you shift in your seat. You do not want to keep watching on as children are whipped and abused. As we move through each face of life, we are wholly compelled by what is presented before us.
From a technical standpoint, this is an astounding achievement. Every department is in top form and performing at the highest level possible. When we reach the struggle session and watch Xiaolou cave to the violence and humiliation thrown at him, he is presented behind the blazing fire. While what is happening to him is horrendous, the imagery is utterly gorgeous and entrancing. You are almost dumbfounded in this scene by how it is presented. The entire film is littered with these bursts of magnificence that it would be useless to give examples of them all.
Both Cheung and Fengyi are outrageously fantastic in Farewell My Concubine, with Cheung doing so much excellent work in the middle of the film, a man continually being broken down emotionally. He is someone who has been abandoned and almost tortured into loving the role he has now for the Peking Opera. Cheung throws everything into the role, and with every betrayal, whether true or not, he wrecks you. He is a character who needed someone to stand by him, to love him like he loved them, and he never had it. Cheung gives us something remarkable here. Boy, what an unforgettable performance.
With Fengyi, there is a moment in that final act that you want to get off your seat and grab hold of him to do something just as bad as the Red Guards; the way he cracks and betrays everyone he can just to live fills you with grief, you know exactly what it will do to Dieyi and Juxian. But, in his desperation to be free, he doesn’t care; he is broken, and Fengyi delivers that astoundingly well. You want to hate him but understand what he has done, even if the after-effects are cataclysmic for his life.
However, Gong Li matches the quality of the two actors with her captivating performance. A woman who knows what she wants and is willing to do whatever it is to survive is spellbinding. She has found her way out of that life she hated, and when the chance comes to get a hold of her ticket out of said life, thanks to Xiaolou, she isn’t going to waste it. Yet her performance never has you feel negatively towards her, she like Dieyi and Xiaolou had to struggle through life and wants to have the life she never got to have. So when her character goes through blow after blow in the film’s second half, you are devastated for her. That is thanks to Li’s performance. Those little looks and nuances complete the character so well.
A cinematic experience, this is a film that revels in the technical and the tragic, all the while tearing you up with each jump in these characters’ lives. If, like me, Farewell My Concubine is a gap in your film knowledge, immediately amend that, and especially in the remastered Uncut version, it is one of the few films you can genuinely call a masterpiece.
For more coverage of TIFF 2023 please check out our reviews below:
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