Farewell My Concubine
"Seriously, this film is like the DBZ of Peking Opera at times."
Farewell My Concubine (1993)
Director: Chen Kaige
Producer: Hsu Bin, Jade Hsu, Donald K. Ranvaud
Writer: Lillian Lee, Bik-Wa Lei, Wei Lu
Cast: Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, Gong Li, Lu Qi, Ying Da
Running Time: 156 min.
Plot: Film traces the 50-year homoerotic relationship between two Beijing opera actors who eventually reunite in Hong Kong.
Availability: This title is available at HKflix.com
NINGEN'S REVIEW: I don't know what it is about Peking Opera that looks appealing in martial arts films, but which comes off dull in arthouse flicks. While it's true that this is only the second film of this genre I've actually managed to finish(the first being the borefest Peking Opera Blues, which I stopped after 30 minutes) , it's just as tedious and anti-climactic as the former. I'd rather see Red Trousers and (if it ever comes on dvd) Painted Faces, than have to sit through another film which goes "behind-the-stage" instead of straight to the performances of the characters. Not that Farewell My Concubine doesn't feature excellent performances from the great Leslie Cheung and Fengyi Xiaolu, but it just doesn't have any direction. Is it a glimpse into the scenes of the Chinese poor and working class who are so hard up for money that they sell their own children into a Peking Opera school? Is it about the back-stabbing and back-rubbing that goes on to make a performance successful? Or is it merely an indictment against the Cultural Revolution in the way it ironically favors Japanese occupation over the PRC?
All I do know is that any positive image I might have about Peking Opera is ruined by the child abuse which goes on through half of the picture. This is sadly ironic, because Chen Kaige made it a point during his Q+A for the Promise that he felt that the Chinese needed to retain their heritage, rather than to just shed it and adapt Western values. But what's so appealing about dumping your kids in a theater troupe where their limbs are pulled and twisted, and they're scolded and beaten when they get their lines wrong? (Even Jackie and Sammo, who attribute their values from going to Peking Opera school, don't have fond memories of these exercises.) Not to mention knowing your kid could be raped in exchange for sponsorship?! Then of course, there's the issue of having to maintain an image of heterosexuality when you actually make it and seeing your fellow performer dating a hooker with very little heart of gold played by Gong Li. The leads then have to entertain Japanese imperialists at gunpoint, while later fighting the communist government accusations of treason. Yes, it's hard out here for a Peking Opera performer, which I guess is supposed to make me feel more sympathetic for the main characters.
But this approach doesn't quite succeed, mostly because the leads are as antagonistic as their peers.
Cheung, Xiaolu, and Gong Li's characters are constantly bickering with each other over petty grievances. And they're selfish to boot. If ill fate befalls one of them, it's just an excuse to engage in schaudenfreude more than to show sympathy. Perhaps Kaige's also trying to be subversive against the culture. But if that's the case, then why go to this much trouble to maintain the authenticity of the setting?! Make up your mind, Chen!
Though what really annoys me is that the actual performances are probably only about a few seconds in length. Why spend all that time building sets and dolling the actors in make-up if they're only given a brief time to shine? Seriously, this film is like the DBZ of Peking Opera at times.
Nonetheless, Farewell is a bold film with the potential to be a true epic, if it only knew what it wanted. I just wish that the actors weren't wasted on such demeaning roles, and that the script wasn't so lowbrow.The film feels more forced than shocking when it's trying to be gritty and edgy. And it's slightly dismaying that as times change, the main characters are stuck in a time-warp with no place to go. Where are the hopes and dreams? Where is the growth? And what's the point?
NINGEN'S RATING: 8/10 for the actors, 5.5/10 for the story and dialogue, 6.5/10 for film in general