Farewell My Concubine is one of the few rare films that present history, beauty, emotion and art with such outstanding craft and skill. This film qualifies as one of the most unique films I’ve watched in a long time.
The movie is an exposé of the eminent Beijing opera that sprung up in the 18th century and went through a tumultuous fall during the 20th century. The film’s main story line revolves around a play that was performed time and again by the Chinese Peking Opera with its English title being the same as the movie’s title, Farewell my Concubine. It depicts a king, Xiang Yu who on verge of total defeat wishes to spend time with his beloved Concubine Yu Ji before he breathes his last. Yu Ji begs her king to allow her to die with him, while the king continually refuses. The play comes to an end with Yu Ji managing to distract her king and fating her death alongside him.
The film enacts this play in parallel with its main story line.
Beginning with the re union of the two stars Douzi (Leslie Cheung) now known with the stage name Deiyi and Shitou now known as Xiaolou (Fengyi Zhang), who meet after a separation of many years owing to a series of Chinese political and cultural turmoil, the film structure shifts to rewind back to their early years where the harsh and unyielding training that they went through in the opera school is shown to pilot them as best friends and the school’s leading artists.
The two emerge to enact permanent roles of the famous duet Farewell my Concubine with Xiaolou as the king and Deiyi playing the Concubine. Xiaolou comes across as a forthright, unreserved and uncomplicated man whose role begins and ends within his kingly mask. Deiyi’s character is complex, intricate and sensitive. Conditioned by the training school to live as a girl since his childhood in order to play female roles, his life turns out to be a conflict of emotions and identity. Deiyi loses his sexual and emotional distinctions, merging his Concubine love with real love for Xiaolou.
Xiaolou in the meanwhile lives normally finding a wife in Juxian (Gong Li) an elegant courtesan, leading to instigate Deiyi with atypical feminine feelings of jealousy and belonging, making him despondent and hostile although he is patronized by Yuan Shiqing an imminent man in the cultural scene who shares a similar romantic liking for Deiyi.
The film then goes further with a change in time and situation, throwing light on the Cultural Revolution and Communist movement in China, when art and theater were severely criticized and dismissed. Xiaolou and Deiyi both become victims of slander and are taken to task by the masses.
Here Deiyi who once betrayed the country by singing for the Japanese, and Juxian who was a prostitute, are seen as a disgrace by the masses who force Xiaolou to reject them in order to have his life spared.
Everything appears to have come to a standstill from hereon, when the film gets back to where it started from- with Xiaolou and Deiyi re uniting in Hong Kong for a performance after eleven years, when the cultural scene has regained its calm and fame.
This scene to me is one of the most moving scenes in the film, capturing the essence of the film in its whole. It is an extraordinary scene showing the duo practice for their oncoming performance. Deiyi begins to play his part as Concubine, ruefully begging her king for his sword while the king continues to refuse until that harrowing moment when Deiyi as Concubine distracts the king only to pull out the king's sword and kill himself for real, thus putting an end to his dual life as Concubine and man, and giving the film's title its meaning in entirety.
Xiaolou’s shaking screech for Deiyi is where the film comes to an end, leaving you haunted. Where the masterful performances, resplendent sets, colorful costumes, an educating history and a foray of emotions, all come to conclusion.
But this is a film that concludes only after it has left its mark within you and in the history of brilliant film making. The film won the award for Best Foreign Film in the Golden Globe Awards, The BAFTA (British Academy Award), the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, 1993 and a roster of other prestigious awards.
And here’s yet another ten on ten from me to Leslie Cheung for being such a breath taking Concubine!