Hong Kong ,  1993
Directed by Chen Kaige.
A fabulous, sweeping drama about two men in the Peking Opera, one a Hua Dan, the other a Jing, and the annoying prostitute that keeps on screwing up their lives.
Farewell My Concubine is the story of two actors of the Peking Opera, told with the sweeping historical backdrop of China in the 20th Century. We see them through nearly the entire span of their lives. We see their greatest triumphs and their greatest failures, while China herself alternates between rejecting them and embracing them, until at last, their story is complete. Very few films have the ability not simply to touch the heart but pierce the soul. This is one of those films. The plot is driven inexhorably forward not only by fate and the tides of change but by the breathtaking, career topping performance of Leslie Cheung, as Cheng Dieyi. Cheung gives himself over completely to his character, just as his character gives himself over to his lifelong role, of Concubine Yu.
When little Cheng's mother first delivers him to the opera school, he is just a small, beautiful child. It is 1924. Cheng, then called Douzi, is not accepted by the school master because he has a deformity in his hand, a sixth finger. His mother is a simple prostitute and cannot afford and does not desire to raise the child herself, and in desperation, chops young Douzi's extra finger off, at which point the master accepts him into the school. Even as a child, then, he is not quite of this world, different from the others. He is able to make friends at the school, though, with the young boys Laizi and Shitou. Shitou would grow up as his closest companion, would become the King to his Concubine. Laizi's fate is altogether different.
The school is absolutely brutal. The master inflicts severe punishment indiscriminately, brooking not even the slightest mis-step or mistake. When Laizi gets a song wrong, he his hit for his error. When Shitou gets a song correct, he is hit so that he will remember correctly again the next time. It is an altogether different world from the opera school depicted in Painted Faces, a world of fear, repression, and pain. It is here, under the masters strict punishments, that Douzi learns to perform as a Dan, a female impersonator on the Peking Opera. But not just to impersonate a woman -- to become one, in thought, in expression, in song. He practices the challenging monologue "Dreaming of the World Outside the Nunnery," until he learns to say, "I am by nature a girl, not a boy," instead of the other way around.
The monologue is a popular one in the repetoire of the Peking Opera, and there are many versions. Probably it comes from an old Chinese story, "The Record of an Evil Sea," the Evil Sea being a Buddhist term for a life of sorrow. The heroine of the story was committed to a monastery by hearless parents, and took the religious name Se K'ung -- All is Void. It is not difficult to see an analogy here to young Douzi himself.
To be a nun with tresses shorn, how pitiful is my plight, The altar lamp my sole companion burning through the night! The days and months speed swiftly by, too soon I shall be old, My beauty gone, the glow of youth, shrivelled, pale and cold.
A convent is incompatible with a nuptial chamber;
Nor are these altar-candles befitted for bridal use.
I am a pretty maiden, not a boy.
Why should I wear these monastic robes and suffer my waist to be bound with a silken sash?
Where can another be found as sad and forlorn as I?
The troupe gives a performance and young Douzi meets the first patron of the arts that he must appease. An old eunuch, who once served under the Emperess Dowager. Douzi is taken to the eunuchs room after the performance, with all the adults knowing what was to transpire in his private chambers. The young boy spies a beautiful sword, which he would like to give to Shitou. He does not think about it long before the eunuch advances on him. On his way back to the school, broken and ruined, he comes across a baby, lying abandoned in the street. His master pleads that "each of us has our fate," but young Douzi does not listen, and takes him into the school.
Later, Douzi and Shitou become famous Peking Opera stars. It is 1937, and they have renamed themselves Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi). Although they have aged, and gained in fame, still the story is the same; there is a rich patron that must be appeased, there is a play that must be performed. The opera that they are famous for also becomes the opera of Cheng Dieyi's life: Farewell My Concubine.
The opera, also sometimes called The King's Parting with his Favorite, calls for two major roles. First there is the King of Chu, a jing (painted face) role, which is played by Shitou. The second is Concubine Yu Ji, a Hua Dan role, played by Douzi. The opera is based on a story about the last moments of Xiang Yu, the King of Chu, who was defeated by Liu Bang, the King of Han, around 202 B.C. The opera begins with Concubine Yu, singing about her spouses campaign, and that she has followed him throughout.
I think and wonder, since first I traveled to theatres of war, how many years have run, how many times the frost of winter has fallen, the planets have spun! Ah, when, if ever, will my prayers be answered? When shall I see home again? And when will the vapours of war melt away into tranquil moonlight and radiant sun?Enter Xiang Yu, who has been ambushed by the enemy and forced to retreat. Yu Ji consoles him, and they drink wine together to forget their troubles. He falls asleep, and she wanders the camp, ruminating:
What did they fight for, all those past heroes of mighty mettle, when all they won was their bones lying chill on the field of battle?On her walk, Concubine Yu overhears that the Kings soldiers are set to desert him. The surrounding countryside is already taken by the Han. The king wakes, and upon hearing the news, realizes his final battle must be upon him. His horse, neighing loudly and nearby, senses the end as well. Soon more bad news: they are surrounded on all sides by the enemy, who is attacking. There may still be a chance for the King to fight his way through. But he is beset by worries about his favorite Concubine. How will she survive? He suggests she ride with him, but this is absurd. He suggests that she go over to the other side, thus saving herself, but this she refuses. She cannot bear to be such a burden on him, and instead insists:
It is my prayer that I may have that sword at your waist, Great King, and cut my throat with it here in your presence, so that you will not be hampered by any more anxious longings for me.The King of Chu refuses this request outright, but then, she distracts him, and while his attention is diverted, takes the sword, and with a quick cut, ends her own life.
The tragic opera has a long history, having derived from an older play with many more characters and scenes, called The Story of the Precious One. Mei Lanfang, one of the most famous Dan actors of the opera stage, re-wrote the play, restaged it, and made it an instant classic. Of Mei Lanfang's performance in the opera, one critic wrote, "In his sword dance from '', it is my considered opinion that he has reached one of the supreme possibilities."
Shitou, now Duan Xiaolou, finds himself enjoying the good life that stardom in the opera allows. Cheng Dieyi loves him as strongly as ever, and wishes aloud that they would stay together forever. But Xiaolou is quite the ladies man, and falls for a beautiful courtesan named Juxian (Gong Li), who eventually gets him to agree on a marriage between them. Dieyi is unmoved by her, insults her, calls her a 'dragon lady.' Everyone feels he is simply jealous, though the truth of the matter is he understood implicitly what her game was. She wanted out of the whorehouse, into a regular life, with someone who could support her. Xiaolou became that person, and Dieyi became a sort of concubine in real life, as with his character in the play. As Xiaolou says to him, one day: "I'm just a fake king. You really are Concubine Yu."
When the Japanese invade, and occupy portions of China, they imprison Xiaolou and force Dieyi to perform for them. This he does, willingly. He is above all nationalistic and patriotic emotions. His first and foremost goal is performing the opera. And having a receptive audience.
Many performers felt this way during the Japanese occupation. Especially in Shanghai, where the occupation was for the longest duration. Shanghai was the seat of China's burgeoning film industry. Those that chose to make films for the Japanese, however, were blacklisted afterwards, their careers destroyed. All manner of performers would suffer the same fate. To avoid performing for the Japanese, the famous Mei Lanfang grew a mustache, and devoted his time to writing. Before the war, however, Lanfang did perform for the Japanese, in Japan (in 1919). One of his many admirers in that trip was the dramatist Seiji Aoki, who continued to study and promote Peking Opera until his death at the end of WWII. A nice historic touch in Farewell My Concubine has Cheng Dieyi give his performance to the Japanese, who were very appreciative. He even mentions Aoki as being particularly knowledgeable and interested.
By the time the Communists rise to power, in 1949, Dieyi has performed for the Nationalists, the Japanese, the remains of the Qing dynasty. Now he is asked for his opinion on the new, communist era plays. He finds them shallow and unconvincing, which they almost certainly are. These are the Eight Model Plays, which dropped the painted faces entirely, used modern street dress, and told tales, predictably, of the workers rising up to claim their birthright against the old regime. He is shouted down, but history will prove him right.
But Farewell My Concubine is not about politics, nor history, nor even theater. It is a story about two men: one who worked as a Peking Opera actor, the other who lived the opera. Their lives are intertwined, the bonds they built in childhood cannot be severed, no matter how much Miss Juxian tries to do so. Xiaolou tries to go with the flow, to not make waves. Dieyi stays true to his art, no matter what. The ending is predetermined from the moment young Douzi is able to say the line,
I am by nature a girl, not a boy.
The story rests on the strength of its three principal actors: Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, and Gong Li. They are all superb. Leslie Cheung plays a tragic character, but does not allow us to pity him, nor to love him. Zhang Fengyi, as Xiaolou, is perfect as a kind man who perseveres and does what he must to survive. Gong Li is the most difficult character to sympathize with. She attempts to tear apart Xiaolou and Dieyi, but we can feel for her eventually anyway, when we realize she is doing it to protect her husband, not just herself.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the child actors in this story as well, the actors who played young Shitou, Douzi, and Laizi. They were wonderful. If actors this good played the young opera kids in Painted Faces, then that movie could have been so much better. As it stands, though, for a raw, honest look at Peking Opera schools, look nowhere further than here.
Farewell My Concubine is an achievement. It lingers in the mind, long after the last credits have run, and all that remains is the memories of Concubine Yu, and her last dance:
Drink, my sovereign lord, I pray, drink and listen to my lay,
I shall melt your cares away by dancing light and whirling gay.
Wicked Qin, the house of Ying, conquered all the land, he held the world in sway,
till mighty heroes bold, on every hand, rose to fight in fierce array.
They always said, and always say: 'Abuse me not, nor treat me ill today,
for failure and success are not to stay, but come in a moment and pass away.'
So come, relax, give pleasure play, sit in your tent, all care with wine allay.
(The King of Chu laughs, bitterly...)
Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 30, 2004.