December 16, 2011

Queer Review: Farewell My Concubine (1993)

Farewell My Concubine
Director: Kaige Chen
Writers: Bik-Wa Lei, Pik Wah Li, Wei Lu. Based upon the novel by Pik Wah Li.
Cast: Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang, Li Gong, Qi Lü, Da Ying, You Ge, Di Tong, Dan Li, Han Lei, Chun Li, Mingwei Ma, Yang Fei, Zhi Yin, Hailong Zhao

A true epic, Farewell My Concubine tells the story of two opera stars and male lovers, whose rise and fall from fame is set against the backdrop more then 5 decades of Chinese history.

Abandoned by his prostitute mother in 1920 China, Douzi (Mingwei Ma, Zhi Yin, and Leslie Cheung) whose name means "bean" was raised by a theatre troupe. There he meets Shitou (Hailong Zhao, Yang Fei, and Fengyi Zhang) and over the following years the two develope a routine around the opera "Farewell My Concubine" that as adults, brings them fame and fortune. When Shitou marries Juxian (Li Gong), Doutzi becomes jealous, the beginnings of the acting duo's explosive breakup and tragic fall take root.

The Queering
Movies like this are rare but well worth the effort it takes to find them. At nearly three hours in length, Farewell My Concubine may test some viewers constitution but they will also find their patience rewarded. The characters, along with their changing relationships and circumstances, are what drive the plot of Kaige Chen's film forward. There is little in the way of action or comedy to spice things up but watching Farewell My Concubine will probably make most people realize how unnecessary those elements can be.

The acting across the board is fantastic, with the best performance being Leslie Cheung's Douzi. In the opera, Douzi plays the doomed concubine to Shitou's Hegemon-King Xiang Yu, which causes Douzi to develop confused feelings regarding his gender and his off-stage relationship with Shitou only makes this worse.

Watching Farewell My Concubine I could not help noticing that while distinctly Asian (the Farewell My Concubine play which Shitou and Douzi perform and mirrors the plot of the movie is a traditional part of Chinese theatre) there are also clear Western overtones and themes present throughout. The beginning in particular, with it's focus on the cruelty the children in the acting troupe are forced to endure, is very Dickensian. Other elements seem straight from Shakespeare, right down the nitty little detail of having males playing female characters. Not to mention Farewell My Concubine has the grandiose feel of many of Hollywood's greats, such as Citizen Kane or Gone With The Wind.

Unfortunately, I don't have time to analyse where certain themes and motiffs orginated or who might have been borrowing or stealing from whom. What is clear to me, is that while Farewell My Concubine is set in a particular place and within a specific culture, it still manages to touch upon common threads of human experience. One does not have to have lived through Chinese history in order to be able to understand or empathize with the characters, their experiences are intimately depicted, yet still universal. To me, that is precisely the sort of characteristic that makes a great movie.

Say farewell to anyone you know if they try and stop you from seeing this movie.

The Rating


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  1. b/c its a great epic movie with great themes that you could relate to- it makes it a copycat film of a Western movie? Can you tell me how it should be filmed with no Western overtones then? No one is borrowing from anyone. The themes dealt with in this movie are themes common across all cultures, which is exactly why the appeal of Dickens and Shakespeare is universal. What would be an Western or Eastern theme? Love? Betrayal? Pride? Jealously? Aren't those human themes? Why do you need to distinguish what is Western or not? While the director may have been influenced by Western film-making, the themes are universal, and the events portrayed are strictly Chinese. Traditional Chinese Peiking Opera did not allow female performers- female characters are often played by males. Even to this day it is not uncommon for male actors to specialize in female roles. It has nothing to do with Shakespeare, but rather the mentality common throughout a historically male dominated world that a women's place is at home. Its fine to say that the movie reminded you of such and such, but to attribute its "grandiose"ness to "Western Overtones" and copying of "Western" movies is a delusion of Western supremacy and superiority. Your mistake is in dismissing the possibility that non-Westerners can originate ideas of their own. Outdated thinking that reeks of the Manifest Destiny, or other Imperialistic or Colonialistic views.

    1. Okay, I'm not sure where you're coming from here, as I never said anything resembling the position you are argueing against. I never dismissed the notion that non-westerners are incapable of originating their own ideas. And I don't see what my observation that there are Shaekspearian/Dickensian themes present, has to do with Manifest Destiny. I admit, I could have phrased things differently, but I don't see how my position which basically consisted of observations regarding the similarities in thematic content, would turn into the superiority of western culture. This is not a postition I ascribe too. Where did I even imply that? If you could point that our, I will of course apologize, but I don't see the point when I can't see what I did wrong.


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