Farewell My Concubine
AKA: Farewell to My Concubine
Year of release: 1993
Director: Chen Kaige
Producers: Chui Git, Chui Ban
Writers: Lillian Lee, Lu Wei
Cinematography: Gu Chang-Wei, Zhao Fa-Quan
Editor: Poon Siu-Naam
Music: Zhao Ji-Ping
Stars: Leslie Cheung, Gong Li, Zhang Feng-Yi, Jiang Wenli, Ge You
Rated II for violence, language, and sexuality
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The first Chinese winner of the Cannes Film Festival's prestigious Palme d'Or award, Farewell My Concubine is likely one of the most depressing movies ever created. The dour tone of the film settles around the viewer like a dark blanket from the get-go, and the feeling doesn't leave until the movie ends almost three hours later. But if one is up to the task, watching Farewell My Concubine can end up being very thought-provoking and rewarding, in no short part due to Leslie Cheung's mesmerizing performance.
Based on a novel by Lillian Lee, Farewell My Concubine stars Cheung as Cheng Dieyi, who, along with his partner Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Feng-Yi), are the most popular Peking Opera stars in 1930's China. Since their school days, Cheng has had romantic feelings for Duan, but has been unable to act on them. Cheng's loneliness and feelings of despair only worsen as Duan marries a former prostitute, Guk Sin (Gong Li), which leads to the team breaking up. But as the events of World War II worsen, Cheng and Duan try and work together once again to attempt to instill pride in the Chinese populace.
Long-time fans of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema are probably already aware of the brutal nature of Peking Opera training, and Farewell My Concubine doesn't pull any punches in its' portrayal of the exercises which, in present-day culture, could very well be considered child abuse. Those viewers who are more sensitive will surely have a hard time getting through the beginning act, particularly during a scene where one of the young students commits suicide.
Things don't really improve as the boys turn into men. Though the overt violence is toned down, the heartbreak Leslie Cheung pointedly and convincingly portrays insure that the small glimmers of hope one gets from the movie's few light scenes are just that. By the time the final act ends, and we see how the characters survived (or didn't) during the time of the Cultural Revolution, the viewer can be forgiven if they end up feeling like they just got hit with the cinematic equivalent of a uppercut from a heavyweight boxer.
Despite the endlessly dark tone and depressing mood presented by Farewell My Concubine, it is still very much a film that's worth watching. The frank depictions of sexuality and government oppression are something rarely seen in Chinese productions. Combined with stunning editing and cinematography, and a near-flawless performance from Leslie Cheung, this is one arthouse movie that definitely has earned its' many accolades.