Saturday popcorn theater: “Farewell My Concubine” (1993)

25 July 2012

You know how it is. It’s one of those days when the temperature goes so far up that by mid-afternoon you’re sagging. Clearly what you need is the sofa, a cool glass of iced tea with your popcorn, and a brilliant Chinese melodrama about tragic love.

By the way, if you see posters for the film you might be fooled into thinking beautiful Chinese film star Gong Li is the star of this film. She’s not. This is a film about love between two men.

Normally when I settle in for one of those sinful Saturday afternoon popcorn flicks, it’s something cheesy and action-packed — Michelle Yeoh’s magnificently silly Wing Chun or Jean Dujardin perfecting that cross between James Bond and Austin Powers in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spiesjust to name a couple of them.

In contrast, the tragic beauty and long durée of Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine might be termed the filmic equivalent of reading a 19th-century novel, except you can get through it in an afternoon.

The story is beautiful and horrible — the tale of two boys, effectively orphaned and installed at a school that prepares them to perform in the Beijing Opera, where they’re tormented by the school’s sadistic masters. As they mature into true opera stars, they face the changing tides of Chinese politics and history. Yet somehow the filmmaker’s gentle, persistent humanitarianism never makes you turn away, never indulges in the pornography of pain.

It’s not merely a film about their friendship. It’s a film about these men’s love for one another, a bond between them that is so overwhelming it must be experienced to be understood.

And oh, Leslie Cheung as Dieyi. As a small boy he trained to perform the Opera’s Dan (female) roles — a fateful casting that alters his life and self-identification forever. It’s not just that Cheung is in reality so beautiful, nor that he mastered the exquisite feminine movements of his roles so completely. The truly magnificent aspect of his acting comes from his ability to wear his life history on his face; all those years of loneliness and suffering and learning how to be a woman onstage have left him permanently changed. It is unfathomable (but true) that he did not receive a single acting prize nomination for this role, even as the film won Cannes’ Palme D’Or and some 11 other best film prizes.

Farewell My Concubine was released nearly 20 years ago, yet its subtle views of sexuality, transgressive gender roles, and male love all feel fresh today. It’s so much like the Beijing Opera (and other forms of opera) — histrionic, overwrought, colorful, and yet delicate.

Really. On a hot day you indulge in watching it and wonder how you could have stomached a cheesy popcorn vehicle like Devil Girl From Mars.

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2 Responses to “Saturday popcorn theater: “Farewell My Concubine” (1993)”

  1. Aldine Says:

    20 years. Wow. I remember this film like it was yesterday. and your review is spot on, as ever.

    • Didion Says:

      I can’t believe I haven’t seen it till now! I was just riveted for every single lush, perfectly made-up minute. And then spent far too much time reading about Cheung’s tragic, early death.


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