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 Spies, just 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.
11 September 2011
Place: a small village, where a small circus is performing its feats for the village beach festival with fire-breathers, stilt-walkers, and acrobats. Story opening: a foolish scholar named Wong Hok Chow and his servant arrive to get a glimpse of the famous martial arts master Yim Wing Chun (Michelle Yeoh), whose skills protect her greedy aunt’s tofu making business. The scholar wants to hire Wing Chun to protect his fortune against bandits, but when he gets a glimpse of her — “She dresses like a man, but she is still impressive!” — he has a better idea: if he marries her, she’ll protect him for free. He rubs his chin comically. Oh, he has so much to learn.
Because this is Saturday Popcorn Theater, and because Yuen Woo-ping’s Wing Chun is a comedic martial arts film so classic that the frames almost seem sped-up like old silent film, the bandits arrive immediately. Within five minutes Wing Chun has beaten them off by using Wong’s body like a puppet in what you first might think is the best martial arts sequence ever. But there’s more!
“Master, women who fight are no good even if they are beautiful,” Wong’s servant warns him. Ultimately this film asks no more serious questions than, will Wing Chun take this absurd scholar seriously as a suitor? Can a kick-ass martial arts woman find a man worthy of her? Will that worthy man be attracted to a woman who can kick his ass, or will he fall for the beautiful girly-girl? And, of course: will the bandits get it in the end? But the real question is, is Wing Chun so good that she can protect her cake of tofu while kicking a man’s ass?
To be serious for only a moment, Wing Chun is also the name of a Chinese style of martial arts that springs from a 19th-century legend about a young woman who refuses to marry a local warlord. He insists that the only way she can escape marriage is to beat him in a martial arts faceoff. Distressed, Wing Chun begs a local nun to teach her to fight. Curiously, the nun had observed a confrontation between a snake and a crane that led her to theorize about a new method of hand-to-hand combat. She teaches Wing Chun, who triumphs over the warlord using this new style.
And to stop being serious, I beg you: waste no time on history or the important questions posed by this film. Instead, sit down and watch this 95-minute feminist masterpiece and find out how it ends for yourself. Sadly, it’s been removed from YouTube but you might trawl the internet for new versions appearing regularly. Here’s the great tofu scene: