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.

It was Spanish Professor who sparked my yearning to see this film again. It begins with that lamp — one of those old motion lamps from the 1950s that use a rotating screen inside to simulate waterfalls flowing. It’s like the sirens’ song of myth, this lamp: it shows a view of Argentina’s famous Iguazú Falls, and I can assure you that you’ll be called by it as well:

Like the sirens, the lamp calls Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) fatefully from Hong Kong in search of the falls, and further onto the rocks of relationship misery. Don’t see this film because you want to see romance: Po and Fai are most certainly not happy together, at least not most of the time — but you’ll recognize on a gut level the dynamics of their passions for one another. Po is the flakiest of all boyfriends, with a disastrous penchant for picking up men in public restrooms; their home life in that sad little apartment can be miserable. But oh! Director Wong has the most beautiful eye, and the most vivid use of color — which you’ll remember, perhaps, from his In the Mood for Love (2000, which you should see if you want romance). Just look at how Wong puts vivid color and Fai’s emotion at the front of a scene, with all manner of light and wallpaper and tilework illuminating the backdrop:

Or the way an enormous blue sky can illuminate their growing disappointments with one another:

Or the way a glance through a brilliantly-painted bar’s window allows us to see the self-destructive Po doing more of what he’s good at:
And, most heartbreakingly of all, Fai sitting with a tape recorder, trying to record something that his new friend Chang (Chen Chang) promises will release him from his sadness:
Wong, come back! It’s been four years since you directed My Blueberry Nights, and watching Happy Together again has evoked such a longing in me for your images saturated with color, the way those interiors and lampshades and wallpapers evoke such passion and visions of tragic love. As a master of set design and color cinematography, Wong is unmatched. And I would suggest that my claim that Happy Together is the most beautiful film ever can be challenged, the only contender is In the Mood for Love — and that’s due to those amazing cheongsams that Maggie Cheung dons in every scene — seemingly a different dress each time:
Gorgeous. Wong Kar-Wai: come back to us.