Farewell My Concubine
Opens Friday, October 29, at the Starlight
A cinematic feast is an easy way to describe Chen Kaige's new masterpiece, Farewell My Concubine. Rich, melodic, luxuriant, and intelligent, Concubine is an intimate and passionate essay on the cultural changes affecting China between 1925 and 1977.
By blending together historical references and artistic sensibilities with a complex love story, Kaige not only presents the audience with a descriptive picture of his country's turmoils, he also dramatizes a society where traditions are still being challenged.
Concubine depicts a time of upheaval, when warlords controlled Beijing. While the country is in a state of unrest, life remains constant in the elitist world of the Peking Opera academy. Here, two boys, orphaned or abandoned, are beaten into submission for their parts: Douzi (named Cheng as an adult) is to play female roles; Shitou (renamed Duan upon adulthood), the heroic masculine ones. As they grow older, they become superstars because of their perfect interpretations of the ancient opera Farewell, My Concubine, the story of a faithful concubine who dies for her king.
Although Cheng carries his role offstage, professing, helplessly, his love for his partner, Duan is street-cool and cocky, shunning the artistic complications of his art. In fact, Duan marries a former prostitute (Gong Li) who lures him further away from the opera. What ensues are bitter and deadly betrayals, the consequences of which are felt by them for half a century.
These tumultuous relationships are set against a backdrop of political and social upheavals that cut through even the barriers of privilege and fame. Kaige doesn't tiptoe around the events outside the opera's walls; he bursts open the doors to let that world in.
A member of China's "Fifth Generation"–filmmakers who have changed the face of Chinese cinema in the past 20 years–(others include Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang, and Wu Ziniu), Kaige (Yellow Earth, Life on a String) has here successfully woven present preoccupations with past sins. And he's done so with such style and beauty that "epic" is the only fitting word to describe the movie.