Farewell My Concubine (film)
Farewell My Concubine is a 1993 Chinese historical drama film directed by Chen Kaige, starring Leslie Cheung, Gong Li, and Zhang Fengyi. An adaptation of the novel by Lilian Lee, the film is set in a politically tumultuous China during the 20th century, from the early days of the Republic of China to the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. It chronicles the troubled relationships between two Peking opera actors and lifelong friends Cheng Dieyi (Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang), and Xiaolou's wife Juxian (Gong). The movie is about confusion of identity and blurred lines between real life and the stage, portrayed by the revered opera actor Dieyi, whose unrequited love for Xiaolou persists through the movie. Commentators also noted themes of political and societal disturbances in 20th-century China, which is typical of the Chinese Fifth Generation cinema.
|Farewell My Concubine|
Theatrical release poster
|Mandarin||Bàwáng Bié Jī|
|Literally||The Hegemon-King Bids Farewell to His Concubine|
|Directed by||Chen Kaige|
|Produced by||Hsu Feng|
|Screenplay by||Lilian Lee|
|Based on||Farewell My Concubine|
by Lilian Lee rewritten from Qiuhaitang (秋海棠) by Qin Shouou (zh:秦瘦鷗)
|Music by||Zhao Jiping|
|Edited by||Pei Xiaonan|
Beijing Film Studio
|Distributed by||Miramax Films (US)|
157 minutes (US - Theatrical release only)
|Box office||$5,216,888 (US)|
Farewell My Concubine premiered on January 1, 1993, in Hong Kong. Upon release, the film received generally positive reviews from contemporary critics and won the Palme d'Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, becoming the first Chinese-language film to achieve the honour. It further won accolades including a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and a BAFTA for Best Film Not in the English Language, and received two nominations at the 66th Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film. The film was initially removed from theatres and banned in Mainland China—for less than two months—because of its depiction of homosexuality and suicide. Farewell My Concubine is considered one of the landmark films of the Fifth Generation movement that brought Chinese film directors to world attention.
Douzi, a boy endowed with feminine features, is abandoned by his prostitute mother to an all-boys Peking opera troupe supervised by Master Guan. Shitou, who is to be lifelong friends with Douzi, is more masculine. Douzi is trained to play dan (female roles), while Shitou learns jing (leading male roles). When practising the play "Dreaming of the World Outside the Nunnery", Douzi constantly mistakes the line "I am by nature a girl, not a boy" into "I am by nature a boy," subjecting himself to severe physical punishments. Douzi initially attempts to run away from the brutal training, but decides to pursue the acting path seriously after witnessing a famous opera master.
An agent who provides funding for opera plays comes to the troupe to seek potentials. When Douzi repeats the same mistake in front of the agent, Shitou viciously jams a brass tobacco pipe into Douzi's mouth and commands to start over. Douzi then says the line correctly, "I am by nature a girl, not a boy," to the joy of the troupe, having secured the agent. The troupe is invited to perform for eunuch Zhang, who sexually abuses Douzi. Douzi could not bring himself to talk about it, but Shitou implicitly knows what happened. On their way home, Douzi adopts an abandoned baby, who later comes under Master Guan's training.
Years gone by, Douzi and Shitou become Peking opera stars under stage names Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou, respectively. Their signature performance is the play Farewell My Concubine, where Dieyi plays the concubine Consort Yu and Xiaolou plays the king Xiang Yu. The adult Dieyi has an unrequited love for Xiaolou, but his love is never returned. When Xiaolou marries Juxian, a headstrong courtesan at an upscale brothel, Dieyi and Xiaolou's relationship begins to fall out. The relationship between Dieyi, Xiaolou, and Juxian becomes more complicated, filled with jealousy and betrayals, in the succession of political upheavals from the onset of the Second Sino-Japanese War. When Master Guan dies, the abandoned baby, now Xiao Si, comes under Dieyi's training to continue learning dan roles.
When the communist forces win the civil war, Xiao Si becomes an avid follower of the new government. Dieyi's addiction to opium negatively affects his performances, but he ultimately rehabilitates with the help of Xiaolou and Juxian. Xiao Si nurtures resentment against Dieyi because of his rigorous teachings, and usurps his role in Farewell My Concubine, which everyone but Dieyi has known beforehand. Devastated by betrayal, Dieyi secludes himself and refuses to reconcile with Xiaolou despite his attempt. As the Cultural Revolution comes, the entire opera troupe is put on a struggle session by the Red Guards, where Xiaolou and Dieyi confess each other's wrongdoings in the past. At one part, Dieyi tells the guards that Juxian was a prostitute. To protect them from prosecution, Xiaolou swears that he does not love her and will never see her again. Juxian is heartbroken and commits suicide.
Fast forward to 1977, Dieyi and Xiaolou reunite, seeming to have mended their relationship. They once again practise Farewell My Concubine; Xiaolou begins with the line "I am by nature a boy," to which Dieyi makes the same mistake of finishing with "I am not a girl." The film ends with Dieyi committing suicide using the sword as the fictional heroine does.
- Leslie Cheung as Cheng Dieyi (程蝶衣) / Xiaodouzi (小豆子)
- Yin Zhi as Cheng Dieyi (teenager)
- Ma Mingwei as Cheng Dieyi (child)
- Zhang Fengyi as Duan Xiaolou (段小楼) / Xiaoshitou (小石头)
- Zhao Hailong as Duan Xiaolou (teenager)
- Fei Yang as Duan Xiaolou (child)
- Gong Li as Juxian (菊仙 Júxiān)
- Ge You as Yuan Shiqing (袁世卿 Yuán Shìqīng)
- Lü Qi as Master Guan (Simplified: 关师傅, Traditional: 關師傅, Pinyin: Guān-shīfu)
- Ying Da as Na Kun (那坤 Nā Kūn)
- Yidi as Eunuch Zhang (Simplified: 张公公, Traditional: 張公公, Pinyin: Zhāng-gōnggong)
- Zhi Yitong as Saburo Aoki (青木 三郎, Chinese Pinyin: Qīngmù Sānláng, Japanese: Aoki Saburō)
- Lei Han as Xiaosi
- Li Chun as Xiaosi (teenager)
- Li Dan as Laizi (Simplified: 小癞子, Traditional: 小癩子, Pinyin: Xiǎo Làizǐ)
- Yang Yongchao as Laizi (child)
- Wu Dai-wai as Red Guard (Simplified: 红卫兵, Traditional: 紅衛兵, Pinyin: Hóngwèibīng)
Chen Kaige was first given a copy of Lilian Lee's novel in 1988, and although Chen found the story of the novel to be "compelling", he found the emotional subtext of the novel "a bit thin". After meeting with Lee, they recruited Chinese writer Lu Wei for the screenplay, and in 1991 the first draft of the screenplay came about.
Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung was used in the film to attract audiences because melodramas are not a popular genre. (Cheung's voice is dubbed by Beijing actor Yang Lixin.) Due to Gong Li's international stardom, she was cast as one of the main characters in the film.
Release in China
The film premiered in Shanghai in July 1993 but was removed from theatres after two weeks for further censorial review and subsequently banned in August. The film was objected to for its portrayal of homosexuality, suicide, and violence perpetrated under Mao Zedong's Communist government during the Cultural Revolution. Because the film won the Palme d'Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, the ban was met with international outcry. Feeling there was "no choice" and fearing it hurt China's bid for the 2000 Summer Olympics, officials allowed the film to resume public showings in September. This release featured a censored version; scenes dealing with the Cultural Revolution and homosexuality were cut, and the final scene was revised to "soften the blow of the suicide".
Box office and reception
Miramax edited version
At the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, the film was awarded the highest prize, the Palme d'Or. Miramax Films mogul Harvey Weinstein purchased the distribution rights and removed fourteen minutes, resulting in a 157-minute cut. This is the version seen in U.S. theaters (and also in the U.K.). According to Peter Biskind's book, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film, Louis Malle, who was president of the Cannes jury that year, said: "The film we admired so much in Cannes is not the film seen in this country [the U.S.], which is twenty minutes shorter – but seems longer because it doesn't make any sense. It was better before those guys made cuts."
The uncut 171-minute version has been released by Miramax on DVD.
Roger Ebert awarded the film four stars, praising the plot as "almost unbelievably ambitious" and executed with "freedom and energy". The New York Times critic Vincent Canby hailed it for "action, history, exotic color", positively reviewing the acting of Gong Li, Leslie Cheung and Zhang Fengyi. In New York, David Denby criticized the "spectacle" but felt it would be worthy of excelling in international cinema, portraying a triumph of love and culture despite dark moments. Hal Hinson, writing for The Washington Post, highlighted "its swooning infatuation with the theater- with its colors, its vitality and even its cruel rigors". Desson Howe was less positive, writing the first half had impact but gives way to "novel-like meandering", with less point.
The film was included in The New York Times' list of The Best 1000 Movies Ever Made in 2004 and Time's list of Best Movies of All Time in 2005. It was ranked No. 97 in Empire magazine's "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010, and No. 1 in Time Out's "100 Best Mainland Chinese Films" feature in 2014. The film has an 88% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 34 reviews. The BBC placed the film at number 12 on its 2018 list of the 100 greatest foreign language films. It ranked at number 55 on the Hong Kong Film Awards Association (HKFAA)'s list of the Best 100 Chinese-Language Motion Pictures in 2005. Regarding public reception, Farewell My Concubine topped a 2005 poll of the most beloved films in Hong Kong conducted by Handerson ArtReach.
At Cannes, it tied for the Palme d'Or with Jane Campion's The Piano from New Zealand. Farewell My Concubine remains to date the only Chinese-language film to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
- Shared with The Piano
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