It is a show-business soap, a tragic tale of two Peking Opera stars and the woman who comes between them. Trampling one official taboo after another, the drama turns on episodes of child abuse, homosexuality, prostitution, treason and suicide. But Farewell My Concubine is also a sweeping historical epic, a long march through half a century of tumultuous change. And it portrays political trauma with a vividness and candor unprecedented in Chinese cinema. The movie made a powerful impression at the Cannes Film Festival last May, where it shared the grand prize with The Piano. But it also made an impression with Chinese authorities, who first censored it, then banned it—and finally let a re-edited version be released for domestic consumption.
Even to North American eyes, Farewell
My Concubine has shock value. The story of a lifelong bond between two male opera stars, Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi), it begins in the 1920s with their gruelling apprenticeship at an acting
school that resembles a medieval orphanage: torture is a learning tool. Abandoned by his prostitute mother, Dieyi is a timid newcomer. Xiaolou becomes his protector, and they grow up to be partners. The delicate Dieyi plays the female parts, while the athletic Xiaolou plays the kings.
Their platonic relationship unfolds against a shifting panorama of upheaval—from the war against the Japanese to the Cultural Revolution. Political intolerance threatens their art at every turn. But it is a woman who does the
real damage, a prostitute whose engagement to Xiaolou shatters Dieyi. The two men are the Lennon and McCartney of the Peking Opera, and she steps in like Yoko Ono.
Despite a fine performance from Gong Li, who plays the prostitute-bride, her character seems unduly vilified. And, as the melodrama forges stoically through the decades, its lack of humor or irony seems forbidding. But Cheung is superb as the story’s sexually ambiguous hero. And writer-director Chen Kaige has created a drama of undeniable power. A daring affront
to the Chinese status quo, Farewell My Concubine is not just a story about the struggle for artistic freedom but a triumph of it.
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