In this basketball court, a couple of people enter in full Chinese opera costume and stand at the doorway looking confused. The place is empty, but they seem to be here for a performance, and a disembodied voice from the darkness asks them what they are doing, whereupon they explain in faltering manner that they are here to put on a show, and the voice realises who they are, at one time the biggest stars of their art in the nation, Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi). So the lights go down and the spotlight hits them as they walk towards the centre of the court, but before they begin, we must go back in time, over fifty years to when these two first met as children...
Farewell My Concubine was very significant in Chinese cinema, for thanks to political differences Hong Kong movies, mostly martial arts, had found an audience in the West, but works from the People’s Republic had not found favour thanks to a belief that if the Chinese were culturally given an inch they would take a mile into influencing those on the other side of the globe. Not even when President Richard Nixon met with Chairman Mao in the nineteen-seventies was there much of an artistic meeting of minds, but with this film some twenty years later many abroad saw and appreciated what was often called by those who caught it one of the most beautiful films they had ever seen.
It certainly starred two of the most beautiful Asian actors, as Leslie Cheung took the Concubine role and Gong Li his rival in love, Miss Juxian, as they vied for the affections of Xiaolou who had great fondness for Dieyi, having spent most of his life with him on and offstage after all, but was actually in love with his wife Juxian, an ex-prostitute he saved from being murdered in his favourite brothel. Director Chen Kaige, adapting a bestselling novel by Lillian Lee (who also had a hand in the screenplay), gave us ample time to muse over who was the better partner for Xiaolou for this lasted almost three hours, and you may have come to the conclusion that he wasn’t worthy of either of them given the events of the last half hour.
But before we reached that, there was plenty to pack in as the three leads played out their give and take before the backdrop of major events in Chinese history. This was a co-production between Hong Kong and China, also significant, as it showed not only the terrible effects of the Japanese invasion but also the equally harsh effects of the Cultural Revolution which turned friends and families against one another in an attempt to prove they were more loyal to the Communists than anyone else, often on pain of death. What gave these later scenes their resonance was that we had spent time with the two men since they were children, and suffering the strict discipline of the opera training that looked suspiciously like violent child abuse, yet since they have no choice in the matter they abide by the tenets of the art for the rest of their lives.
Early on, actors and prostitutes are mentioned in the same breath as the most despised citizens in the country, but it is more complex than that: they may be looked down upon for their status in society, yet they remain coveted by a large swathe of that society for their talent, be that with performing on the stage or in the bedroom. Chinese opera can look and sound very alien to Westerners with its atonal singing and elaborate costumes, but even to the outsider seeing this film had you appreciating the exacting skill that went into each performance. Talking of which, the three main stars offered their career best readings, and the roles they would likely be remembered for in decades to come; Zhang did not go on to lasting fame much outside of China, but Li remains the most internationally famous actress from that region of her time, appearing in a selection of productions worldwide as a result.
Cheung commands a strong following as he ended his life ten years after making this; a bisexual, his casting here was significant in that Dieyi was forced into the homosexual mindset very young and embraced it, but he remained an intensely sympathetic gay character no matter how petulant and wounded he became. He could have been a victim from first minute to last, with his prostitute mother chopping off his extra finger then abandoning him to the opera and the symbolic though no less harrowing rape he endures as a teenager which seals his fate, as it were, but his inner core of strength thanks to his faith in the opera, which may even be misguided but is all the self-expression he can rely upon, rendered him admirable and sad at simultaneously. Yet Juxian was shown pity as well: she has to be a fighter too, always reminded of her roots and finally betrayed because of them. Li's chilling expression at the kangaroo court near the end will live on with painful poignancy in the hearts of film buffs. It was a fascinating, rich and noble film that held the attention for its entire, involved and engrossing length. Music by Zhao Jiping.
[The BFI's Blu-ray looks and sounds splendid, soft in some scenes but that was intentional and it is the original version. It has a twenty minute featurette as an extra, talking head and clips stuff, but it's the film you'll want to see.]