Chen Kaige, 1993
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, Gong Li
“I am by nature a girl, not a boy.”
A decade ago today, actor, pop star, songwriter, director, and music producer Leslie Cheung committed suicide. Born September 12, 1956, Cheung was just 46 when he took his own life by jumping from the top of a famous Hong Kong hotel after suffering from depression for a number of years. Fans around the world, particularly in China, were devastated. Though less popular in the United States, Cheung became known for a number of creative pursuits, in particular for helping to found Cantopop (exactly what it sounds like - Cantonese pop music). He is remember by the film community for a number of breathtaking performances, particularly starring roles in Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time, Days of Being Wild, and Happy Together. He also starred in such beloved films as John Wu’s A Better Tomorrow alongside Chow Yun-fat, Rouge, A Chinese Ghost Story, Temptress Moon, The Bride with White Hair, The Phantom Lovers, and many more.
The film to really propel Cheung to stardom (and Chinese cinema to international acclaim) was Farewell My Concubine, where he co-starred as Chinese opera performer Dieyi Cheng, a beautiful young man groomed to play female roles in the opera, namely the titular concubine. This is certainly one of Cheung's titular roles and his life’s and Dieyi’s character have some odd similarities. Both men had difficult childhoods, were exposed to huge amounts of fame, had alternative sexual identities, and committed suicide. Cheung, who eventually came out as bisexual and openly discussed his partner of many years, Tong Hok-Tak, whom he and his family referred to as his husband, became known for playing gay characters. Dieyi was his first. This may not seem important to U.S. audiences, but it was a daring move in Chinese cinema. The Chinese Communist government both banned and censored Farewell My Concubine several times, partly because one of the two central characters was in love with another man.
Directed by Chen Kaige, one of the most important directors of fifth generation Chinese cinema, Farewell My Concubine put Chinese film on the international register and remains the only Chinese language film to have won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, in addition to numerous awards at other major festivals around the world. Written by Lilian Lee as an adaptation of her novel, Farewell My Concubine spans fifty years of Chinese history and centers on Dieyi and Xiaolou, two stars of the Chinese opera.
The film begins when the boys are children undergoing the rigorous, often torturous Peking opera training. (Unlike Western opera, Chinese opera performers are solely male.) After a number of trials and tribulations, they take stage names and become stars. Dieyi is forced into female roles because of his slight build and pretty face, and Xiaolou is groomed to play the king or warrior roles. They remain very close until a prostitute comes between them and Xiaolou marries her; they are also divided by a number of troubling historical events, though the opera itself remains unchanged. The film, which is epic in scope, covers 50 years of their history together and charts the rise and fall of their fortunes. It begins with their childhood during the early Republic of China and moves through the Japanese invasion in the ‘30s and to the Communist take over in 1949.
I am a huge sucker for this type of sprawling historical melodrama, but Farewell My Concubine is surely one of the best examples of this genre. Between the rich and constantly evolving historical background, the colorful backdrop of the Peking opera, and the complex, emotional three-way relationship, the film does not feel overly long despite its lengthy, 171-minute running time. Dieyi’s struggle for identity is heart breaking and mirrors the dramatic changes made in China during his lifetime. Dieyi’s sexuality is particularly troubling, because though he is clearly in love with Xiaolou, he was forced, from an early age, to adapt feminine traits and later, to have sex with patrons. It is implied that this was nonconsensual. The parallels between Dieyi and Douzi’s wife, the former prostitute Juxian, further complicate things, as the two have a similarly trajectory throughout the plot. The plot also mirrors the opera that both the novel and film are based on, Farewell My Concubine or The Hegemon-King bids his concubine farewell, scenes of which are reproduced throughout the film.
Despite the incredibly ambitious plot and very long running time, this film comes highly recommended. It introduced me to Hong Kong cinema and to Leslie Cheung, a beautiful, talented actor who deserves to be remembered and celebrated. In addition to his wonderful performance as the desperate, selfish, and unlikable Dieyi, the beautiful Gong Li nearly steals the film as the prostitute Juxian, and the talented Zhang Fengyi rounds out their threesome. There is a Miramax DVD, but hopefully one day a fancy special edition will be released.