XL Popcorn – Farewell My Concubine

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 423/1007farewellmyconcubineTitle: Farewell My Concubine
Director: Chen Kaige
Year: 1993
Country: China

I swear that whenever I see Gong Li in a film her character ends up losing everything. It was true in Raise The Red Lantern, it was true in The Curse of the Golden Flower and it is definitely true of this film where she is the main supporting character.

Farewell My Concubine marks the second film that I have seen the uses Peking Opera as the setting, the other being Mei Lanfang which was by the same director. Where the previous film I saw was based on an actual person Farewell My Concubine is very much fictional with their characters experiencing some of the most turbulent events in 20th century Chinese history.

As such, the treatment that the two main characters receive (two opera stars we see go from from training as young boys to the Cultural Revolution stripping them of the fame they worked so for) is brutal. There are whippings, beatings, drug addictions, a rape, false imprisonments and, on one scene, the removal of a finger using what looked like a meat cleaver.

Yet, this film is beautiful with cinematography, costumes and make-up which make you sit up and take notice. So too does the tragic central character of Douzi (brilliantly played by Leslie Cheung), the first time I have seen an LGBT character properly depicted in Chinese cinema (to be fair, I have yet to see Happy Together and have need to rectify that). His unrequited  love towards ‘stage brother’ Shitou is nothing short of heart breaking.

In many ways this should be a hard watch, as would any film where you see a live tortoise having its neck slashed, but it was one of those films where three hours flashed in an instant. Truly, 20 minute episodes of sitcoms passed slower than the first hour. It is one of those films that remind us that despite cultures and music sometimes feeling alien there is not much difference between humanity. Just our histories and our predictions to cut the throat of a live tortoise (don’t think I’ll get over that in a hurry).

The many parallels that this draws between the play within the film is very Hamlet-like, to the point where the conclusion of the film is forgone due to all the foreshadowing. There is a feeling that Douzi becomes so lost in the character of the concubine he no longer has an identity of his own, something he surrendered when he finally got the line “I am by nature a girl… not a boy” correct.

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