Written by: Lilian Lee & Lu Wei
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, Gong Li
Art provides one of the greatest mediums to express emotions in a palatable manner for its audience. Pain, anguish, exuberance, melancholy, and a whole slew of thoughts and declarations can be made through an art piece, which may reflect the lives of those participating in it more than they’re willing to admit. This blatantly gets shown in Farewell My Concubine along with highlighting how China’s tumultuous history played a part.
Born with feminine features, Douzi (Leslie Chung) gets heralded for his singing ability and capability to portray female roles in theatrical productions. Along with his childhood friend, Shitou (Zhang Fengyi) they rise with their performances, which gets complicated when Shitou takes on a wife.
Identity becomes a major facet of what Douzi experiences throughout this film. Picking up when both Douzi and Shitou were young kids and joined an opera troupe, the connection they built manifested a strong bond of friendship. They would always defend each other, but Douzi remained the one battling with what he represents with this world. The biggest indicator of this feeling comes when reciting a line from a specific play where he states “I am by nature a girl, not a boy.” He switches up the original reading of “I am by nature a boy, not a girl.” Whether it gets said mistakenly, which he got chastised for or he unknowingly stated his true feelings. Regardless, speaking such a phrase brought grave danger in that era and unfortunately, it has not gotten better.
This mental anguish pushes the narrative forward as Douzi has this undeniable skill in portraying feminine characters but battles with trying to establish what he truly wants in the world. The connections he has to both Shitou and mentor, Master Guan (Lü Qi), who initially showed belief in Douzi when he was really young and without a place to go forms the person we see as an adult. Through this rise, Douzi experiences some incredible highs and the luxuries that come with being a performer but continues to live in an era where he cannot be himself completely. All the talent in the world but what’s it all worth when the societal restrictions stop someone from expressing themselves fully? Farewell My Concubine has an answer and as you can probably guess, it’s not a happy one.
Epic in length, this film has plenty of story to get through as it starts with a young Douzi and delves well into adulthood to show how this person had to navigate tumultuous times in order to survive and thrive. Running at a robust 171 minutes, the film has plenty to fill it with but struggles with its pacing. Not all acts were created equal here where some scenes dragged far longer than necessary at times. In those slower moments, it felt like quite a trek to overcome in order to reach the more impactful moments. However, once we got there, Farewell My Concubine established what makes it a Chinese classic.
The idea of surrounding this story about a man who pines for another and questions their identity in China must have been quite a daring feat. This alone should be given plenty of praise but the costume and production design looked impeccably assembled and incredibly immersive as well. It takes the audience right into this time in Chinese history and makes all of the play presentations bigger than the last. Combining the makeup work utilized in creating these characters, the craft aspect of this work cannot be questioned. Continually throughout, I found myself stunned by the level of detail in the creation of this setting and stands as the greatest aspect of this film.
With a strong cast overall, Leslie Cheung stars and owns the spotlight in his portrayal of Douzi. Whether or not he actually sings the parts within the productions, everything he does on the stage looks majestic. Absorbing every inch of the screen, he captures the glory of the talents bestowed to him while owning the tragedy of this piece.
Nearly 3 hours of story with some stumbles but overall a staggering piece of work, Farewell My Concubine establishes why it’s considered a classic. It tells the story of relationships and connection within a span of nearly 60 years in China’s history. Monumental with its significance and a marvelous exhibition on craft within a feature film.