The length of the film aside, Farewell My Concubine was quite an amazing watch, and a pretty easy one to boot. Chen Kaige’s pseudo-epic is regarded as one of the films at the forefront of the Fifth Generation cinematic movement of Chinese filmmakers; some of the other Chinese films around the same year as this one are also a part of this movement, and thus they share many things in common. For one, this was also initially withheld from release in China, due to its depiction of the rise of Communism in China and the Cultural Revolution. Apparently, this changed, and the film is now regarded by Chinese filmgoers as their favorite Chinese film of the 20th century. Watching it, it’s easy to see why.
The film follows two Peking opera singers as they grow up together in an acting troupe, set against the backdrop of 50 years of Chinese history (and why not; it seems every epic has to cover a massive range of cultural history). As kids, Douzi and Shitou meet and stick up for one another during the brutal training regiment their troupe employs (seriously, the masters of the training house are only a pebble’s throw away from outright torturing the young boys nonstop). As they grow older, they become huge Chinese opera stars, a position that allows Shitou the chance to take a woman he’s admired for some time. This, however, drives a wedge between him and Douzi, as Douzi has fallen in love with him, and the tumultuous love triangle continues to spin out of control until everyone involved ends up meeting their just fates. The first third of the film aside (as in, the part that deals with the oppressive training of the young lads), this was very enjoyable for a number of reasons. For one, the production value was absolutely stellar, and it was also thanks to the equally excellent cinematography that it ended up being well utilized instead of just garish. Another aspect that really made the film was the acting by the central players, in particular a quiet but riveting portrayal by Leslie Cheung as the adult Douzi, whose face and eyes reveal more emotion than any words ever could. What I wasn’t too much a fan of was the shoehorning in of Chinese history seemingly only for the reason that it was necessary to justify the film’s length. It basically comes off as a requirement for any film trying to be an epic, and it really shouldn’t be; this would’ve worked just as well if it had kept the focus on the central conflict and used the omission of the historical elements to shave off a small chunk of the running time.
In contrast to the film’s billing as an epic, it’s the small moments that really make this film worth it; the furtive glances between characters after something has happened, and the tiny looks in the actors’ eyes in reaction to everything thrown their way. That, plus the absolute feast for the senses that the film’s visual and audible aspects are, is what won this the Palme d’Or, becoming the first and so far only Chinese film to ever take home the award. If you can stand the length, and admittedly the somewhat unnecessary historical aspects added in for filler, this is definitely one to see at some point in your life. The films of the Fifth Generation are a bit samey, I will say that, but this would appear to be the best of all of them.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10