Farewell My Concubine/ 霸王别姬 /Bàwáng Bié Jī – Chen Kaige’s 1993 Masterpiece and Greatest Film Ever Made in China

BY RUBY GEGE

*I am quite disgusted daily by my own over-confidence over giving myself the title of Gege. But then, what am I without my over-confidence? Haha*

farewell-my-concubine-movie-poster-1993-1020194509JUST SO YOU KNOW, THIS IS, FOR ME AND MILLIONS OF OTHERS OUT THERE, THE GREATEST CHINESE FILM OF ALL TIME

My interest in Chinese cinema sparked when I was little. I think most of Malaysians have, at least once in their lifetime, the fond memories of watching all those action kungfu films during the 1990s and early 2000s. Nevertheless, the great age of Chinese cinema was during the 1985 to 2000 period and the greatness lies not within the kungfu genre but the melodramatic/social commentary genre. 

Simply put, no one does tragic as good as the Chinese. And I’m talking about the Chinese mainland. And Farewell, My Concubine is the epitome of everything that is miserably beautiful about China. I watched this film about a year ago upon a gazillion recommendations online. If you are looking for the greatest Chinese film ever made, trust me that at least half of them would reply with Farewell My Concubine. And to discover that it is ranked No. 1 as the greatest film ever made in China by Time Out Beijingi? As a fan of this film, I’ve never been prouder!

SYNOPSIS – Adapted from a novel by Lillian Lee, the plot revolves around two top stars of the Peking Opera, the masculine Shitou who played the role of King and his best friend, the feminine Douzi, who played the female role of Concubine Yu, spanning over 50 years. The story began from their youth, where the boys, abandoned by their families, received training in an opera trouple with an extremely harsh environment. They were beaten like dogs, mercilessly pushed way beyond their limits and were forced to endure many sufferings in order to perfect their crafts. Despite their torturous childhood, Shitou and especially Douzi grew up to become famous Peking Opera stars, their hard work paid off.

Douzi as Concubine Yu, Shitou as the King
Douzi as Concubine Yu, Shitou as the King

The most instrumental elements of the film are the eras the story were set. Douzi, the life and soul of Farewell My Concubine, lived in an era of China’s transition – the end of Qing Empire, the Warlords Era and the ensuing chaos. Despite the massive conflicts around the region, Peking Opera lived on. It must be noted that during the early days, all female opera roles (also known as Dan roles) were played by male actors. These actors who specialized in these area received trainings since they were little on how to familiarize themselves with their feminine traits. Therefore, more than often, the male actors have a soft look, polite mannerism and a gentle personality as a whole. Our Douzi (played by the legendary Leslie Cheung) is the epitome of grace.

LC cc 41
Leslie Cheung as Douzi, being more beautiful than 100% of the female population on earth. Yup, my friend, that is a man dressed as a woman.
Douzi in his western garb
Douzi in his western garb

Douzi, though never indicated directly, was in love with his acting partner, Shitou. Shitou, however, was clearly a straight man and regarded Douzi as a brother. But we can see from Douzi’s demeanors that he deemed Shitou as his lover (though he never got to consummate the love with him). But their relationship was strong and intense. They understand and were loyal to each other.

However, it was quite inevitable that Shitou soon found a life of his own, separate from his stage partner. Juxian, a former elegant courtesan came into their lives, becoming Shitou’s fiancee.  This naturally caused a rift between them. Amidst the chaos in China, Shitou got to have a life outside his opera work. However, Douzi couldn’t, partly due to his complex personality and unrequited love for Shitou.

Shitou and Douzi getting their make-up done
Shitou and Douzi getting their make-up done
The ever so gorgeous Gong Li as Juxian
The ever so gorgeous Gong Li as Juxian

They had a falling out as Shitou clearly preferred Juxian over Douzi. Even though he cared for him, he never loved Douzi the way Douzi loved him.

The stars of the film are Douzi and Juxian, two strong characters bonded by their feelings for Shitou, whom for me was important but less impactful compared to the two. When both knew that they could not get rid of each other, the hate-filled relationship turned into a peculiar cordiality and friendship. Douzi, the stage partner and scorned lover, soon grew fascinated by the feisty woman who managed to steal the heart of the man he loved.

Intriguing, complicated and very very tragic.

The story then proceeded to the Sino-Japanese war, then the Kuomintang administration and the Communist Party of China, leading to the formation of People’s Republic of China. And since the plot would take forever to be explained, I would just say that the three main characters had to go through heaven and hell as the future of Shitou and Douzi’s stage careers, and Peking Opera, and that of China, were at stake.

One of them would betray the other two. Sacrifices were made but not appreciated. Two of them committed suicide. All in the name of love and loyalty.

Now…

WHY DO I LOVE LOVE LOVE THIS FILM???

1 – DOUZI AND HIS LOSS OF IDENTITY

I think every fan of Farewell, My Concubine can generally agree that Leslie Cheung is everything to this film. His performance as the tormented Douzi is PHENOMENAL!! Douzi is a very difficult and complex character to play. Born of a prostitute mother, he was dumped into a harsh opera training school after her mother cruelly cut his extra finger in order to gain admittance. Growing up, he had to force to accept his feminine identity. He refused to at first and repeatedly got his line wrong.

Douzi as a boy
Douzi as a boy

“I am by nature a boy, not a girl,” said he. The correct line goes like this, “I am by nature a girl, not a boy.”

We can see from the heartbreaking scenes of where he got punished for getting it wrong as his final defence in retaining his identity as a boy. He did not want to be a girl. But he had no choice. And when the investment for their future performance was jeapordized, Shitou, out of frustration, shoved a pipe into his mouth, causing Douzi to bleed. Shocked and traumatized, Douzi finally got the line right and said… “I am by nature a girl…”

He had been lost ever since, trapped in a limbo, unable to hold on to anything.

As he grew into adulthood, he dedicated his life to his work – an opera actor specializing in female roles. Off the stage, his heart belonged to Shitou, whom we could see as the love of his life. Nevertheless, Shitou did not return such romantic feelings. We can see that Douzi spent his lifetime yearning for his love, knowing that he would never get  it. He was not a man per se, was also not a woman per se. He was admired by many fans, yet had no one to cure his loneliness. It was such a tragic character, more tragic than the Consort Yu role he had to play in the operas.

Jan12DVDAnd yes, guys, he ended up dead. Of course he would. Tragic characters never survive in films. That’s why they’re so tragic.

2 – THE TRANSITIONAL IDENTITY OF CHINA

Peking Opera, for me, was used symbolically in the story to represent the history of ancient China, the version of kings, queens, nobility and everything feudal about the 4,000 years old civilization. However, as China moved forward to the modern world, it adopted the identity of a communist state – everybody is equal before the law, no monarchy, no upper class, the most valuable assets to the country are the working class and the peasants.

Peking Opera was somehow deemed incompatible with the birth of new China. During the Cultural Revolution – where Mao Zedong encouraged the end of all cultural arts deemed in contrary to the communist system – the opera was under attack. Was China ready to let go of its cultural treasure whilst holding onto its new communist identity?

The Opera Actors pushed around by Communist supporters
The Opera Actors pushed around by Communist supporters

What were the justifications presented by the communist characters in the film? As Douzi was summoned to train these hopeful youths in the art of opera, he complained about how boring their costumes were. Peking Opera needed colours, extravagant accessories and beautiful make-ups. Then, the youths revolted – the Opera presented stories only about the royalties, the rich and the privileged. They ignored the struggle of the mass, the poverty of the citizens and the suffering of the peasants. Which is true, in a way.

Nevertheless, people should be able to differentiate cultural arts and national policies. Cultural arts are a form of heritage, thus should be maintained in their true organic form. Cultural arts tell the stories of the past that can never be repeated. The youths wanted to erase the horrible years their ancestors experienced during feudal China. Still, they could never erase the fact that feudal China did happen and it was a great China indeed.

*Suddenly, I am feeling so deep as I’m writing this! Hahahaha*

CONCLUSION

The film is great as it is able to take the audience on a journey to the transition of China through the eyes of the characters, mainly Douzi. The trapped identity between two sides are of the main theme. Douzi was trapped between being a man and a woman, a lover and a giver. Peking Opera was trapped between the world of Old China and the new China. The country itself was trapped between the power-hungry military leaders who sought control over the country’s population.

Let me just reiterate – I love love love this film. It is unlike any other films I have seen before, and even perhaps in the future. It is life in itself – symbolic of many bigger things that it tried to portray. Beneath the huge dismemberment of society and community during that era, lived three tormented souls, their feelings, emotions and fate unraveling in one complex web. No matter how great things may seem from the surface, take a little look inside and you may just notice the intense loneliness covered up by all that greatness.

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2 thoughts on “Farewell My Concubine/ 霸王别姬 /Bàwáng Bié Jī – Chen Kaige’s 1993 Masterpiece and Greatest Film Ever Made in China

  1. excellence write up , but , you still need to know the inner thinking of the actor those day ! from the movie, almost everything looks nice ..but a lot of bad thing happen along the way ! Any way , as a foreigner , your enthoustisim toward Chinese opera are well respected by me ! cheers !

    1. Thank you! I find Peking Opera highly fascinating but my inability to converse in Mandarin hampers my understanding and appreciation for the art. My interest in Chinese cinema started only two years ago, so I don’t know many things about the industry. If you can share more, I’d appreciate it very much

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