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


*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*


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.

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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.




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.


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*


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.

To Live / 活着/ Huózhe (1994 Film) – Of Family, Survival, Mao Zedong’s Communism and China


*I shall not rate this film, because I am not worthy to. Watch it and save your soul!! Seriously, you have to watch this film.*

I discovered one thing today while attempting to learn Mandarin through films – NEVER EVER CHOOSE A SERIOUS POLITICAL FILM FOR LANGUAGE-LEARNING!

It never works. Instead of learning about the pronunciation, you got yourself a two hours political course on the subject of the film instead, and in this particular film I’m reviewing, the modern history of China.

linkI am now overwhelmed with the general feeling of over-exposure and complications (in a good way) upon watching To Live (活着), a 1994 film by Zhang Yimou, who ranks amongst China’s best directors. Zhang’s earlier works (pre-2000) are nothing short of amazing. Watch another of his film called Raise the Red Lantern (大红灯笼高高挂) and you’ll understand why. Unlike the more ‘cultural’ Raise the Red Lantern, which dealt with the issue of family, customs, wives and warlord-era China, To Live revolved around the life of a small family during China’s transition to Communism and the aftermath. 

Before watching the film, I have a general understanding about China’s history. Marred by many ups and downs, natural and political disasters, one cannot help but be awed by the massiveness of that society’s resilience. Mao Zedong, the famous and super-influential supreme leader of China from 1940 to 1970s, was a very important element in To Live. Though he was not portrayed as a character, the life of the main characters were mostly affected due to his policies (which some argued to have caused great GREAT difficulties and regressed China into the backward era). His pictures were everywhere, his ideas were imbued into so many books attached to the characters’ lives, called the Red Book, treasured by the young Red Guards who were literally obsessed with him.

Jiazhen, the wife and Fugui, the husband

Notwithstanding the politics, To Live or Huózhe really is a tale of a family’s survival through turbulent times. We have a father, Fugui, a mother, Jiazhen, a daughter, Fengxia and a son, Youqing. During 1940s, the family was of a relatively wealthy prospect and belonged to the landowners class until Fugui gambled all of what’s left to the point he became homeless. His wife, Jiazhen, had already left him with the children due to his gambling habits. We see the fall of Fugui, a spoilt man-child who had a massive awakening call upon being homeless – he started working to take care of his ailing mother. Knowing that he’s a changed man, Jiazhen returned to him with the kids and they became a family again. From then on, the family learned the hard way to survive the circumstances so severe I cried my balls out throughout the film – forced labour, war, death and more death, death of people, death of culture and death of happiness.

All from the perspective of Fugui, Jiazhen and their children.

Jiazhen and their children, Fengxia and Youqing
Jiazhen and their children, Fengxia and Youqing

Three major historical events that altered the family’s life (to the worse, I’d argue) were:

1 – The Chinese Civil War between the Kuomintang and the Communists, led respectively by Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Zedong. FYI, it’s very important to know about the conflict here to understand Chinese history. Our male lead, Fugui, learned how to earn money by starting a shadow puppet troupe but was forcibly conscripted into the Kuomintang army, where millions died during the war. He surrendered  to the Communists, became a prisoner of war and was allowed to return home to his family a few years later. By now, his children had already grown up several years.

It’s interesting to note that Fugui, at first, did not give a damn about whose side he was own. All that he cared was earning money to take care of his family. He did not subscribe to any political ideologies – for both always caused death anyway, Kuomintang or Communist – and wanted only TO LIVE (thus the title of the film).

2 – When The Great Leap Forward (大跃进) happened from 1958 to 1961, Fugui’s family had already adapted themselves to the communist society. They wore simple peasant clothes, as the working class was deemed to be the main class of the society. They completely eradicated any proofs that they once belonged to the upper class and made sure that their loyalty to the communists ideology was visible by putting their ‘working class certificate’ on a frame. Yet, again, it was not because they totally believed in the political ideology – or maybe they did out of habit because they thought there’s no other way to live – but because they wanted to stay out of trouble and lived life peacefully.

The family's original upper-class way of dressing prior to the war
The family’s original upper-class way of dressing prior to the war
The family, adapted to the working class lifestyle
The family, adapted to the working class lifestyle

The Great Leap Forward was basically a radical social and economic policy started by Mao Zedong aimed to transform Chinese economy from agragrian to a communist economy through rapid economic expansion. During these times, Fugui’s family had to donate all iron they had to the government – supposedly to make weapons to ‘liberate’ Taiwan, which was the Kuomintang’s control.

I find it disturbing how people use words like ‘liberate’ or ‘free’ but the act doesn’t really portray such a thing. Like how China wants to ‘liberate’ Taiwan – and I’m sure when you ask a Taiwanese, they don’t really want to be ‘liberated’? At least not by China. The same thing when USA tried to ‘liberate’ or ‘bring democracy’ to Afghanistan and Iraq and we all know  how that ended. Thanks so much, superpowers who really had nothing important to do than assert their imperialist tendencies.

A propaganda poster. Always rampant in certain societies with certain ideologies
A propaganda poster. Always rampant in certain societies with certain ideologies

All the kids in school had to devote themselves to hard labour by melting the irons at school. Fugui and Jiazhen’s little son, Youqing was an active mischievous boy who was loved by his parents. Seeing him sleeping after three days of hard work, Jiazhen tried to persuade Fugui into letting Youqing sleep a little more. However, Fugui insisted on waking him up as to maintain the family’s ‘image’ as a good Communist family.

A picture I found online. The industrialization of China’s economy

Youqing died in an accident later after reaching school as a wall fell on him whilst he was taking a nap. Just a few hours before, his mother affectionately packed him lunch full of dumplings and his father carried him so lovingly to school, telling him if he wants to have a good life, he must work hard and care for his mother and sister.

The family bravely overcame the loss and sadness over losing their only son. Maybe because they did not have the luxury to keep mourning. They needed to move on in order to live.

Note that the Great Leap Forward caused the Great Chinese Famine, which had been said to cause death to over 76 million people. Yup, you read me right – 76 million. That is like… three times the Malaysian population.

3 – The Cultural Revolution (文化大革命) occurred 1966 to 1976 and most consider it a failure nowadays as Mao Zedong’s way to return to power after being pushed aside due to the tragedy of the Great Leap Forward. I have to say Mao Zedong was really smart, though. He had all these massive ideas in his head and turned them into a massive movement which influenced a massive amount of people who were massively obsessed with him. It’s massive in every sense of the massive word.

Propaganda poster during the Cultural Revolution. Mao was portrayed as the father figure, the leader.

The Cultural Revolution aimed to eradicate the Chinese people who Mao accused of being ‘capitalist’. One cannot talk about the Cultural Revolution without mentioning the Red Guards, a group of youths who responded to Mao’s appeal to somehow ‘save’ the country from capitalism. In reality, the Cultural Revolution was deemed a failure – indeed, it was Mao’s strategy to retain power until he died. Millions of people died (again) and violence were rampant. Anybody who were against communism were arrested and cultural and religious places were ransacked.

The film did not really display the great damage of the Revolution. However, it hinted the way their lives were being affected by it. Fugui, who was an experienced puppeteer, was forced to burn his puppets as they were deemed counter-revolutionary to Mao’s ideas – because supposedly, they represented kings, princes, nobility, all things luxurious and bad for communism.  Fugui did not fight back and let his daughter burnt it and I cannot help but the scene symbolizes how culture, art and heritage are often sacrificed in the name of a ‘greater good’ or a ‘greater idealism’. When, really, the main purpose of destroying cultural arts is to assert dominance and control over the people.

Reminds me of the states in Malaysia (especially Kelantan) and how they ban certain cultural arts that were deemed ‘bad’ in the name of religion. The cultures have existed for hundreds of years. Islam came to Kelantan around the same time. They co-existed harmoniously alongside each other since forever. Now, they’re banning it? Why? How does the arts affect one’s faith? Islamization? Arabization? To be a better Islamic state? But then why now? Why did not the religious clerics made a noise hundreds of years ago? Are we implying that, God forbid, the clerics during the 1400s and 1500s were more broad-minded than the current ones?


Back to the Cultural Revolution, the family managed to find a good husband for their daughter, Fengxia. Since Fengxia was a deaf and mute, they had to be careful in choosing a husband and preferred him to also have a form of handicap. Most probably to ensure that Fengxia was not placed on a lower level than her husband. The husband, Erxi, was a polite factory worker who also headed the Red Guards in his workplace. Even though he was a cripple and could only walk properly on one foot, he was a highly political youth.

Erxi, like the rest of the Red Guards, were OBSESSED with Mao Zedong. They put his posters everywhere, distributed his Little Red Books. During their first day, Erxi helped his girlfriend’s family fixed the roof of the house and they made a big painting of Mao Zedong together on the wall. It is supposed to be a super romantic sweet scene, which it was, really……. with Mao Zedong’s smiling portrait at the background.

The date between Fengxia and Erxi. Aren't they sweet? Yes? No?
The date between Fengxia and Erxi. Aren’t they sweet? Yes? No? Chairman Mao definitely thought so. Can’t you see him smiling there?

Another hmm….

Note that personality cult (worship of a figure) is also practiced in North Korea, an extreme communist country as well. I think this strategy helps a lot in controlling a country. If people worship someone, they won’t speak up against him. No rebellion and they won’t ‘waste’ their time thinking. Place your trust in your leader! Hmmm?

The Red Guards demonstrating in Tiananmen Square during the Revolution
The Red Guards demonstrating in Tiananmen Square during the Revolution

Erxi and Fengxia were wedded happily – again with Mao’s picture on the background. The most disturbing scene for me was when the chief led the wedding guests to sing a wedding song to the couple – a happy song with VERY COMMUNIST lyrics:

Nothing compares to the Party’s benevolence,

Chairman Mao is dearer than Father and Mother,

There’s nothing as good as socialism,

No ocean as deep as class feeling,

Maoist Thought is revolution’s treasure trove,

Whoever opposes it, we take as our enemy,

Now can somebody tell me why the hell would someone sing this song in a wedding? A WEDDING?

But then, it was a different time.

Fengxia had a short time of full happiness with her husband. She got pregnant and died after childbirth – the moment of her death was another heartbreaking scene to Fugui and Jiazhen. I was shocked and scared for them – please don’t take their remaining child away! They lost their son, now their daughter was dying, too. The circumstances of Fengxia’s death was also tragic – she bled after giving birth. And during the Cultural Revolution, doctors were sent to hard labour as they were deemed ‘too educatd’ – thus inclined to capitalism. The hospitals were run by inexperienced nurses/students.

Therefore, it can be said that the couple lost their children due to the policies introduced by Mao. It was not direct, but it was related in every way. Their son, Youqing died after melting irons during the Great Leap Forward, Fengxia bled to death and there were no doctors to save her due to the Cultural Revolution.


To Live is essentially a film of human spirits. The strength and perseverance of Fugui and Jiazhen. They did not give up and surrender to hardship and grief. They fell and rose back up again for their family. Even though their lives were often intertwined with sorrow and tragedies, they lived. Their lives were far away from happiness and satisfaction but they lived.

The couple at the twilight zone of their lifetime, with their grandson.... Exhausted, tired.
The couple at the twilight zone of their lifetime, with their grandson…. Exhausted, tired.

The film, for me, symbolizes the hardships and struggles of people living during that time and that era. All the oppression and suffering they had to endure. But China survived. The society survives. Do we really have to wonder why China is such a huge economic superpower now? Do we really have to wonder why people in China are so diligent, so hardworking, so selfless? Take a glimpse into their history and you’ll know why.

And there goes my two hour political course on the subject. Thank you, Director Zhang Yimou. Now my head feels super heavy.