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.

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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.

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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SHANGHAI (2012) – Bollywood Film Review

BY RUBY CHINGU

RATING: 8/10 | Directed by: Dibakar Banerjee | Written by: Urmi Juvekar, Dibakar Banerjee, Rutvik Oza

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Shanghai is not a happy film. Not everyone may find it enjoyable. However, if one is a fan of a good political drama, some sort of a people-against-system tale, then this film is a delectable feast.

The premise of Shanghai is fairly simple. It revolved an enquiry into the accident of a noted anti-government activist, Dr Ahmed that led him into a state of comatose. Set in a small but politically active (fictional) town of Bharat Nagar, the story is narrated to us through the perspective of three main characters – Krishnan (Abhay Deol), a senior civil servant in charge of the enquiry, Shalini (Kalki Koechlin), a young activist and lover of Dr Ahmedi and Jogi (Emraan Hashimi), a video shop assistant with a lewd reputation. Even though they belonged to different sides, all three characters had the same purpose of uncovering the truth – was Mr Ahmedi’s accident was indeed an accident or a planned murder?

What makes the film compelling (aside from the brilliant and sharp performances by the actors) is the honest realistic way it protrayed the helpness of the society against a corrupt and inefficient system (of government). Shanghai is not trying to be a political thriller – it is a drama film that deals with human corruption.

Trying to discover the truth behind the accident, our neatly dressed officer, Krishnan has to go to great lengths, despite having the backing of the Chief Minister. Things were further complicated when the suspects involved in the accident are the members of a political party in alliance with the ruling party. He wanted to do his job well – and was even criticized for it. Being a man of integrity in such an unappreciative system can be very daunting. Being the head of the enquiry, he was attacked from all sides – the police were unwilling to cooperate with him, the local political parties were threatened to harm him and the townspeople were unwilling to spill anything in fear of retaliation. Except for the eagerness of a few (Dr Ahmedi’s supporters, including Shalini), he was left with literally no support to achieve his goal. Every second I spent watching this film, I lamented on how helpless the characters are in trying to fight for justice when people do not really care about it at all.

ImageMy admiration to Abhay Deol is not a secret. I’ve worshiped him since I saw him in Dev.D. He is one of those serious actors that does not really enjoy all this glitzy glamorous side of films. He told an interviewer once that he cannot stand having an item song in his film (which is weird, cause I think he did dance for one in another film). He often plays VERY unconventional (and rarely likable) characters that one does not really see in mainstream Hindi films. In Shangai, he does not disappoint. Shedding his urban boyish image, he stepped into the shoes of a calm and collected government official, something he has not done before. Abhay is used to playing really intense characters. However, in this film, he had to display the intense emotions in a very moderate manner, like how a normal middle-aged man would. And he did it superbly. Though I do miss his cheeky smiles now and then.

ImageThe star of the film, for me, is Kalki Koechlin as Shalini. Witnessing the horrifying accident of her mentor/lover right before her eyes, she was in a fight for justice. Due to her foreign looks, many deemed her as an outsider when she was obviously a daughter of a convicted General who had been living in the town since forever. She was a nobody, an activist nobody really noticed. If Krishnan had it difficult, Shalini had it wayyyy worse. There were fears and traumas on her face. Willing to do anything to obtain evidence to gain justice for Dr Ahmedi, her mentor, she was willing to go to great lengths. In my opinion, Shalini is the most intense character here and Kalki played it convincingly. She expressed her emotion with her facial expressions, conveying much without saying anything.

Jogi came into the picture as the photographer on duty at the place where Dr Ahmedi’s accident happened. Doubling as a porn filmmaker at night, he did not really give a shit about the political incidents around him. He was quite the useless bum who lived off the earnings of his uncle, who owned the video shop. Only after his uncle’s death (presumably murdered by the political goons) that he responded Shalini’s plead to help her. It was an unlikely path for him.

ImageMay I just say – I think Kalki and Emraan have an amazing chemistry. They are not lovers in this film – far from that – but basically two people who were brought together to fight a common enemy that had taken from them the most important person in their lives. Nevertheless, they look so hot together – in a weird way, because I don’t think they were supposed to look hot together, since their characters are not a couple. Get what I mean? Yeah, anyway, I am not sure if the chemistry was intended by the director or not but damn, it was enjoyable to see. The unlikely pair, the pair with different facial features, the pair with astoundingly different personality traits etc etc you get what I mean. He’s a low-life pornographist, she’s a righteous activist.There could not be two people more different than each other. Yet, somehow, Kalki and Emraan made me wish that they would act in another film together, again (they did in Ek Thi Diyaan) but I want them specifically as LOVERS.I can totally imagine them as being completely in love with each other.

ImagePlease doooo…. *praying superbly hard*

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“An Ideal for which I am prepared to die” – Nelso Mandela

by Ruby Chingu

Nelson Mandela died yesterday. Like millions of others, his death was sort of expected, considering he had been ill for so long, struggling with old age. I haven’t read his books. Now that the news of his death are everywhere, many people around me suggested some titles, which I am planning to buy.

I admire Mandel for his belief and conviction in democracy and a harmonious and just society. I think not many leaders believe in that.

The other day in my constitutional law class, my professor said something I disagreed, or chose to disagree, considering my opinion could be wrong. He said something like, “democracy is supposed to bring changes, not radical or fundamental changes”. He sounded a bit pessimistic, being such a renowned thinker in law and politics. Perhaps, he, too, like so many Malaysian intellectuals, is disappointed in Malaysian political scene. Honestly, it is quite a circus. Racism-based arguments still sell, religious supremacists rule the day, so many irrational fights are based on emotional and lame reasons. And local newspapers are such a joke with a few notable exceptions.

He has seen about 40 to 50 years of Malaysian politics. I have seen about 5. Maybe I have yet to be crushed by the harsh reality and still retain some optimism and idealism in me to think that democracy is not supposed to bring changes – small or radical. Democracy, for me, is the change. It is not a thing, not a political medium. It is a political belief that one lives by.

My thinking, though, may change in twenty years. Instead of aiming so high, I would most probably end up like so many other Malaysians, quite disillusioned with Malaysian politics that still differentiate Malays, Chinese, Indians, natives of Sabah and Sarawak etc etc.

FYI, Malaysian government, there is not such thing as an Indian race. I’ve seen hundreds of Bollywood films and not once I heard Shah Rukh Khan or Aamir Khan said that they are of the Indian race. They are of Indian nationality. They have Indian citizenship, that is why they call themselves Indian.

But of course, what are we Malaysians without the habit of stereotyping others…?

There is a a paragraph from Mandela’s speech I find to be very inspiring. I shall put them here because I want to read them again and again.

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” – A statement to the court during the Rivonia trial, April, 20, 1964.

Our Dreams to be Academicians

BY RUBY CHINGU

If there is one thing Palah, Fatma and I share in common, it is our dream to teach.

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I have just returned home from my faculty after saying goodbye to a lecturer I love so much. Her name is Miss Ummi and she taught me International Law, Industrial Law and Mooting. She is a great and spirited lecturer, always passionate about the subjects she is assigned with. I received the news last Tuesday that Miss Ummi will be leaving Malaysia this Sunday to pursue her PhD in the United Kingdom.

Miss Ummi is one of the many law teachers that have inspired me throughout my years in law school. They have inflamed my desire to be passionate about what I do and to spread the passion and appreciation of the subjects that I love.

I am not alone in this. Us three chinguz met when we were still not-so-innocent young optimistic souls wandering in the strange town of Shah Alam to do our Foundation in Law. Immediately, we became best friends. It took us a few years to actually realize that we also share the same dream, albeit to teach in different subjects. Palah, I think, wants to specialize in politics, human rights and Middle Eastern studies. Fatma wants to specialize in criminology, cultural studies and perhaps one day write a screenplay. As for me, constitutional law and international law are the loves of my life and hopefully one day I’ll be able to academically explore the world of literature as well.

Since the learning culture in Malaysia (this is solely my own opinion) is restricted still in some ways, our dreams to teach seem to be a bit distant from where we are now. I am doing my Master, then I plan to enter the legal practice for a few years. God permits, I will come back to school and pursue my PhD. The journey could be years, even decades. Will I still maintain the same degree of passion and optimism then? I do not know. Hopefully, I will not give up on my dream.

People keep rushing to be rich, to start a family, to own a house etc etc. Somehow, we don’t really fit in that bill. Knowing what you love and how you want to spend your life is wonderful and troublesome in a way. It is wonderful in a sense I wake up in the morning with a purpose in mind. Obstacles may come but at least my dreams never leave me. It is troublesome in a sense that I have to disappoint the people I love who want me to be somebody I don’t want to be. To see their dejected faces when I told them ,”no, I don’t think I’m going to stay in practice for more than ten years” or “no, I don’t think being a judge really suits me”, can be quite sad. But I am quite stubborn and unless situation necessitates it, I try to prioritize my desires than what other people expects me to do.

Life is a long journey. Might as well enjoy it while I can.