We continue “Foreign Film Week,” with “Farewell My Concubine.” This film is extremely tragic as well as powerful and has a lot of great themes that make how long it is feel not as long as it actually is. The overarching theme is how characters live with the abuse they were raised with and in turn doled out to those around them. This at its core is what makes it a tragedy and what I’ll explore when I get deeper into the film.
“Farewell My Concubine” was directed by Chen Kaige, written by Lilian Lee and Lu Wei produced by Hsu Feng and based on the story by Lilian Lee which she wrote based off the original story “Qiuhaitang” by Qin Shouou.
The story takes place in the Warlords Era in 1932 during the childhood of our main characters Douzi (who is son of a prostitute) and Shitou who is one his early protectors and love. From here the story unfolds through the Civil War, Japanese Occupation, Cultural Revolution to 1977 as our characters fates intertwine as they deal with the trauma from their childhoods and the trauma the nation goes through.
The Pros: The History – Chinese history is one of my passions and this film does a brilliant job showing the trials in the different eras. From the echoes of the Feudal system during the Warlords Era, to the fear during the Cultural Revolution when there was destruction of art and anyone involved in the arts was suspect as a dissident and promoter of the “Older Age.” From the Japanese occupation and the powerlessness the people experienced under the horrendous rule and the Nationalist era where elements of the Ancient Arts like “Beijing Opera” were still celebrated.
The Beginning – The film starts with Douzi and Shitou dressed as the King and Concubine in 1977 talking with an unseen director about how things are better now that the Gang of Four and Cultural Revolution are done, and about how hard that time was for the Opera and the arts before we go to a flashback in the Warlords Era and see Douzi’s prostitute mother cut off his extra finger so that he will be accepted by the Opera and trained.
The Soundtrack – Zhao Jiping did a fantastic job on the soundtrack. It plays like a living opera and fits to theme of life as a stage and how the tragic roles played sometimes become reality or reflect the reality going on around the characters.
The Characters – All of the main characters are complex and you can understand why they do the things they do. All of them are hurting and running away from the pain that they’ve experienced in the past. All of them fear regressing and being alone or being abandoned and this plays a major part in how they treat one another and how the drama plays out.
Master Zhang – Master Zhang is a unic and Douzi’s love after Shitou marries. He is a kind and supportive man who loves the arts and even stands by Douzi when he is on trial by the Nationalists for singing for the Japanese. They never talk again though when he won’t lie to protect himself but we see how much he means to Douzi when he is killed during the Cultural Revolution for being a lover of the arts and member of old money. Yidi does a great job as him.
Juxian – Juxian is the prostitute who buys her own freedom in order to be with Shitou after he saves her from a group of disgusting men who want to use her. She is hated by Douzi because of his mother abandoning him and she is eventually jealous of him when she sees that Shitou has feelings for Douzi. This leads to her working inside the Opera and helping to promote Xiao Si as Douzi’s replacement. She is a survivor and just wants to be loved and not alone. When she is denounced by her husband and he says he doesn’t love her during the Cultural Revolution she kills herself, fulfilling the dream where she jumps to her death because she is alone. Gong Li owns this role.
Douzi – Douzi is the outcast from the beginning. He’s child of a prostitute, is gay and is true to himself and his feelings while those around him are not and he fears losing his friend and love Shitou. This leads to him being cruel to Juxian, Shitou’s wife and his full embracing of the Opera. The Opera and later opium are the only escape he has from being rejected by society and his mother. This eventually leads to the pain of it all being to much and him taking his life like the Concubine in “Farewell My Concubine” which is something we see him flirt with throughout the film. He is the character who has been through the most pain and is the most raw in his emotions. In the end he does become the Concubine to Shitou’s King. Leslie Cheung is fantastic!
Shitou – Zhang Fangyi (Cao Cao of “Red Cliff” fame) does a wonderful job in this role as the bisexual actor who has two loves both of whom conflict with another and are parts of what he wants most. In Juxian it is a stable life and the ability to connect with another and in Douzi it his ambition and fame and fully inhabiting a role. Eventually he loses both, both from his own cowardice (denouncing Juxian) and inability to be honest with his feelings (only sharing physical affection with Douzi when they were teens). In the end he is the only one living and is wholly alone in a world that how accepts his art again.
The Message and Themes – The major themes and within that the message are how abuse destroys relationships. All the characters were abused by their bosses or mentors and this leads to them doing the same to one another and only seeing their own desires in the end. This prevents Douzi from becoming friends with Juxian, Juxian from forgiving Douzi or Shitou and possibly Xiao Si’s betrayal of Douzi as well. Those in power do it too as seen by the Master Guan’s betrayal of Douzi and Shitou and their betrayal of Master Zhang. There is also the theme of “Self Fulfilling Prophecies.” Juxian fulfills her dream of killing of herself when she feels how she felt in the dream and Douzi does the same when he takes his own life in the role of the Concubine in “Farewell My Concubine” bringing the story a close.
The Cons: No Connections Lasted – We see characters go through so much together but in the end they are left behind. Douzi kills himself with the sword as he practices “Farewell My Concubine” with Shitou. Shitou denounces Juxian which leads to her suicide and Master Zhang has no on stand for him and he only stand up for Douzi when Juxian and Shitou bring the sword he gave Douzi when they were lovers. I think this fits the theme but I wanted at least one relationship to last to show that not all bonds could be broken since love was another theme of this film and I wanted at least one romantic relationship to succeed.
Xiao Si – I never understood his turning against Douzi as he was raised by him as a child and the opera had always treated him with respect. From here I never understood his jealousy or desire to be the concubine. He fate is left open at the end since we see soldiers arrive as he is preparing to be the Concubine. He was one of the few characters that didn’t feel 3-Dimensional and his betrayal felt like it only existed to reflect the younger generation turning on the older generation during the Cultural Revolution.
This was a great film, but be ready for how harsh it can get. Characters go through extreme physical and mental abuse and they never get the chance to heal as they only experience more of the abuse from the changes in government around them. It is a tragedy and unlike a Shakespearean tragedy, no one comes out victorious. If you know this going in, you will find a beautiful film that is now one of my favorites. There are so many rich characters in this film and it takes place in a rich history that brings to life one of the most powerful stories in the tragedy of the play “Farewell My Concubine.”
Final Score: 9.4 / 10.