Directed by Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine is a visual and emotional masterpiece thoroughly deserving of its many international film awards and nominations, winning its section at the Cannes Film Festival. The films costumes, sets and props are as lavish and ornate as the operas it portrays.
The film spans nearly 60 years, following two orphans, taken in by the Peking Opera and trained as lead performers. Their upbringing and training is far from idealic. Through often gruelling and traumatising events, their friendship is pockmarked with dramatic conflicts and emotional reconciliations. Although the opera have a range of performances, these two specialise in specific roles, their stage acts often mirroring their personal lives.
Farewell my Concubine is a political melodrama, with themes focusing on the meaning of unconditional love. Though the main characters are essentially heterosexual, it has veiled homosexual themes as the delicate Dieyi specializes in female roles and the gutsy Xiaolou plays noble warriors and kings. Conflicts arise as the friends mature, falling in love; with one ultimately marrying a woman.
The film deals with the political events surrounding the time it was set, but its main focus explores the friendship of two people as they grow and develop together under harsh settings. The film is neatly separated into book-like chapters. Each part represents a different time in Chinese history as it follows the lives of the characters. Beginning in the 1920s with the Chinese Warlords, it winds through to the Cultural Revolution, the Japanese invasion with the Communist takeover as an integral part to the plot.
Although the film is nearly three hours long, the film flows with little interruption, mesmerising the senses.
Whilst moviemakers in Hollywood struggle to retell old storylines, Chinese film makers are keen to make films on the countless untold stories their country has kept hidden. However, their progress is hindered by the administration involved with governmental approval of scripts. The film evokes a world that most Westerners has little real understanding of, or connection to; allowing us a small peep under the sturdy curtains which still surround much of China.
Farewell My Concubine won a Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival (1993), as well as Best Foreign Language Film from the Golden Globes(1994) and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association(1993). Gong Li won a Best Supporting Actress Award from the New York Film Critics Circle (1993). Sadly, the film received little acclaim in its own country. Because of its depiction of the Cultural Revolution, and its frank look at homosexuality, the movie was banned, the actors shunned and the film only released after heavy editing.
Farewell My Concubine is able to remain an intimate touching story of epic proportions. A brilliant addition to any foreign film buffs collection.