BA WANG BIE JI
(Farewell My Concubine)
Hong Kong-China, 1993
Director: Chen Kaige
Production: Tomson (HK) Films in association with China Film Coproduction Corp/Beijing Film Studio; colour, 35mm; running time: 170 minutes, original version; 157 minutes, US version. Released 2 September 1993, Beijing. Filmed in 1992 in Beijing.
Producer: Hsu Feng; executive producers: Hsu Bin, Jade Hsu; screenplay: Lilian Lee, Lu Wei, from the novel by Lilian Lee; assistant directors: Zhang Jinzhan, Bai Yu, Jin Ping, Zhang Jinting; photography: Gu Changwei; editor: Pei Xiaonan; art directors: Yang Yuhe, Yang Zhanjia; sound: Yang Zhanshan, Han Lin; music: Zhao Jiping; music performed by: Central Orchestra of China, Orchestra of the Peking Opera Academy; costume design: Chen Changmin; subtitles: Linda Jaivin.
Cast: Leslie Cheung ( Cheng Dieyi ); Zhang Fengyi ( Duan Xiaolou ); Gong Li ( Juxian ); Lu Qi ( Guan Jifa ); Ying Da ( Na Kun ); Ge You ( Master Yuan ); Li Chun ( Xiao Si as a teenager ); Lei Han ( Xiao Si as an adult ); Tong Di ( Old Man Zhang ); Ma Mingwei ( Douzi as a child ); Yin Zhi ( Douzi as a teenager ); Fei Yang ( Shitou as a child ); Zhao Hailong ( Shitou [teenage] ); Li Dan ( Laizi ); Jiang Wenli ( Douzi's mother ).
Awards: Palme d'Or, International Critics' Prize, Cannes 1993.
Rayns, Tony, "Nights at the Opera" in Sight and Sound (London), December 1992.
Variety (New York), 24 May 1993.
Tessier, Max, and others, "Art over Politics" in Cinemaya (New Delhi), Summer 1993.
Cineforum (Italy), vol. 33, no. 328, October 1993.
Bertin-Maghit, J.-P., and Guy Gauthier, "Adieu ma concubine," in Mensuel du Cinéma , no. 11, November 1993.
Alleva, Richard, Commonweal , 3 December 1993.
Sight and Sound (London), January 1994.
Films in Review (New York), January/February 1994.
Zha, Jianying, "Chen Kaige and the Shadows of the Revolution" in Sight and Sound (London), February 1994.
Chen, Pauline, "History Lessons" in Film Comment (New York), March 1994.
Rayns, Tony, "The Narrow Path" in Projections 3 , London, 1994.
Lau, Jenny Kwok Wah, " Farewell My Concubine: History, Melodrama, and Ideology in Contemporary Pan-Chinese Cinema," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1995.
Xu, B., " Farewell My Concubine and Its Nativist Critics," in Quarterly Review of Film and Video (Reading), vol. 16, no. 2, 1997.
* * *
In 1984 Chen Kaige's The Yellow Earth (with cinematography by fellow Beijing Film Academy graduate Zhang Yimou) signalled the exciting emergence of the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers. A decade later, in 1993, his film Farewell My Concubine signalled that generation's arrival on the international scene.
Although based on a novella by Hong Kong writer Lilian Li, director Chen Kaige himself reworked the story of Farewell My Concubine to its current, more complex form about the friendship of two Peking opera stars over 50 years of turbulent Chinese history.
The film begins in 1924 in Beijing as a young boy, Douzi (Ma Mingwei), is brought to the All Luck and Happiness Peking Opera School by his prostitute mother (Jiang Wenli). Desperate to give him a future she herself does not have, she pleads pitifully with the headmaster to admit her son. Though prettily turned, he does have one defect—an extra finger on his left hand. In order to gain admission, the mother tearfully chops off the offending digit.
At this time Peking opera was at its height of popularity. "If you belong to the human race, you go to the opera," lectures one opera master. "If you don't go to the opera, you're not a human being. . . .You are lucky to be part of it."
Soon Douzi is brought under the protection of gruff but kindly classmate Shitou (Fei Yang), who becomes his dearest friend. The sequences of opera training—holding agonizing positions for hours, singing at the crack of dawn, withstanding the schoolmaster's cane— are intensely powerful and moving ones.
In one scene, the boys line a river bank in the falling snow and sing out the lines of the fallen king in the classic play, The King Parts from His Concubine (which is also the Chinese title of the film, "Ba Wang Bie Ji"): "I am so strong/I can uproot the mountains./My courage is renowned,/I have fallen on hard times."
As they grow up, the effeminate Douzi (played as a teenager by Yin Zhi) is cast in female roles, specializing in the role of the self-sacrificing concubine who kills herself for loyalty to her king in this drama. Shitou (played by Zhao Hailong) is cast in masculine, heroic parts, such as the King in the same work. As adults, they rise to become stars of the Peking opera world. Dreamy Douzi, adopting the stage name of Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung), remains half in love with his stage brother Shitou, now called Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi).
Meanwhile, their theater troupe is subjected to the caprice of successive waves of conquerors—Japanese, Kuomingtang, Communist, then the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution—that wash over the city. It is under the Cultural Revolution that they suffer the most. Not only is the practice of their art interrupted, they are forced to denounce one another in public, betraying friends and lovers alike.
In the film, the story of the politics of modern China is told alongside Dieyi's confusion between theater and reality. While the politics is kept deliberately vague, we are made well aware of the gap between theater and reality. In the end, human beings fail to achieve the sterling archetypes in such dramas like The King Parts from His Concubine , being much weaker creatures in the face of adversity.
However, some of the most marvelous scenes in Farewell remain at the beginning, with the boys in their early days of Peking opera training. It reflects Chen's own fascination with the art form. "Peking opera is amazing. You have to spend your whole life training," the director has said. "There is something about Chinese opera that is fundamentally Chinese."
These early scenes have the crisp vision of early Chen Kaige films, while the story of the adults becomes muddled and at times unconvincing. For example, the character of the third person in the triangle, Juxian, is never fleshed out.
Produced by a Hong Kong film company run by former Taiwan film star Hsu Feng, Farewell was a Chinese film that spared no expenses. The period costuming and sets were meticulously reconstructed, and the color-saturated cinematography by Gu Changwei captures their sumptuousness.
This ambitious epic managed to turn the heads of the Cannes International Film Festival jury in May 1993, and the top prize of the Palme d'Or was awarded to two extraordinary films that year — Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Jane Campion's The Piano. The film went on to win other awards, as well, including best foreign film from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Golden Globe, as well as a place in the New York Film Festival that fall and a nomination for the Oscar.
In Hong Kong, where the audience was jaded and impatient with a nearly three-hour piece of cultural history, the film came and went, but in the two other Chinas, in Taiwan and on the mainland, it churned up its share of controversy before finding huge audiences. In Taiwan, following current regulations, it was banned for having too many mainland actors; in China, it was banned for unspecified, though certainly political, reasons. A quick change in the regulations allowed it to be shown in Taiwan, where it made box office records. Minor edits allowed it to be shown in China.
For Chen, whose who had never had a popular success in his own country and whose previous film Life on a String was banned there, the showing of Farewell in China was especially gratifying.
Chen Kaige (b. 1952) is one of the two best known of Fifth Generation directors, along with Zhang Yimou. He is the son of veteran Chinese director Chen Huaikai, who made film versions of Chinese opera in his heyday.