Saturday, December 13, 2008

Review – Farewell My Concubine

December 12, 2008

Farewell My Concubine – 1993, China

Conventional wisdom has it that the more you see a film, the clearer the film becomes. This is certainly not true – at least not for me - of Chen Kaige's 1993 epic Farewell My Concubine. Having seen the film now four times, I feel confident in saying that I may never understand all that happens in the film, for I doubt the characters in the film completely understand what transpires. Just think of the historical events that occur in the course of the film: the end of China's warlord era, the 1937 invasion of Beijing, the Civil War between the Nationalists and the Communists, the rise of Mao Zedong and the Red Army, and Mao’s devastating Cultural Revolution. If those events alone do not seem hard enough to endure, consider this. The film's protagonists also endure physical abuse, mental abuse, rape, betrayal, and the threat of becoming irrelevant. Their perseverance is inspiring; their failures are understandable. And the film is simply haunting.

Farewell My Concubine begins in 1924 with one of the toughest scenes I've ever witnessed. A young woman leads her child through a crowd to a sort of alternative school for young boys. The school - and I use that term loosely - is run by a man known as Master Guan, whose methods involve brutally beating and verbally abusing the children in his charge, all in the name of turning them into great performers. Children are whipped for not giving convincing performances, their hands are slapped with sticks even when they have done nothing wrong, and their legs are unnaturally spread and then kept open with large bricks in an effort to produce children capable of kicking high into the air. It is not the environment that one would expect a young woman to leave her child in, but this is not a normal situation. The young woman is a prostitute, and she is desperate to find a place to leave her son. There is only one problem: The boy has six fingers. Outside somewhere in the distance a man's voice can be heard eerily repeating the same chilling words. “Knives sharpened.” What happens next is painful to watch.

The young boy, Douzi, befriends one of the other children at the school, Shitou. They make an uneasy pair. Douzi is inhibited, quiet, and uneasy with his place in life; Shitou is headstrong and defiant. Chinese opera becomes Douzi's entire reason for being, and he seems willing to endure misery for the sake of his art; to Shitou, training and performing are part of a job, one that he can leave if he desires to. Years later, the two of them become the most famous performers in Beijing. The opera they specialize in is Farewell My Concubine, an opera that ends with a concubine committing suicide to prove her devotion to her king. Its moral, according the Master Guan, is that each person is responsible for his own fate, a sentiment that the film appears to endorse at least partly. Later Douzi and Shitou's friendship is tested when Shitou meets and decides to marry Juxian (Gong Li), a prostitute at a place called the House of Blossoms.

One theme that runs throughout the film is karma, and making sense of it has proven to be an arduous task for me. Is the film implying that what Juxian refers to as “karmic retribution” is behind all of the suffering and hardship that befalls the three of them? For example, are we to believe that by hiding the fact that Douzi was born with six fingers, Douzi's sexuality has also been hidden? Or are we to see Douzi's sexuality as the direct outcome of his sexual abuse? It's also possible to see it as part of his sacrifice for his craft. In addition, are we to accept that the reason Douzi and Shitou are betrayed is that Douzi saved a child whom fate had other plans for, and not simply because the boy become part of a movement that encouraged the young to criticize and turn against those that fed and educated them? I also wonder if Douzi's final action is the action of someone who accepts his role in the tragedy that has befallen them or the act of someone who has nothing left to live for. Even after four viewings, I can honestly say that I'm no closer to answering these questions.

Farewell My Concubine fascinates me like few other films. In one scene, Douzi (the late Leslie Cheung) is described as having blurred the line between theater and reality. Later, Shitou (Zhang Fengyi) seems to forget that Douzi is a man and allows himself for a moment to enjoy Douzi's arms around his stomach only to be stunned seconds later by the image of the two of them in a mirror. In another scene, Douzi and Shitou are summoned by their former teacher, and even though they are both successful actors, they revert back into the powerless, scared children they were previously. In the end, it is Douzi's obsession with opera that is used against him by angry youth’s intent on ridding China of anything counterrevolutionary; as for Shitou, it is his love for Juxing that is used to condemn him as a traitor to the new China. After all, what moral, forward-thinking man would ever associate himself with someone of Juxing's status and profession? Shitou's response to his inquisitors and the angry mob surrounding them is shocking, yet somehow not unexpected. It is also somewhat karmic, especially when one considers the events that immediately preceded it.

At one point in the film, Douzi asks why the concubine has to die in the opera. It is a good question. Perhaps it is indeed her way of showing her loyalty to the king, that she would rather face death than a life without him. Such an explanation only makes sense if one believes that there is honor in this choice. About a year and a half ago I visited a shrine in Tainan with my father. The shrine was for five concubines who chose to commit suicide rather than go to a convent after the king was removed from power. Their sacrifice is still celebrated today, and the shrine is visited by tourists and locals alike. Yet as I walked around this tomb, I didn't feel proud of their sacrifice. In fact, I wasn't sure exactly how to feel. I only knew that something tragic had taken place there. It was the same feeling I get when I watch the closing credits of Farewell My Concubine. I can only describe the feeling as confusion and sadness mixed with a sense that I have just witness something significant, even if its exact definition eludes me. (on DVD)

4 and a half stars

*Farewell My Concubine is in Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles.

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