Farewell My Concubine Movie Review
Kaige's film charts the course of a unique romantic triangle that would even give Frank Borzage pause, following the relationship of two boyhood friends over half a century of turbulent Chinese history. After being abandoned by his prostitute mother at the Beijing Opera training school, young Douzi (Ma Mingwei as a child, Yin Shi as a teen, and Leslie Cheung as an adult) soon makes friends with the cocky Sitou (Fei Yang as a child, Yin Zhi as a teen, and Zhang Fengyi as an adult), and they both provide emotional support for the other as they undergo the grueling and pitiless opera school training that finds them, as adults, as the female and male role stars of the Beijing Opera. However, at the height of their fame, Sitou (now known as Duan Xiaolou) announces his intent to marry the sex-bomb prostitute Juxian (Gong Li). Douzi's (now known as Cheng Dieyi) obsessive jealousy and immediate dislike for Juxian leads him into the creepy arms of opera patron Yuan (Ge You) and to seek solace in opium-induced stupors. As the years pass and the old friends became increasingly estranged, they are finally, during the Gang of Four years, forced to publicly denounce each other as counter-revolutionaries. The result is humiliation and tragedy.
Kaige's mercilessly melodramatic film is an apt reflection of its operatic milieu -- obvious, vapid, and overblown. He bedecks his film in an ornate von Sternberg style as the camera shoots through gauze filters, fish tanks, and fire and enlists teeming crowd scenes and elaborate Steadicam shots like a thick canvas cloak to hang upon the clichéd and lukewarm storyline. His theme (which was what probably caused his film to be banned by the Chinese government in the early 1990s), concerning the horrors of repressing individuality to conform to the ideals at the group, bears a marked similarity to his film The Big Parade (particularly in comparing the army training scenes in that film with the opera training scenes here). But, as with The Big Parade, the hackneyed narrative clashes sharply with Kaige's emotionalism and gaudy imagery.
Kaige and his screenwriters also come up short in their usage of historical events. The film, for most of its running time, is hermetically sealed inside Beijing Opera intrigues and breast-beatings. But history intrudes upon the characters at convenient intervals merely to bludgeon forward the creaky narrative line (if Dieyi must show his loyalty to Xiaolou, the Japanese must suddenly arrive and arrest Xiaolou so that Dieyi can give a command performance to the Japanese army in order to free Xiaolou from captivity... or if the characters must be pushed into tragedy, the Red Guard suddenly arrives to do the pushing). This off-the-cuff historical ease further distances the viewer from the story, drowning motivations into a sea of historical claptrap.
What saves Farewell My Concubine is the acting, particularly Shang Fengyi's commanding performance that centers the film. Gong Li, in turn, delivers a powerhouse star turn in a large supporting role that Kaige accentuates by gracing her with a superstar entrance -- she is first seen kicking a group of horny men out of her room on the second floor of a brothel and then leaping from the heights and landing at Xiaolou's feet.
But Farewell My Concubine cannot overcome the spotty plot and weak-kneed characters. Kaige garnishes his film with too much filigree and pomp and, like his characters, hands over his script to the Gang of Four charged with counter-revolutionary pap.
Aka Ba wang bie ji.