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Farewell My Concubine  

Director: Chen Kaige
Cast: Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, Gong Li

Farewell My Concubine is a title which alludes to a popular piece of traditional Chinese opera, an art form, which unlike its Western counterpart, enjoyed widespread and enthusiastic support from all walks of life. The film, which won the Cannes Film Festival Palme D'Or, spans fifty years, detailing the relationship between two Chinese opera stars. Meeting as young boys in a operatic training school in the 1920's, Douzi (Leslie Cheung) is trained to perform female roles, while Shitou (Zhang Fengyi), takes on the male roles. At some point of his training, Douzi completely embraces the female essence of his characters, though whether the film intended this to be an explanation for his homosexuality in his adult life is not expressed. Their friendship is tested by war, communist purges and most of all, by the intrusion of Shitou's wife into their lives, Juxian (Gong Li).

This is a love triangle: both Douzi (or Dieyi, as he is known as an adult) and Juxian loves Shitou (or Xiaolou). It is a simple theme which is as dramatic and powerful as the stories played out on the stage, in fact, the operatic theme pervades much of the film's fabric. Dieyi can only express his love for Xiaolou as the Concubine Yu to Xiaolou's Emperor on stage, and to him, opera is more than just an occupation, but his whole being. And so when the opera tradition comes under attack from the Red Guards in the 1960s, it is an attack on his identity. It seems strange, but Xiaolou doesn't notice his "stage brother's" love for him, perhaps too wrapped up in his ambitions. Only his wife senses it, and the conflict between Dieyi and Juxian provides some of the movie's most emotionally charged scenes.

This is the first performance by Leslie Cheung that I can remember which utilised his dramatic abilities. Subsumed in his costume and makeup, he is Concubine Yu, and also a woman in love, a transformational magic that's fascinating to watch. Zhang Fengyi's Xiaolou is brash and perplexingly insensitive - or perhaps wilfully blind, until at last he betrays Dieyi to save his own life. And Juxian suits Gong Li as a feisty woman, sometimes an enemy of Dieyi, but showing her complexity by displaying moments of understanding and compassion for him, and fierce devotion to her husband. Having been positive about this film, I have to say its not a film for everyone, especially not at 2 and a half hours. But as a film of tragedy and drama, it is from start to the shocking finish, a well-crafted piece of work.

Eden Law

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