Reviewed by: nomoretitanic
Summary: Artfully Sadistic
This is a holy crap of a tragedy. A lot of suffering, a LOT of suffering. It's pretty brilliant I guess, tying Peking Opera and the recent Chinese history together. It again, like so many other recent period arthouse films about the Chinese, focuses on the pawns sacrificed during these extraordinary times. It's a lot easier for Chinese people to view it because it's not "exotic" to us, no offense, western people, but to watch this movie as a showcase for foreign cultures, locations, and customs, is to miss its point. So if you read any review that describes the picture as "sexy!...exotic!" chances are those guys are unreliable.
The movie begins with the mutilation of a boy, then beatings, then death/suicide of a boy, then more beatings, then rape of a boy--and that's only the first act. If it weren't for the political themes the movie would've simply been a sadistic melodrama. After watching that first 30 minutes I realized why Painted Faces had to be toned down. What a tragedy. The acting is great, the lines are great, the plot is standard with its twists and turns--but how can you even think about the plot when watching a movie like this. The final scene of this movie is outstanding, it's short, but so brilliantly gives the movie its closure and sums up the movie.
Reviewed by: virelai
Summary: Director's Cut Enhances Epic
"Farewell, My Concubine" (Ba wang bie ji) is a movie with two parallel, intertwined stories. It is the story of two performers in the Peking Opera, stage brothers, and the woman who comes between them. At the same time, it attempts to do no less than squeeze the entire political history of China in the twentieth century into a three-hour timeframe. By linking the two, it succeeds in dramatic fashion.
Reviewer Score: 10
I first saw this film shortly after its initial U.S. release, where I became quite caught up in the human story. The second time was on video, just after taking a course on modern Chinese History. Needless to say, I was quite affected by the political aspects of the film that time. This review comes after my third viewing, which is of the longer original release cut. I can't say that my appreciation for the movie has diminished at all, even if what I'm appreciating keeps changing.
The film opens during the chaotic period shortly after the fall of the Manchu dynasty, where we are introduced to the two children who will be the center of the film's action: Shitou, the outspoken actor-in-training at a school of opera, and Douzi, the son of a prostitute who, in a grisly scene, has his extra fingers cut off so that he can join the school. Delicate of build and feature, it soon becomes apparent that Douzi will be trained to play the role of a woman, the Concubine Yu (of the opera from which this film takes its title). Shitou, who plays the king to Douzi's concubine, becomes something of a protector to the younger actor during their training. Thus begins the relationship that will shape their lives through the political upheavals that will follow.
Time passes, and we learn that Douzi and Shitou have become popular stars of the opera, going by the names of Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou, respectively. In the process of gallantly saving the beautiful courtesan Juxian (played by the luminous Gong Li) from a party of drunken men, Duan (Zheng Fengyi) stages a mock proposal of marriage. Juxian, seeing a way out of her life of prostitution, quits her job and convinces Duan that she has been thrown out of her home. Feeling responsible, Duan announces to the entire opera troupe that the wedding will go ahead.
This is when it becomes quite clear that Cheng's feelings for Duan are more than brotherly. He is in love with Duan, and sees Juxian as a threat to their relationship both on and off the stage, something that Duan seems to interpret as an obsession with the opera that Cheng cannot separate from real life. This is the personal conflict at the heart of the story, and it reflects the turmoil in China that sits in the background.
From the KMT consolidation of power to the Communist takeover in 1949, to the Cultural Revolution of the 60's and 70's, we experience it all firsthand when we watch the movie. This is undoubtedly because Peking Opera, that ancient art form, must invariably come into conflict with the New Order, whatever form it may take. Both Duan and Cheng get into trouble with these new regimes -- Duan because of his hotheadedness, and Cheng because of his naivete. Sometimes out of spite, sometimes out of love, both do things that come back to haunt them later in life in tragic fashion. Juxian seems to be portrayed as the most politically wise, but as she tries to keep Duan in check and out of trouble (for instance, by convincing him to quit the opera), she doesn't seem to realize that she is as much setting up their downfalls as the two men in her life are.
The scenes protraying the Cultural Revolution are harrowing. During this paranoid time, love was used as a weapon of the state; family members and friends were pressured to turn in their loved ones on charges of nonconformist thinking and behavior. I understand that the director, Chen Kaige himself, turned his father in during the Cultural Revolution. No doubt this film is part of his coming to terms with his regret.
The direction of this film is spectacular, but at the heart of this film's success is the superlative jobs done by the actors. Leslie Cheung, the Hong Kong superstar, gives a delicately nuanced performance as Cheng. Though he seems to have played an awful lot of these Opera roles in Hong Kong, I'm mostly familiar with his work as the goofy traveler in the "Chinese Ghost Story" series. The contrast in these roles is almost too much to be believed. Gong Li, who was called something like "the most beautiful actress in films" by some critic (I think I saw this on the packinging for the "Chinese Box" DVD) is stunning as Juxian. She manages to convey a sort of manipulative cunning, and while she is (unwittingly?) tearing the lives of the two men apart, the viewer can't help but sympathize with her. There's a kind of deep sadness just behind her eyes that appears as the film progresses into its third stage, as if she knows that what she does can only have tragic consequences but she is powerless to act differently. Zheng Fengyi more than adequately provides enough testosterone to balance opposite the effeminate Dieyi and Juxian.
The longer, original release cut includes a variety of scenes not present in the United States release of the film. My impression is that they provide a deeper insight into the characters and the culture that surrounds them, the Peking Opera in particular. If the cost is a slightly slower pace, so be it; I can't really say that any of the cut scenes cried out to be cut. Many of these are longer operatic scenes in addition to those in the domestic cut. It's quite possible that it was decided that Western audiences would have a low threshold to the lovely but culturally alien style of Peking Opera. We see a short sequence in which Duan corrects Juxian as she applies makeup for a performance, explaining how Cheng would have done it. I think scene illustrates the point that his attachment to his stage brother is still deeper than his relationship with his wife. Also, we get a touch of vindication in the closing scenes where certain just desserts appear to be handed out. If you've seen the domestic cut of the film and want to know how this version differs, I have them listed at a <a href="http://www.imsa.edu/~leda/cinerev/farewell-delta.html">separate site</a>. If you've never seen "Farewell," you may want to avoid it as spoilers will undoubtedly be revealed.
Lushly filmed and epic in scope, this colorful historical epic never loses ahold of its human face.
Michael's 5-point rating: (5.0/5)