NOW IN 4K! In celebration of its 30th anniversary, Chen Kaige’s moving Farewell My Concubine returns with a glorious 4K restoration. Based on Lillian Lee’s novel of the same name, this drama was released in Hong Kong and Shanghai in 1993. The Chinese government would ultimately ban the film for criticizing the Chinese communist regime.
This is the epic tale of two childhood friends, Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Fengyi Zhang). Dieyi was the son of a prostitute who was dropped off by his mother at Peking Opera to be trained by Master Guan. As Dieyi was bullied by his fellow students, Duan would rescue him and bond the two together forever.
The two grew closer as they endured the torturous training of Master Guan—we’re talking legit torture. The two would be paired as teens to perform and perfect the opera Farewell My Concubine. Duan played the king, and Dieyi played his concubine. Guan’s psychologically abusive tactics caused Dieyi to believe that he was a woman and a concubine.
Throughout Farewell My Concubine, Duan and Dieyi’s friendship is tested and forged. The first instance happened when Dieyi professes his love for Duan…till death do us part. Duan ignores Dieyi’s advances and, in turn, falls in love with and marries the top prostitute at the House of Blossoms in Juxian (Gong Li),
The chapters of their friendship parallel China’s tumultuous history, starting with the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. During the occupation, Dieyi would perform at the request of the Japanese occupiers. After the war, Dieyi would face charges of treason for his actions. The friendship of Dieyi and Duan is put to the final test in China’s cultural revolution in 1968.
“…psychologically abusive tactics caused Dieyi to believe that he was a woman and a concubine.”
I do not use the word “epic” lightly when describing Farewell My Concubine. It’s not quite visually epic, like The Last Emporer. It’s epic in that the story and friendship span the most trying times of 20th-century Chinese history. Pain and suffering follow our protagonist throughout. The boys’ torture is brutal to watch in the first act, and the slow degradation of the adult Duan and Dieyi’s freedom and spirit is equally challenging to behold.
Watching the movie in 2023 proves that as much as the world changes, nothing really does. It hit on themes of gender identity and sexual orientation in connection with Dieyi’s grooming to play the role of the concubine. Dieyi also struggles with drug addiction as Duan is constantly challenged on all sides in defending his friendship with Dieyi.
Leslie Cheung and Fengyi Zhang give brilliant and heartbreaking performances as Dieyi and Duan. Gong Li also shines as the complicated Juxian. She is the glue that holds our two leads together in a difficult and emotional performance.
The most surprising aspect of Farewell My Concubine is the third act, which takes place during the Cultural Revolution. History is rewritten. Cultural norms are being challenged. Loyalty to the party is rewarded, while stepping out of line could cost you your life…or at least your way of living or means to survive. As I mentioned, the film would ultimately be banned by China because of its criticism of the communist party, and rightfully so. We’re not so far off from this reality in the U.S. today.
Farewell My Concubine is a tragic and poignant story in every sense of the world. It’s a tough watch, dramatically, as there is darkness in this classic film. It’s not hard to see why it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1993 and the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and Cinematography.
Farewell My Concubine returns to theaters in a 4K restored release with the twenty minutes that were removed from the original U.S. theatrical release.
"…a tragic and poignant story in every sense of the world."