Nominated for two Oscars, the winner of a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for Best Foreign Language Film and China's only winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Farewell My Concubine gets an about time too release on crisp Blu-ray from the BFI this month. Nearly a quarter of a century since its release, is it worthy of its honours?
Set against a turbulent 50-year history of the political and social upheaval in China from the mid 1920s to the 1970s, (so that's the Warlord era, the Japanese invasion of China, the Communist victory and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution), a series of love affairs plays out with increasingly tragic results.
Unable to care for her son in the brothel where she works, a young mother goes to drastic measures to get her boy inside a terrifying but prestigious school, where pupils are taught the ways of acting and the Peking Opera. Or, more accurately, beaten, stretched, deprived and even sexually abused into the ways of the acting profession. Little Douzi, stoic but effeminate, is befriended immediately by the exuberant, strong and confident Shitou, and the first section of the film deals with their training and the bond that grows between the two children. It's a beautiful, compelling first act.
Cut to the point where the two inseparable friends are China's greatest stars of the Peking Opera, renowned and worshipped for their performances of classics of the form, including the most majestic opera of all, Farewell My Concubine. Douzi plays the female roles, and their companionship is solid until Shitou takes a wife. The rest of the film sees the characters tested as their worlds change around them and loyalty becomes a matter of life and death.
With all of the high drama, exaggerated emotion and archetypal characters of an opera itself, this film is a magnificent piece of work, triumphantly balancing the personal and political, resulting in a work as moving as it is enlightening.
In the three central roles, the cast is incredible. Zhang Fengyi is the solid, reliable backbone of the triangle, whilst Gong Li shines as the woman who comes between the two friends. But it's the late Leslie Cheung, who astonishes as the feminine star who never stops performing, on and off stage, carrying the weight of a lifelong, deeply felt love, unrequited outside of the boundaries of friendship. And therein lies the true drama of the piece. Shitou knows that Douzi has always been in love with him, and so does his wife, but this can be neither acted upon nor spoken of. As the cultural norms within which these characters have lived their lives, become the cultural enemies of the people, betrayal of those you love becomes a means to survive.
It's heartbreaking, more so because you know you're watching events the like of which would really have happened.
But there's another love affair brilliantly portrayed in the film, and it's that between China and its beloved Peking Opera, a strange art form, which you find yourself falling for as the film progresses.
Revolutions come and go, but heritage this powerful will always find a voice.
FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (1993) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: CHEN KAIGE / SCREENPLAY: LILIAN LEE, LU WEI / STARRING: LESLIE CHEUNG, ZHANG FENGYI, GONG LI / RELEASE DATE: 21ST MARCH