Monday, May 20, 2013

2013 Cannes Marathon: Farewell My Concubine

(Co-Winner of the Palme D’or w/ The Piano & Winner of the FIPRESCI Award at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival)

Based on the novel by Lilian Lee, Farewell My Concubine is the story about the life of two Peking actors who endure many events in the course of five decades as they watch China change through the years. Directed by Chen Kaige and screenplay Lilian Lee and Lu Wei, the film explores the relationship between two men who are bounded together by their love for Peking opera as they endure all sorts of things where they watch the history of China change from afar. Starring Leslie Cheung, Gong Li, and Zhang Fengyi. Farewell My Concubine is an engrossing yet heart-wrenching drama from Chen Kaige.

The film explores the lives of two revered actors of Peking opera who would encounter through many events in the history of China from 1924 during the days when warlords ruled the country to the post-Mao period of China in 1977. Though the story begins in 1977 when these two men in Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) are practicing the opera known as Farewell My Concubine that would recall how they met when Cheng was known as Xiaodouzi (Ma Mingwei) as he was accepted to the school after his mother cuts off an extra finger where he is later protected and befriended by Duan who was known as Xiaoshitou (Fei Yang). Both boys would endure harsh punishments in their training to be actors which would pay off as men where they would have success but Duan’s attraction towards a prostitute in Juxian (Gong Li) while Cheng is courted by an opera patron named Yuan Shiqing (Ge You).

The screenplay by Lillian Lee and Lu Wei not only uses the opera as a way to help tell the story about the fates of these two men but also the events they would endure such as Japan’s occupation of China in the 1930s, the end of World War II, the Chinese Civil War, and the Cultural Revolution. While they have a relationship that can be tumultuous at times, there is still love between these two men though Duan treats Cheng like a brother though Cheng’s feelings for Duan is more than just brotherly. The presence of Juxian would threaten that relationship as she would have an uneasy relationship with Cheng though she would become one of the few people in his life who would care for him. Even as she would help him face against accusations of treason in the aftermath of World War II or being usurped by his protégée Xiaosi (Lei Han) before a performance. The events that these two men and the people close to them would encounter wouldn’t just test their relationship but also would force them to do things they aren’t proud of.

Chen Kaige’s direction is very mesmerizing in the way he explores the world of two boys who grow into men in the span of five decades. Notably as he shoots some of the early scenes set in 1924 in black-and-white and then into color to express a period in time that is chaotic where children don’t have much prospects. Kaige also showcases the sense of realism into what boys have to do to become Peking opera actors where the training is very punishing but also has this sense of discipline that is just fascinating to watch. Though there are moments that are unsettling that would include tragedy, it would play into the development of Cheng and Duan as well as strengthening their bond. The former becomes intent on being a great actor after seeing the Farewell My Concubine play. The latter acts as the older brother who is aware of Cheng’s determination as he would help out. Both would become these revered actors with a troupe that acts as a family where the direction is straightforward in some parts of the film such as the close-ups and medium shots.

The scenes of the Peking opera is a major highlight of the film not just how the story is told but also in how the relationship between the two men play where things definitely become more chaotic as the events in China would reflect that. Notably in the third act where the relationship between Cheng and Duan is quite strained as there’s some courtroom dramas as well as dealing with Communist party over comments from the past and such. There is also a sense of disconnect that the two deal with as Duan is eager to have a simple life with Juxian while Cheng wants to play the role that he has done for all of his life. The outcome like the play itself would be tragic but also fitting to everything these two men endure. Overall, Kaige creates a very sprawling yet exhilarating drama about the lives of two actors and their encounter with history.

Cinematographer Gu Changwei does excellent work with the film‘s colorful cinematography with some of its early use of black-and-white to some of the colored lighting schemes and use of lights to play up some of its drama and its opera scenes. Editor Pei Xiaonan does brilliant work with the editing to play up some of its drama through rhythmic cuts while structuring the film with some fade-outs. Production designers Yuhe Yang and Zhanjia Yang, with art director Huaikai Chen, do fantastic work with the set pieces from the opera presentations to the training houses and places the characters encounter throughout the course of the film.

Costume designer Chen Changmin does amazing work with the costumes from the clothes the actors wear during the performance to the use of more casual yet simpler clothing to play out the sense of changing times. Makeup artists Fan Qingshan and Guan Rui Xu do terrific work with the makeup to create the personalities of the characters during their stage performances. The sound work of Jing Tao is superb for the atmosphere that is created in the opera scenes as well as the more raucous moments during the protests and such. The film’s music by Zhao Jiping is wonderful for its mixture of soaring orchestral music with Chinese folk music to capture the drama that occurs throughout the film.

The film’s cast is great as it features some notable small roles from Lu Qui as the boys’ master Guan, Li Dan and Yang Yongchao as the boys’ classmate Laizi as a child and later a teen, Li Chun as the teenage Xiaosi, Ying Da as the actor’s troupe manager Na Kun, Yidi as the Eunuch Zhang whom the teenage Cheng would meet, and Lei Han as Cheng’s young protégée Xiaosi who would later usurp him as a way to humiliate Cheng while taking part in the Cultural Revolution. Ge You is excellent as the opera patron Yuan Shiqing who takes an interest in Cheng as he is also a fan of Peking opera only to get into some trouble regarding his involvement with the Japanese.

Gong Li is tremendous as Juxian as a prostitute who later becomes Duan’s wife as she tries to deal with all of the turmoil they endure as well as Cheng’s fall from grace as she would try to help him despite her reservations towards Cheng. In the role of Duan Xiaolou, there’s Fei Yang as the child version of Duan brother while Zhao Hailong plays the version of Duan as a teenager where they both maintain that sense of protectiveness towards Cheng. For the roles of Cheng Diyei, there’s Ma Mingwei as the child version of Cheng and Yin Zhei as his teenager counterpart where both boys play up that air of androgyny in Cheng. In the adult roles of Duan and Cheng, Zhang Fengyi and Leslie Cheung are incredible in their respective roles with Fengyi being the more aggressive and testosterone approach of Duan while Cheung is more sensitive and dramatic as Cheng as the two are just fantastic to watch in the way they act together.

Farewell My Concubine is a phenomenal film from Chen Kaige that features the brilliant performances of Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, and Gong Li. The film is definitely one of the most compelling stories about an ever changing world told from the eyes of two Peking opera actors trying to keep the Peking opera alive. It’s also a film that explores the bond between two men in the span of five decades as they endure all sorts of trials and tribulations during China’s tumultuous history. In the end, Farewell My Concubine is a rapturous film from Chen Kaige.

Chen Kaige Films: (Yellow Earth) - (The Big Parade) - (King of the Children) - (Life on a String) - (Temptress Moon) - (The Emperor and the Assassin) - (Killing Me Softly) - (Together (2002 film)) - (The Promise (2005 film)) - (Forever Enthralled) - (Sacrifice (2010 film)) - (Caught in the Web)

© thevoid99 2013


Unknown said...

A very compelling story, but I always feel disappointed with films that span this much amount of time. There's just not enough running time to handle the full story.

thevoid99 said...

True, they can be disappointing but this one actually worked because the characters were essentially outsiders to these different periods of time in China.