Friday, 30 August 2013

1993 Retrospective: Farewell My Concubine (d. Chen Kaige)

A/N: On to the third film I’ve rewatched for the 1993 retrospective I’ve been doing (very slowly) with Walter of Silver Screening Room. He’s parsing through the Oscar categories with more alacrity than I with my reviews, but onward to a Best Foreign Language Film nominee.

Each time I sat down to start working on a review for Farewell My Concubine, I kept wondering, “How to attack this film in review?” I use the word attack deliberately because if any film from 1993 presents a fight for the review it’s this one. Kaige’s film is a sprawling, multifaceted, beating heart of a movie with such vivid tenacity and overflowing with so much….muchness that I will readily admit that I was part excited at the promise of discussing it and part terrified at the prospect of having to. Because, how to do it? usually, I prefer to keep the window through which the audience acknowledges the writer mostly closed, but this one is a toughie – a view into my trouble is necessary. Friendship saga, romantic love triangle, political tale, homosexual drama, childhood abuse tragedy, backstage pseudo-farcical drama, historical epic. Take your pick. When in doubt always fall back on which appeals to you most, so I’ll take backstage drama. We’ll go forth from there.

(Incidentally, this is perhaps not the wisest lens through which to consider Farewell My Concubine, for in a film that jungles many things its ruminations on art and artistic worth are not its soundest. And, yet….)

And, so, Farwell My Concubine opens with a shot of a theatre house hall and then two performers enter. It’s the reunion of their troupe after twenty something years. They’ll quibble about the exact number. It’s also been about a decade or so since these two performers last saw each other. Why the reunion? Why the *need* for a reunion? And why the opera bringing them together again? The film is the answer to each of these questions as we head five decades to the streets of Beijing returning to the opening scene for only the final few minutes of the film. A prostitute takes her son to the house of the opera troupe to be trained as an artist. She’s adamant that he can attain a better life there than he can with her in the whorehouse and there. The boy is Douzi. Douzi, blessed or cursed with an extra finger, must have the deformity forcibly removed before he’s allowed into the school. His mother’s insistence that he become a part of the opera troupe is interesting as it occurs but becomes more intriguing in retrospect because life at the opera house is inarguably terrible for the residents. The children are mistreated, a love of art does not seem to be taught but rote lessons of performing the physical acts necessary for artistic expression are. It is here Douzi meets Shitou and the two become friends and grow up to be stars of the opera, now named Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou.

I chose backstage drama, and it’s a valid way to examine the film because it’s the opera house which brings them together and which tears them apart, then reunites them again. But, Farewell My Concubine puzzles when considered as a treatise on art and the artist. The original “Farewell My Concubine opera, references to which suffuse the film, is a famous Peking tale. Pivotal moments in Douzi’s life, arguably the more important of the two protagonists, hinge on his relationship with the opera; suppressing his maleness to play the role of the female as he ought to the in the opera, swallowing his jealousy and continue to perform when jealousy of Shitou’s wife threatens to destroy the duo, entering into a liaisons with a lecherous patron of art for the success of the opera house and most significantly performing opera for Japanese to save a friend from harm. And, still, even as every other frame in the film bears some connection to the art of Chinese opera Lilian Lee’s script does not do much in the way of actually considering how artists interact with their art.

...more thoughts below on opaqueness in the film, and Kaige's treatment of the human condition....

It’s only on full consideration of Farewell My Concubine’s entire narrative thrust that the arguable opaqueness of the work’s contemplations on art reveals itself as similarly found in other aspects. For example, politics and the relationship between gender and sex are two main themes which inform the film and yet the political turmoil in the country is examined mostly through the periphery, and as much as the film offers perspective on sex and gender it never addresses directly. It’s in this same coy way which every theme of the film, but for the brutality of the opera house for the children, seems to unfold and it’s then I begin wondering on the why of this. And, here context comes – Farewell My Concubine is part of the Fifth Generation of Chinese films and a significant part of this era in filmmaking for Chinese artists was the rising recognition Chinese films were making worldwide. The opaque treatment of China’s murky political though not examined in depth is tilted at just the right angle to make it coherent for audiences unfamiliar with it. In fact, on every social aspects – homosexuality, the legend of the opera, the brothel tradition – the film is vague. Enough information is given for understanding but not too much. It’s because, ultimately, Kaige is interested in making a film about people.
Connection. It’s the main reason that we are able to consume, enjoy and be moved by films from lands we have never been to or sometimes heard of. It’s the power of art to give us that human connection regardless of extenuating social and political factors and it’s why Farewell My Concubine leaps out in its over sumptuousness as a tale of troubled and troubling people. The way that Lee’s screenplay not just relishes, but seems to luxuriate in the least conventionally aspects of human character is both impressive and surprising. Our two male leads, and then Xiaolou’s wife who comes between, are petty, foolish, imprudent, sometimes even pathetic people and it’s in the basest attributes of their characters which make them so familiar to us. I would not say definitively that the opera house, the politics and the art are extraneous but I wonder if Kaige is most interested in how people relate to each other irrespective of place or time. (Also, I need to put this in where I can - gorgeously shot.)

But then, I return to the beginning of the film and I wonder if in my very roundabout way, maybe, I had approached Farewell My Concubine as I ought to have in the first place. For, one of the very first lines the unseen voice tells our protagonists when he sees them in the present time is “I almost didn’t recognise you”. Theses could be written on the profundity of this line in terms of identity, sexuality and politics and ultimate it’s the artistic undertones which give me greatest pause. Because, dressed for their performances Douzi and Shitou turned Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou do not look like themselves. They’ve spent their entire lives sacrificing their personal aspect for their art, even when it seemed they never truly loved them and not only are they unrecognisable in the sense of being disguised, but their star has faded. The man working at the theatre almost didn’t recognise. It is a line that seems to beckon the need for a Requiem, because right there the death has occurred. It’s all coming to an end. It puts that jarring “farewell” at the film’s end into perspective. What’s left but for the need to say goodbye?

Farewell My Concubine works so well because even when it frustrates in its messiness it bares its soul to us without shame just like Dieyi does. We are horrified, we are confused, we are disappointed. But, ultimately, we are moved. That’s art, right?

Grade: A–

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