Farewell My Concubine (1993) dir. Chen Kaige
Adapted for the screen by Lu Wei based on the novel by Lilian Lee, Farewell My Concubine film is set in a politically tumultuous 20th-century China, from the early days of the Republic to the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. It chronicles the troubled relationships between two Peking opera actors and lifelong friends Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou, and Xiaolou’s wife Juxian.
The movie is about confusion of identity and blurred lines between real life and the stage, portrayed by the revered opera actor Dieyi, whose unrequited love for Xiaolou persists through the movie. Scholar Ying notes that in order “[to] attract the international audience, Chinese history and Peking Opera are drawn close while homosexuality, individual perversities and moral dilemmas are transposed distant”. Commentators also noted themes of political and societal disturbances in 20th-century China, which is typical of the Chinese Fifth Generation cinema.
Farewell My Concubine is considered one of the landmark films of the Fifth Generation movement that brought Chinese film directors to world attention. In 2005, the film was selected as one of the “100 Best Films in Global History” by Time magazine.
The historical background of the film is multi-layered and complicated, which contributes to the motif and the form of the film. The 1990s period saw China trying to do damage control to the country’s image after the massacre that happened during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. David Shambaugh talks about the government’s new agenda that focused on “restoring the appearance of unity in the leadership, ensuring the loyalty of the military, re-establishing social order, reasserting central control over the provinces, recentralizing and retrenching the economy, and redefining China’s role in a post-Cold War international environment”. In addition to the mentioned changes in the political climate, at the time of the film’s release, the atmosphere around the criticism of Cultural Revolution shifted. As Luo Hui notes “criticizing the Cultural Revolution had become permissible, even fashionable”, allowing the film to highlight the devastation the world of art, as well as other aspects of Chinese society like medicine and education, suffered at the hands of the Cultural Revolution movement.
Venue: Harrie Massey LT