Three Chinese lives set against epic change in the 20th century.
There are a set of Chinese films made in the '90s which I believe are destined to become classics. These include Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, The Joy Luck Club, Shanghai Triad, Raise the Red Lantern, Temptress Moon, and the subject of this review Ba wang bie ji, or Farewell, My Concubine as we round-eyes would call it.
All of these films have thick ambience, great stories, interesting characters, and are beautifully filmed. Eat, Drink, Man, Woman is one of the most beautiful films ever made. It's very small and personal and if there was ever a Zen-like flick, it is one. The others are brutally emotional and tend toward the epic, with individuals caught up in forces beyond their control. And, in China in the first three quarters of the 1900s, you didn't have to look far to find a force beyond your control.
The people of China, long conditioned to control, have found themselves under the thumbs of feudal warlords, the British, the Japanese during World War II, the nationalists under Chang Kai-shek in the immediate post war period, and finally the Communists after the fall of the nationalists. This film covers most of that period, all of which occurred within the span of a single lifetime.
Farewell, My Concubine won the Best Foreign Language Film award from both the American Academy and the Golden Globes, as well as the Golden Palm from Cannes, and numerous other awards.
The film starts out very shockingly when a desperate mother, a prostitute who can no longer keep her growing son at the brothel, takes him to a local boy's school and begs the master to accept him. The master turns her away because the boy has an extra finger on his hand. Desperate, she takes him outside into the snow and cuts off his finger. She brings him back and leaves him at the boy's school, without looking back. His plaintive call to her as she leaves is heart rending.
The young boy is named Douzi, and is small and effeminate, and at a disadvantage against the tough kids in the school. But he is befriended by a larger boy named Shitou, who acts as his protector. The school the boys live in is really more of a actor's troupe, training the boys for the Chinese opera. At that time, Chinese opera isn't what we westerners would think of as opera. It was a sort of mix of Kabuki theater, western opera, and Circque de Solei, i.e. it had lots of elaborate costumes, pancake makeup, singing, and gymnastics.
The training at the school is quite brutal. The masters of the school beat and punish the children relentlessly, and subject them to painful and probably dangerous physical exertions. This wasn't exactly the era of children's rights or public welfare. These boys choices were to become part of the troupe and make the grade, or become homeless orphans. As brutal as their lives are, they are probably lucky compared to many.
One day, Douzi and another boy named Laizi run away from the school for a day. Strangely enough, it is during this escape attempt that he sees his first opera and sees for himself what it is like to be worshipped as a famous performer. He is so moved that he decides to risk the punishment and goes back to the school. He then applies himself completely becomes obsessed with his craft. Because of his slight frame and high voice, he is selected to play female roles, since as in many other cultures in the past women did not play the female roles. Over many years of much brutal punishment, Douzi effectively becomes half woman and masters his role well.
During a show given at the school one day he comes to the attention of the former court Eunich (now there's a great job if you can get it), who both rapes him and makes his career. The film then cuts forward in time, where Douzi and Shitou have themselves become young men and stars of the Beijing opera. They have taken the stage names Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou, and think as highly of themselves as their fans do. Opera is becoming more popular and they are the big fish in the biggest entertainment pond in China.
Dieyi, played by Leslie Cheung (The Kid, Moonlight Express, Temptress Moon) and Xiaolou (Shitou), played by Zhang Fengyi (Temptation of a Monk, The First Emperor, Police Confidential) are particularly renowned for their portrayal of the famous classic opera story of the Chu King and his favorite concubine, from which the film gains its title. The King's reign is coming to an end, at the hands of the rival Han King, and he and his concubine find themselves together at the end and commit suicide together.
So things are going well, and the troupe they belong to has gained the attention of the wealthy Master Yuan, played by You Ge (Eighteen Springs, Livings, Be There or Be Square), who has become their patron. But conflict is visible on the horizon because, unlike Dieyi, Xiaolou is not completely wed to his work and likes to spend a bit of time at the local high end bordello, The House of Blossoms. Here he meets a prostitute named Juxian, played by Gong Li (The Chinese Box, Temptress Moon, Raise the Red Lantern. Juxian is a major dragon lady and a master of her craft, and gets Xiaolou to propose to her. Dieyi is livid and hates Juxian because he sees her as rival to their friendship and a distraction from their work. He says that he will never perform with his friend again.
Its at the wedding party of Xiaolou and Juxian that news arrives of the Japanese invasion of China. Being one of the local entertainments, the guys are forced to perform for the Japanese officers but things go awry and Xiaolou's pride and temper end up causing him to be arrested by the Japanese and taken away. Given that getting accidentally on purpose strapped to a wall and shot was not unusual during this period, Dieyi rescues him by giving a private performance for the senior Japanese officers, something that he will come to regret later. But at the time he thinks nothing of it, since he just wants to perform and doesn't care much about politics.
At the end of the war, Chang Kia-shek's nationalist forces temporarily have control of the city. Once again, the guys find themselves giving command performances at the point of a gun. And, once again violence breaks out and a melee breaks out. Though it is again Xiaolou's temper which causes it, it is Dieyi who is arrested. But the arrest is because of his supposed traitorous collaboration with the Japanese. This time, it is Xiaolou and Juxian who must rescue him. They effectively blackmail Master Yuan into paying off the court, and feeding Dieyi a story to hold to during the trial. Despite Dieyi's suicidal refutation of their cover story, he is still released and the two go their own ways. Xiaolou, at Juxian's urging, gets out of the opera business.
One day, by chance, the two meet on the street again where Xiaolou is now a street vendor. It is on the day of this meeting that the communist forces of Mao gain control of the city, and everyone's lives are changed forever. Needless to say, the communist regime considers stylized reenactment of ancient stories at best a politically subversive intellectual entertainment for the rich. Actually, they consider almost everything politically subversive. As the opera troupe comes under progressively greater control of fanatic young communists, Dieyi and Xiaolou find themselves more and having to choose between physical freedom and artistic freedom. Dieyi, still single, very serious about opera, and by now an opium addict, argues against the changes, while Xiaolou is less strong and must consider the safety of Juxian.
Xiao Si, played by Han Lei (Farewell, My Concubine), initially a young disciple of Dieyi, becomes a wide eyed fanatic communist and turns against his former teachers. His influence brings Dieyi, Xiaolou, and Juxian to a final, horrible confrontation between loyalty and life. This scene is hugely emotional and we can only shudder to think how we might handle a similar situation. In the face of a world gone mad, where complete loyalty to the state must crush all other allegiances, there is no room for art or deep personal connections.
The acting of the three major figures of the film is immaculate. In particular, Gong Li gives her usual great performance. As I've mentioned in previous reviews, there is some sort of WTO trade agreement between the US and China which requires her to be in all imported films I think. Her face is likely to grace more boxes than not in the Asian imports section of your local video store. This is not a bad thing by any means, since her face is indeed lovely and she is a great actress.
I've never seen Zhang Fengyi in anything else that I am aware of, but Leslie Cheung was also in Temptress Moon. Its interesting that in that film he plays a very macho and manipulative gigolo type, while in this film his character is a very sexually ambiguous person with lots of homo-erotic overtones. He plays the role well without every going over the top or becoming a caricature, and is creates an extremely sympathetic character.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Why, oh why, oh why was this film not given an anamorphic transfer? Whoever made that decision should be fired. This film is so visually beautiful that it absolutely deserved such treatment. It really makes me sick. When I become the bloated billionaire software God that I am destined to be, I will personally see to it that this person is fired and that these films get re-transferred. The letterboxed transfer was pretty clean, though slightly soft and noisy sometimes, but it could have been awesome.
And what's up with DVDs that have menus in a different aspect ratio than the rest of the film? That really bugs me. Anyone who does any sorts of scaling tricks has to jump through hoops to deal with these differences every time they bring up the menu. Did the same person make that decision?
Also, there is a tendency to try to push down subtitles so that they go slightly below the content. I assume that the technicians assume that since its letterboxed that this will be safe and will avoid covering too much content. But, when the image is displayed on a wide screen set, the bars are lost and the bottoms of the subtitle text can be slightly cut off. This seldom caused any confusion, but it is annoying.
The Dolby 2.0 audio is good enough, considering how engaging the film is in general. But, here again, it deserved more attention. There is a bit of action in this film, particularly crowd scenes, which could have benefited from a better surround treatment. I assume the vocals are understandable, but of course I was reading the subtitles so its hard to say.
The extras, like almost everything I've reviewed lately, are non-existent. And, as usual, I must punish them in my scoring, and complain because once again I'm robbed of a deeper insight to a film I love. Don't make me fire anyone else here.
I love this film. I've been waiting for a long time for it to arrive. If it weren't for the fact that Hong Kong import DVDs usually suck like an industrial carpet cleaner, I would have gone that route. But, I hoped that eventually a better DVD transfer would come along. Though I would have hoped it would have been of anamorphic quality, I guess I'll take what I can get.
If you haven't been exposed to any of the films discussed in this review, then I would definitely suggest that you see this one since its the first one out on in a quality DVD transfer. These films are wonderful explorations of the human condition in many of its forms. They are immensely entertaining and they might even help us self-centered American round-eyes better understand another culture in the process.
Hopefully, if this disc sells and rents well, the others will be transferred soon and get the attention they deserve. If this disc had been anamorphic and had some extras, it would have scored very well indeed, because the actual content is of the highest quality.
Acquitted, no thanks to the decisions made at Miramax about its transfer.
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