I was pretty excited about watching Farewell my Concubine. After viewing Raise the Red Lantern (1991) two years ago for my August Blind Spot, I was anxious with excitement about seeing another groundbreaking Chinese film.
At just over two hours, Raise the Red Lantern is a slow paced and methodic film. No unnecessary action was taken and no word spoken without care. The film is set during the 1920s which was the end of the Chinese Dynasty… erm… system. Is that right? Clans? I really don’t know much about Chinese history. But the staunch traditional values that are upheld would easily make you believe the film was set hundreds of years prior.
Similarly, Farewell, My Concubine is set around the same era but focuses on the traditional Chinese Opera system. Both films were part of the Fifth Generation of Chinese Directors that made films about China’s past that were highly controversial at home but wowed critic’s on the world’s stage. Farewell, My Concubine even ended up winning the Palme D’Or award at Cannes Film Festival.
The huge win enabled enough leverage to force China to lift the ban but only allowing a censored version that glazed over the homosexual and suicide scenes.
Farewell My Concubine
Turns out, the film’s comparisons to Raise the Red Lantern largely end there. The film is an EPIC. Two boys, Douzi and Shitou, enter an Opera troupe as young lads and are subjected to beatings and torture on the path to perfection. Douzi trains to perform the female role of Concubine, whilst Shitou trains to perform the King in the Opera of the film’s name, Farewell My Concubine.
It is clear Douzi’s effeminate nature is suggestive of him being gay and having feelings towards Shitou. The film spans roughly 50 years from the lads’ as youngsters to successful famous actors to reuniting after their prime. And while all this is going on, the 2nd Sino-Japanese War is kicking off and Shitou decides to marry a prostitute called Juxian.
It’s no surprise that the film clocks in at 2 hours 44 minutes when you list everything that happens. It spans a huge scope of time and a lot of important events in Chinese history. Not to mention tackling prostitution, homosexuality, wars with the Japanese, suicide, abuse both sexual and physical all wrapped up in a film about Opera.
A Chinese Schindler’s List (1994)
Whilst the logical side of my brain is telling me this film is a triumph of filmmaking, the emotional side of my brain is saying “still… it was no Raise the Red Lantern though, was it?” Because that film, man. That film did something to me. The quiet despair like a duck gliding calmly above the water furiously kicking its legs underneath. It’s a special film, that one.
But Farewell, My Concubine is an event film like no other. If I had to compare it to something, then it’s a Chinese Schindler’s List (1994). The actors are phenomenal and stay true to their roles, Douzi as the homosexual actor playing the Concubine is particularly engaging. Hec, I’ve looked at the above picture of a fancy lady and under no circumstances would I thought that that was a man!
While the film failed to really grab my attention, it’s a really difficult film to miss when looking at Chinese film history. Next time though, I think I’m going to seek out The Blue Kite (1994).
Have you ever seen Farewell, My Concubine? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!