One of the most important works of the 5th Generation Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine
is the story of two Peking Opera
actors (Douzi/Cheng Dieyi and Shitou/Duan Xiaolou) and their tumultuous relationship
that spans 53 years. The film starts in 1924 Beijing, where Douzi is left (minus a sixth finger) at an opera school by his mother
, a prostitute who can no longer afford to keep him at her brothel. Douzi quickly befriends the brash and domineering Shitou, and they spend their childhood learning the acrobatics, dances, and songs that make up Beijing Opera
. Shitou learns male roles, and Douzi learns female roles. They both become hugely famous actors, and their trademark performance is the opera Farewell My Concubine, in which Shitou (whose stage name is Duan Xiaolou) plays the King of Chu, and Douzi (whose stage name is Cheng Dieyi) plays his concubine Yu. Through the Nationalist government, the Japanese occupation
, the Communist takeover
, and the Cultural Revolution
, Dieyi and Xiaolou's relationship becomes strained, in part due to political pressures, and in part due to Xiaolou never returning Dieyi's affections, and Dieyi's subsequent jealousy when Xiaolou marries a prostitute named Juxian (played by Gong Li
The film is one of the first Mainland Chinese films to feature homosexuality and gender identity as a central theme, and Chen Kaige personally considers it his apology to his father, whom he had publicly denounced during the Cultural Revolution
. It's also considered one of the finest films of modern Chinese cinema.
This film provides examples of:
- Becoming the Mask: Dieyi clearly sees himself as his signature character, Concubine Yu. Xiaolou calls him out on it after Dieyi expresses displeasure at Xiaolou's engagement to Juxian. At the end of the film, while still in character during a rehearsal, Dieyi slits his own throat, just as he had pretended to do as Concubine Yu.
- Crosscast Role: All female roles in pre-1949 Peking Opera were played by men. Dieyi specifically plays a "Guimen Dan" role as Concubine Yu. Of course, playing a female role leads to all kinds of gender identity issues for Dieyi.
- Cultural Revolution: Ultimately leads to the end of Dieyi and Xiaolou's friendship, Juxian commits suicide, and Xiaosi, Dieyi's adopted son, leads the public denunciation of Dieyi and Xiaolou after Dieyi dismisses his ideas for "revolutionary" opera.
- Dirty Old Man: Well, Dirty Old Eunuch...
- Doorstop Baby: Xiaosi
- Driven to Suicide: Laizi (a student at the opera school), and later, Juxian and Dieyi
- Duet Bonding: Douzi and Shitou are friends before they start performing together, but their bond deepens and grows stronger when they become an incredibly famous performing duo as the King of Chu and his concubine.
- Et Tu, Brute?: Dieyi gets through a lot of what life/modern Chinese history throws at him, but his Despair Event Horizon comes when Xiaolou betrays him to the Red Guards.
- Face-Heel Turn: Xiao Si.
- Feud Episode: Happens several times (they make up), but the biggest and most permanent one comes after the Cultural Revolution, when Xiaolou and Dieyi publicly humiliate and betray each other during the struggle session.
- The first real "breakup" occurs at Xiaolou's engagement party, when Dieyi declares "From now on, I'll sing mine and you sing yours" (translated to English as "From now on, we will not perform together").
- Going Cold Turkey: Dieyi gets addicted to opium, and goes through a harrowing withdrawal, which leaves him alternating between shivering in the fetal position and mumbling about his mother to screaming profanities and smashing anything made of glass, in order kick his habit.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Dieyi and Xiaolou are this, but Dieyi wants them to be something more.
- Incompatible Orientation: Douzi/Dieyi is hopelessly in love with Shitou/Xiaolou, who is maybe bisexual but clearly prefers women.
- Nobody over 50 Is Gay: Averted. By the time we get to the end of the movie (1977), Dieyi is in his 60s.
- Parental Abandonment: Happens very early on in the film to Douzi/Dieyi. His mom begs the opera school to take him, and when they refuse due to Douzi's sixth finger, she drags Douzi out into an alley and chops his finger off. She then carries him, bleeding profusely and screaming, back into the school and unceremoniously dumps him there. We never see or hear from her again.
- Peking Opera: The whole movie is about two Peking Opera performers and how performance art intersects with politics and personal life.
- Training from Hell: How Douzi and Shitou get so damn good at opera. Includes Douzi's legs being forced into a split with cement blocks, beatings for forgetting lines or getting lines wrong (and then they'll beat you anyway if you get it right so you remember to do it right again), and floggings with the flat part of a sword for insubordination.
- The Unreveal: When Xiaosi is discovered by the Red Guard practicing the role of Concubine Yu. Cut to black.