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Film / Farewell My Concubine

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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:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The book itself isn't very long, so it's the additional material that makes the movie nearly three hours long. Historical events are looked at in greater depth, and the early lives of Douzi and Shitou are greatly expanded, including the addition of a scene that gives Dieyi his motivation in regards to his art (as well as an expansion of Laozi's character). However, the last part of the novel details Xiaolou's survival through a labor camp, life in Hong Kong and rediscovery of Dieyi, which the film entirely skips over.
  • Adaptational Personality Change: Dieyi can be somewhat of a Jerkass in the film, but not as much so in the novel; he dislikes Juxian but represses most of his irritation, unlike in the film; furthermore, in the film he burns his last connection to his mother at the first chance he gets. In the novel, he continuously hopes in futility that she'll come and take him back, and even writes her letters as an adult (albeit without sending them).
    • Adaptational Heroism: In the book, Yuan has a smaller role, sexually assaulting Dieyi in exchange for the sword that the latter had his eye on. In the film, he's less sinister and they seem to have a consensual relationship, and Xiaolou is aghast when Yuan is condemned to death, whereas he's not so much in the book.
    • Adaptational Villainy: Master Guan is still an abusive hardass in the book, but he's far more brutal in the film; the book gives him a few moments of sympathy and genuine concern for his students, and he feels genuinely guilty after one of his students commits suicide.
      • Xiaosi is a lot less of a bastard in the book and is clearly just pushed too far and too often; though he indeed becomes a big force in the Communist movement, he has no aims to get rid of Dieyi so he can take his place as Concubine Yu.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Master Yuan who gave Dieyi his sword. (In the book, he's outright gay and more sinister, only giving Dieyi said sword after raping him).
  • 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.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Dieyi and Xiaolou have mended their friendship and practice the opera that brought them together in the first place, but Dieyi, lost in the role of Concubine Yu and possibly uninterested in a life where he cannot have Xiaolou, commits suicide. Xiaolou says his stage name, then his real name in anguish, but gives a small smile, knowing that Dieyi lived and died for art.
    • The novel is more of a Downer Ending, with Dieyi's attempted suicide doesn't actually work, and he realizes that his decades-long devotion to Xiaolou was a "joke." Dieyi has lost his beauty and is no longer the dan he lived to perform as, and Xiaolou is a poor and weak laborer. The two reconcile but likely never meet again, and Xiaolou, knowing that he will never live to see Hong Kong's return to China, instead worries about the probable upcoming loss of his apartment and the loss of traditional values.
  • Book Ends: The film starts and ends with an older Xiaolou and Dieyi practicing the titular opera. It also starts an ends with an illustration of Concubine Yu committing suicide, which Dieyi also does.
    • The brunt of Xiaolou and Dieyi's friendship starts and ends with a suicide by hanging.
  • Composite Character: In the novel, Douzi and Shitou do find a Doorstop Baby, but it's a girl and not a boy (thus unable to join the troupe), and Douzi guiltily abandons her to die. Xiao Si is an unrelated character. In the film, the two are merged.
  • 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 (along with the abuse he faces from various characters who fall in love/lust with his on-stage persona) leads to all kinds of gender identity issues for Dieyi.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Scabby mistakes Dieyi's crying as peeing.
  • 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.
  • Death by Adaptation: Dieyi slits his throat in the book, but survives in Xiaolou's arms. In the movie, he dies, with Xiaolou looking on.
  • Dirty Old Man: Well, Dirty Old Eunuch...
  • Depraved Bisexual: The old Eunuch molest both boys and girls (only boys in the novel, but it's more explicit.)
  • Doorstop Baby: Xiaosi.
  • Double-Meaning Title: It's both the title of the plot's most important opera as well as a symbol of Dieyi's life and death. He becomes Concubine Yu and wants Xiaolou to appropriately be his king. By committing suicide he ends the struggle over his own gender and personal identity.
  • Driven to Suicide: Laizi/Scabby (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.
  • Enforced Method Acting: In-universe, what the troupe master believes in.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Xiao Si in the novel.
  • 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").
  • The Film of the Book
  • Foreshadowing: If the title illustration wasn't enough, there's a scene where Yuan and Dieyi are handling Zhang's old sword. Dieyi puts it up to his neck a la Concubine Yu, and a startled Yuan hastily warns him to be careful with it, because it's not a prop. Dieyi kills himself with the same sword during a rehearsal.
    • In the novel, Shitou defends Douzi and gets a cut on his brow, which Guan warns is a sign that a friendship will end in disaster, which makes Douzi anxious.
  • Friend Versus Lover: Xiaolou thinks that this is what's going on with Dieyi's dismissal of Juxian. Of course, Dieyi is actually in love with him.
  • 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.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Once Juxian appears, Dieyi is visibly irritated and attacks her non stop.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Dieyi and Xiaolou are this, but Dieyi wants them to be something more.
  • Howl of Sorrow: Xiaolou when Juxian dies.
  • How We Got Here: The film begins with Dieyi and Xiaolou practicing the titular opera together, then jumps back over fifty years to detail their lives together.
  • Idiot Ball: Juxian jumps to break up a fight despite being heavily pregnant. It's no surprise that she gets hit and ends up losing her baby.
  • Incompatible Orientation: Douzi/Dieyi is hopelessly in love with Shitou/Xiaolou, who is maybe bisexual but clearly prefers women.

  • Love Triangle: Juxian loves Xiaolou and so does Dieyi; Xiaolou returns Juxian's love but also has a long friendship with Dieyi that he's unable to fully give up on, which causes tension between Juxian and Dieyi.

  • My God, What Have I Done?: He was severely under pressure and did mean it, but Dieyi's expression after denouncing Juxian.
  • 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 it off with a cleaver. 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.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: Some analyses of the film believes that Dieyi isn't gay, it's just that he is completely engrossed in the idea that he a female character who is in love with the Xiang Yu in the play, he carries the idea even when he's not playing it.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Xiaosi's fate is unknown in the film, while in the book he goes insane while being tortured and dies.
  • Surprisingly Sudden Death: Guan drops dead of a heart attack during a speech.
  • 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.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Douzi/Dieyi's whole life.
  • Unrequited Love Lasts Forever: Dieyi pretty much worships Xiaolou and devotes his life to him, even during their periods of strife, despite Xiaolou not returning his romantic feelings.
  • The Unreveal: When Xiaosi is discovered by the Red Guard practicing the role of Concubine Yu. Cut to black.
  • Viewer Gender Confusion: In-universe, observers comment that Dieyi blurs the line between man and woman. His struggle with his gender identity, seen most obviously with his struggle over his lines, causes him a lot of trouble over the course of the film.