Fans of classic movies should rejoice at the 30th anniversary re-release of Farewell My Concubine. Chen Kaige’s epic has been out of print for years. Now it returns in a stunning 4K restoration that allows it to look better than ever. That’s not even the best part. When the movie – which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars – was picked up for American distribution by Miramax, Harvey Weinstein inexplicably chopped out 14 minutes. The re-release offers audiences the glorious uncut 171-minute version.
The story opens with a boy named Douzi abandoned by his mother at a Peking opera school, where he is subjected to training that occasionally borders on torture. He’s taught to play female characters, while his new friend Shitou takes on the male roles that involve face paint. Aside from the grueling regimen, Douzi is sexually assaulted by a wealthy eunuch the troupe is invited to perform for.
After establishing this backstory, the film jumps ahead to Douzi and Shitou as young adults. They’ve become full-fledged opera stars. Douzi now goes by the stage name Dieyi (and is portrayed by Leslie Cheung), whereas Shitou is now known as Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi). Their act draws huge crowds, but there is a backstage problem. Dieyi has romantic feelings for Xiaolou, so when Xiaolou marries a former prostitute named Juxian (Gong Li), the resentment threatens to end their partnership. From there, the movie depicts the ups and downs of their lives, as volatile political scenarios play out in the background.
Farewell My Concubine is an exquisite film with masterful storytelling. Especially in this longer cut, we’re able to spend significant time with the characters, getting to know them intimately. That makes the trials and tribulations the men go through as meaningful as possible. Portraying a partnership in such precise detail also infuses the story with a sense of realism. The bond between Dieyi and Xiaolou is impacted, for better and worse, by politics, romance, finances, and cultural issues, just as all of us are impacted by those things. You can identify with the themes, despite not being a member of the Chinese opera in the early 20th century. The time frame is specific, but the ideas are universal.
Commanding performances from Cheung and Fengyi maximize the impact of their characters’ respective journeys. The former powerfully conveys Dieyi’s yearning for someone he can’t have, while the latter brings out Xialou’s desire to find fulfillment in other areas of life besides the opera. Then you have Gong Li, who blows the roof off the place as Juxian. She adds tons of nuances, showing the boldness that exists underneath this woman’s traditional exterior. The actress brings another layer of emotion, too, as Juxian recognizes she’s the wedge between her husband and his best friend.
Farewell My Concubine is visually stunning throughout. The production, set, and costume designs transport you back to the time period and immerse you in the specific details. Getting lost in this place for a few hours is a total pleasure. If you’ve seen the film before, it’s worth seeing again for the beautiful restoration and the reinstated footage. If you haven’t seen it, treat yourself to one of the greatest cinematic works China has ever given the world.
out of four
Farewell My Concubine is rated R for language and strong depiction of thematic material. The running time is 2 hours and 51 minutes.