Farewell, My Concubine


The film Farewell My Concubine is one of the few intimate epics to come out of Chinese cinema.  Its primary narrative focus is on the character of Dieyi, a feminine boy who plays the role of the concubine in a famous Chinese play.  In traditional filmmaking, it is typical to tell the story in as close to real time as possible, without getting boring or overlong.  That way, the audience gets to experience close to the same thing that the character does.  But in the case of Farewell My Concubine, there are long passages of time that go on in between scenes in the film.  The character experiences these, but the audience does not, making the film feel almost more like a series of sequential short films, rather than a long, singular narrative.  As the years fly by off-screen, the audience is left with the task of mentally producing the connective tissue that binds all the scenes together.  This, combined with the very weighty subject matter, produces what can be described as an exhausting effect on many audience members.

What the film gains through this type of macro-storytelling is a grand sense of scale.  The characters are of tremendous significance to each other and their local environment, but the larger world has no need of them.  Governments rise and fall, but the Peking Opera remains.  Is this because the opera is more significant than government?  Or is it because it is less significant?  I think it is because Opera (and the arts in general) symbolizes the collective emotional identity of the culture that produced it.  It is so closely tied to personal cultural identity, that all else can be cast aside before the arts are given over to decadence.

The movie is technically non-linear, since it opens with two older performers trying to remember lines that they once epitomized.  It then flashes back to nearly seventy years prior, when they were both young boys given out of poor families into a local acting troupe.  When it cuts back, we see a noticeable absence of color in the frame.  It is slowly re-saturated throughout the course of the film, giving us a sense of how the past has merged into the present.  There is no attempt to make the scenes in the past feel “up-to-date” or contemporary.  Instead they are treated as being something distant, memorable and important maybe, but it’s the type of importance that can be understood as “narrative fossilization.”  Something preserved for study, but no longer directly applicable to the world of today.

Our chief scale through which to measure this shift in relevance comes unsurprisingly from the people’s reaction to our main characters’ play.  In the earliest scenes, their play is held in incredibly high regard, and their portrayals are considered to be among the greatest.  But as time marches on, there appears to be a growing doubt on the part of the people as to whether the opera has any true relevance to the modern life.  The opera of course outlasts these doubts and continues on, but the whole scenario begs the question, is art so closely tied to culture that it is incapable of transcending time and place?  The film certainly addresses the question, but makes no attempt to answer it.

I do think that my experience watching the film gives something close to an answer, however.  Not since my viewing of Tai Guk Gi have I felt so distant from the story I’m being told.  Much of this film is dependent upon the audience’s connection with the historical events portrayed.  But I do not know anyone who has been directly affected by the events portrayed onscreen.  To me, these are distant events that happened to others, whose experiences I cannot know.  There are certain issues that the film skirts around, assuming that the audience does not need any reminder of the events being portrayed.  Thus, the ending feels like the sum of not only the events shown onscreen, but also those implied to have happened off-screen.  When I said the character experiences things that the audience does not, I did not note that those experiences have real-world equivalents that the original Chinese audience would identify with.  But with out this sense of shared history, the film loses much of its intended punch.  And by the very fact that I am not Chinese, I felt that the dramatic closing of the film was unearned and uninteresting.  I simply did not care.

This is not the fault of the film, or even the filmmakers.  But it is merely a statement of situational viewing experience.  I cannot fully grasp what it means to view a film that is so closely tied to Chinese identity, because I cannot know what it means to be Chinese.  So how does a film like this stand against the criticism of non-experience?  Reasonably well, actually.

There is so much going on in the frame, and the opposition to the characters is always naturally positioned – rather than forced by Plot Power – so much that it can be worth it for the audience to go the extra mile and invest themselves a story that may feel very foreign.  Of this opposition to character goals, is a key relational subtlety concerning the power of romantic love, and its absence.  The character of Dieyi is in love with his friend Xiaolou, but Xiaolou is in love with a woman named Juxian.  Thus, Xiaolou’s romance is in opposition to the romantic goals of Dieyi, and vice-versa.  This creates a context in which conflict arises out of love, and from love jealousy.

The theme of the film is difficult to articulate succinctly.  If it has a single theme throughout, I’d say it is one of longing for something out of reach.  The only goal that the characters truly accomplish is that of becoming great actors. All their others goals, romantic ones included, seem hindered by various obstacles.  They seem to be never given any rest.  Their lives are lived in high stress, but their art is an alleviant to the stresses of the nation.  The world rages around them, and they seek refuge in each other’s friendship.  But ultimately, it is in their play itself that Dieyi finds the closest answer to the longings of his heart.  He ends his own life as he lived it – theatrically.


  1. Wow,, That is awesome!!

  2. Right on!

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