**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Chen Kaige

Written by Lilian Lee and Lu Wei

With Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, and Gong Li.

For his fifth film, Farewell My Concubine, the director of Yellow Earth has made a big, raucous, bawdy, sometimes violent, occasionally funny epic that follows two Peking Opera stars through much of modern Chinese history. For what he considers his first “commercial” film, Chen Kaige has adapted a popular novel of the same title by Hong Kong writer Lilian Lee; she also wrote the adaptation (with Lu Wei), which considerably expands the role of Juxian, the prostitute who marries the older of the two stars, Xiaolou. But while Chen has been accused, not unreasonably, of following the formulas of past international hits–setting passion, spectacle, and thrills against a grand historical canvas–it is his controlled, poetic, even visionary use of his medium that gives the film power and meaning. This is nothing like the nearly dead, all-on-the-surface approach of an overblown behemoth like Gone With the Wind.

After a brief prologue, set in 1977, in which the two aged stars return to an empty theater, the action commences in 1924. Shitou (Fei Yang) and Douzi (Ma Mingwei) are receiving severe and brutal training in an opera school for abandoned and orphaned boys. By 1937 they’ve taken the stage names Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) and Dieyi (Leslie Cheung), and we see them performing the roles for which they were trained in the traditional opera Farewell My Concubine. (Peking Opera, which emerged in the late 18th century, is a highly stylized combination of music, theater, and dance; the actors’ elaborately painted faces immediately inform the audience of the characters’ natures.) In this opera, Xiaolou plays the King of Chu, who’s about to lose China in 206 BC to the rival Han king. Feeling the battle is lost, the King of Chu encourages his concubine–played by Dieyi–to flee, but her love for him is so great that she slits her throat with his sword rather than leave him. The performers, especially Dieyi, are a great success, attracting wealthy and important patrons; and soon afterward Xiaolou marries Juxian (Gong Li). The Japanese occupy Beijing, the Nationalist government is restored, and the communists come to power: all these upheavals profoundly affect the three main characters, and finally the Peking Opera itself.

Chen has said that he was most fascinated by the character of Dieyi: “In his world, the distinction between reality and dream, life and the state, male and female, life and death, the real and the imagined, is blurred.” In fact Dieyi does confuse the role of concubine, for which he’s been so cruelly trained, with his own life. Even out of costume he has feminine traits, and he wants to spend every free second with Xiaolou, who says to him in exasperation, “I’m just a fake king, but you really are Concubine Wu.”

Dieyi’s delusion is made more plausible by the way Chen films him as a child. After the color prologue, the film shifts to black and white: it’s 1924, and Douzi and his mother wander into a street festival. They see a group of boys–from the opera school, as it turns out–performing acrobatics, and with Douzi’s first sight of theater a hint of color appears, in some flags the performers are holding. More color enters gradually until the moment when Douzi first looks into the painted face of Shitou (already in the troupe). Chen makes visible through Douzi’s perceptions the fact that for him only theater can give color to the world and make it real, and that the redeeming power of love is inextricably tied to theater. (Later in the film, after Dieyi burns his opera costumes, he’s shown alone in a desolate landscape in a shot almost completely drained of color.)

The film frequently links opera and life. Na Kun, the manager of the theater Xiaolou and Dieyi perform in as adults, sometimes interprets life in terms of opera. When Xiaolou announces his betrothal, Na asks, “When is the performance of ‘Candlelit Night in the Bridal Chamber’?” When the communists are about to enter Beijing, he says, “The Han king is about to enter the city.” Characters sometimes use objects or costumes theatrically or use gestures that echo previous ones. When Juxian jumps from a balcony in the brothel to escape a tormenting mob, Xiaolou catches her; decades later, during a Cultural Revolution trial, she saves him from taking an incorrect position, calling him away from a meeting by throwing him an umbrella. On the night that Dieyi, feeling spurned after Xiaolou’s marriage, is apparently seduced by Master Yuan, a wealthy opera patron, we see them enacting a moment from Farewell My Concubine outdoors, Yuan’s face painted with the mask of the Chu king.

These moments would be mere directorial “touches” if it were not for the way that Chen uses composition, editing, and camera movement throughout the film to tie opera to life. What’s more, the way the characters’ lives are determined by their onstage roles is only a special case of a more general worldview: people are seen not as autonomous beings able to direct their own lives and even reshape the world–the Hollywood view of the individual–but as profoundly the products of their environment.

Chen expresses this vision in his highly controlled use of cinematic devices. Scenes are juxtaposed, for example, to show cause and effect: Chen cuts from a character falling down as he dies to two mourners kneeling, the movement of falling matched across the cut to the movement of kneeling. Chen uses common devices like insert shots and offscreen sound to make the viewer more aware of the context surrounding the central characters. Camera movements widen our view of events: the film’s very first shot shows the two aged stars entering and walking down a dark corridor, while the camera pulls back from them into the interior of an empty theater. At other times camera movements unify a group of people, tracking along a line of boys from the opera school, for example, standing outdoors at attention. Throughout, deep focus keeps foreground and background sharp at once; even more important, Chen uses composition and lighting to give both equal emphasis.

Then there’s the film’s extraordinary use of close-ups. In conventional movie grammar, a close-up emphasizes a character’s individuality and autonomy. A cut from a character amid others or in some environment with its own strong visual presence to a close-up generally creates the sense that, whatever the milieu, this character has some power of her own. Chen, by contrast, uses close-ups only when his characters are being most impinged on by the outside world. Thus we get close-ups of Juxian when she’s forced into desperate scheming or has been terribly betrayed.

One particularly taut sequence illustrates these points. Douzi and Laizi, another boy at the school, escape to buy some candied crab apples, Laizi’s favorite delicacy, but soon find themselves at the opera. To film the performance Chen chooses not to employ the usual long takes with a static camera that emphasize the integrity of the theatrical illusion but gives us brief shots with frequent shifts of camera angle. In most of these images we see more than just the stage–the footlights or parts of the audience are integrated into the composition. In Chen’s view even the opera is not autonomous but must be seen in relation to the physical space of the theater and the audience. This is equally true in subsequent scenes: much later, soldiers disrupt a performance by shining flashlights at the actors.

Watching the performance–of Farewell My Concubine, of course–both boys are profoundly moved; staring at the painted mask of the Chu king, Douzi pees in his pants. In fact he and Laizi are so overwhelmed by the experience that they decide to return to the school–a torturous place where they’re repeatedly beaten by the sadistic Master Guan. He hits a boy for forgetting his lines, then beats the next one–who recites his correctly–to ensure he’ll get them right the next time. More serious infractions are punished with beatings on bare buttocks with the flat edge of a large sword. The boys believe Guan’s repeated threats of “I’ll kill you,” and so do we.

The opera training is almost as severe as the discipline. The boys stand for hours on their heads or with one leg raised by a rope or in some other physically difficult position. Chen’s compositions emphasize the diversity of the training, showing several things going on at once: acrobatics in the foreground, boys in stationary poses in the background. Moving sideways along lines of boys, the camera emphasizes how regimented they are. The editing usually prevents any individual from standing out: a shot of Douzi being led over to greet the agent for a potential patron is intercut with brief images of costumed boys in a sword fight.

Cutting and compositions that unify the boys with each other, with Master Guan, and with their setting are Chen’s visual expressions of the way the opera school requires its students to lose their individual identities. One scene in particular makes this searingly clear. Douzi is asked to perform the role of concubine for the agent, and as has happened before, he gets one line wrong, singing “I am by nature a boy” instead of “I am by nature a girl.” The opera school seems on the point of losing its patron until Shitou, Douzi’s best friend and protector, reams his mouth bloody with a metal pipe to teach him to “stop getting that line wrong.” As Douzi begins to recite his part correctly, the camera gradually moves through the crowd to a close-up of his face, which reveals some blood by his mouth–another close-up that shows a character not as a free individual but in the process of losing his selfhood. In the next scene the troupe performs for the patron, Old Man Zhang, and afterward, when Douzi is brought to him, Zhang begins to forcibly molest him. At this point the camera moves to an erotic wall painting, suggesting that for Zhang the boy is just another element of the decor and further effacing the distinction between art and life.

Chen has been accused by some critics of homophobia for creating a gay character whose homosexuality might seem the result of his early experiences, especially being forced to play women’s roles as a child; it’s also true that the mouth-reaming scene could be misread as “creating” Dieyi’s gay identity. But almost from their first meeting the boys engage in erotic play, initiated by Douzi, in the dormitory. (And it seems likely, though the film is ambiguous on this point, that some form of sex continues between them into adulthood; after Xiaolou meets Juxian, we see him rebuffing Dieyi’s gentle advances.) The important point is that no character has anything like what we think of as freedom. When Xiaolou and Dieyi revisit the brutal Master Guan as adults and he begins to beat them, they willingly submit–Xiaolou even hits Juxian when she tries to intervene. Juxian herself, on the occasion of her betrothal, promises to wait on Xiaolou hand and foot, and to kill herself should he tire of her. One audience I saw the film with laughed at this moment, but it’s not at all funny: her promise is sincere, motivated by the horrible position of women in prerevolutionary China. For Juxian, the servitude she offers is a real improvement over the degradations of the brothel.

Even the film’s most graceful, tender moments are hardly examples of unfettered freedom. Twice, visitors are brought chairs; and the bringing of the chair and the motion of sitting in it are filmed in single, smooth camera movements that seamlessly combine the movements of several characters. But this example of hospitality comes from old China and depends on a social hierarchy in which some people were destined to serve others. Late in the film, in relatively long takes, Xiaolou and Juxian make love in the warm, flickering light of a fire–a fire in which they’ve just burned their possessions for fear of persecution during the Cultural Revolution.

The stylistic antithesis of this lovemaking scene comes shortly afterward, when Xiaolou is interrogated on an empty stage. At first we view him head-on, and his interrogator is a single voice from offscreen. But as other accusers appear in different parts of the theater, Chen cuts to Xiaolou from angles we had not seen before, creating a sense that he’s trapped on all sides, and that his entrapment is part of a game whose rules are constantly shifting.

Shifts in character, and in the viewer’s expectations, occur throughout the film, as the great events of modern Chinese history continually reshape the characters’ lives. We’re prepared for such shifts early, when Douzi’s mother–who thus far had seemed his protector–suddenly cuts a sixth finger off his hand in order to enroll him in the opera school. An even more extreme shift occurs when the escaped boys return. Laizi, soon to be punished, stands eating his candied crab apples while watching Guan beat Douzi so viciously that it seems he may kill him. At first the viewer is disturbed at Laizi’s seeming indifference; soon after, when he hangs himself, one’s assumptions about what he was thinking while eating the treats change radically. By shifting the viewer’s perceptions of the characters, Chen allows one to feel the wrenching ways in which the social order intrudes on individual autonomy: no moment, no tenderness, no taste can be experienced for itself alone. The shifts in the viewer’s attitudes also correspond to the shifts in behavior the characters are forced to undergo, often to save their own or someone else’s life. Indeed, the plot is a network of betrayal and reconciliation.

The most extreme betrayals occur near the film’s end, in a spectacular trial scene during the Cultural Revolution. Like much of the action at the opera school, the trial is set outdoors, and the chief Red Guard interrogator recalls Master Guan in that both demand the correct “lines.” Pressed to confess, Xiaolou begins by denouncing Dieyi with what a gay friend of mine jokingly called the most extreme of homophobic insults–“He’s obsessed with opera.” Repeatedly pressed for more, Xiaolou eventually accuses Dieyi of an affair with Yuan. Dieyi responds with his own denunciations, exposing Juxian as a former prostitute–a major crime, as was homosexuality, to the fanatical Red Guards. They then pressure Xiaolou to deny his love for Juxian. Chen films all this in relatively long takes, shooting many of the images through the flames of a large bonfire in which artifacts of the old order are being burned. The characters’ faces are thus filtered through fire and smoke, recalling smoky theater interiors of earlier scenes. The trial ends with a spectacular but horrible dissolve from a close-up of the betrayed Juxian to an image of burning costumes held up in the air on sticks.

This is the last of four trial scenes in the second half. In two of the others the accused sits in a large room facing an audience, and in the third he sits in an empty theater. All are staged and filmed in such a way as to resemble the earlier opera performances. Here life becomes theater, just as at other times theater–as in Dieyi’s seduction by Master Yuan painted up as the King of Chu–becomes life. But the final Red Guard trial, with its direct, relentless long takes, cuts through all life-as-theater confusions. (Those who prefer not to know how this film ends are advised to stop reading here.) Viewing faces tormented by enforced betrayals and filtered through fire reminds the viewer that real lives are at stake. The suicides of two of the three main characters make that even more painfully clear.

Some of this scene’s intensity doubtless comes from the fact that it’s partly autobiographical. Chen Kaige, who was 14 when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, wanted to join the Red Guards and as a result denounced his own father, the film director Chen Huaikai. Chen Kaige has recently said that making Farewell My Concubine was in part an act of expiation and apology, and indeed his father is artistic director of the film, a Taiwan-China-Hong Kong coproduction.

This film’s extraordinary unity of style, theme, and plot is what sets it apart from the superficial historical epic. Behind all the color, movement, and elaborate decor of this “commercial” film lies an exceptionally taut structure. Every aspect of every character is enmeshed, like pieces of a puzzle, with the qualities of other characters and of the society, every instant of a life is constantly redefined by the whole. History is seen as a cycle of never-ending brutality: the opera training, which leads to the young Laizi’s suicide, becomes real opera, which turns into the trials, the last of which leads to Juxian’s suicide. Love itself is constantly being reshaped, even destroyed by the cultural smoke and fire of a half century of history.

But what animates the film, what gives it life, is that Chen’s vision is not unremittingly bleak. Formalism may dictate the images’ color and content, but it does not destroy their sensuality. The flickering light on Xiaolou and Juxian’s lovemaking, despite its source, does give their skin a lustrous warmth. At the film’s end we return to 1977 to complete the prologue. Alone under a single spot, Xiaolou and Dieyi proceed once again to perform their roles. The last shot is a close-up of Xiaolou wearing the painted face of the King of Chu: hearing a sound offscreen, he peers into the darkness and calls for his costar, former lover, and childhood friend. At first he calls “Dieyi”–the adult stage name–and then the childhood name, “Douzi.” But the sound was Douzi killing himself with the king’s sword, literally enacting the role he’s performed all his life. Once again we see up close the face of someone profoundly affected by an external event, but we can infer from the final cry of “Douzi!” that behind the mask, and after all the rebuffs, denunciations, and betrayals, some deep thread of human emotion remains.