A look at Farewell, My Concubine The film Farewell, My Concubine tells a tale that spans 50 years of Chinese history, all revolving around two actors and their performance in a very famous Chinese opera that seems to alter every aspect of their lives. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that the play in which Xiaolou and Dieyi perform, as the King and the concubine respectively, seems to mirror their lives as they go through time. Along with the story of the two main characters, the film follows the history of China as it transformed to a Communist nation and progresses through the Cultural Revolution, all important for Opera actors because as the changes in culture occurred, so did the changes in the opera and the way people viewed the two main characters. The film gives some incredible insight into 20th century Chinese history because it shows us how the Cultural Revolution affected every part of Chinese society, helping us to understand the impact of these changes through the characters of the film. The opera Farewell, My Concubine was very much a part of Chinese culture for many years. It follows the downfall of a powerful king who is being defeated by a someone who wants to conquer China and take control of it from the King. In the end, the king loses his kingdom but his concubine, Yu, stays faithful to him, killing herself to prove this faithfulness. This is very much relevant to the plot itself because the relationship between the two male characters, Xiaolou and Dieyi, is very similar to the relationship between the king and his concubine.
Xiaolou and Dieyi met at an acting troupe and endured abuse and loneliness together. The relationship that developed between them became very close: to Xiaolou it was a strong brotherhood, but to Dieyi, who appears to be homosexual, his feelings for Xiaolou are that of love and complete devotion. Throughout the film we see this relationship shift, and even with Xiaolou betrays Dieyi by giving him up to the revolutionaries to save his own life, Dieyi still remains sincerely devoted. In the end, Dieyi takes his own life during their final performance together, slitting his throat with Xiaolou’s sword in the same way that the concubine kills herself for her king. The relationship between the two is mirrored in an unlikely way by the opera and the ultimate outcome is the same. The ultimate message of this film is that under pressure, even the truest friend or lover can betray the ones that they love. The scene in which Xiaolou betrays both Dieyi, his boyhood friend and companion, and his wife to the mob of revolutionaries shows the full impact of this point. Throughout the film we saw Xiaolou be firm in his dedication to those two people in his life and yet, when times grew hard, he betrayed them and abandoned them, much the way the King abandons his people in the play and, just as in the play, the faithfulness of those close to him leads to their destruction.
The message is that to save one’s own life during periods of political turmoil in China during that time, many people were given up to the masses despite their faithfulness to the people in their life. In the end, everyone was out to save themselves. It’s obvious from this film that the 20th century in China was a difficult and tumultuous time in history. The take over by the Communist party and the ultimate Cultural Revolution deeply impacted the Chinese people. Anything related to the “Old Society” became illegal, from the operas people viewed to the cups people drank from. Every aspect of Chinese culture was changed.
In the end, Dieyi and Juxian, Xiaolou’s wife, could not take the new world that had been created and killed themselves. People that were once close turned against each other in order to save themselves; everyone came under scrutiny for any of their past deeds. This film is tragic because it shows the tragedy of Chinese history and how many lives were affected by the Cultural Revolution.Work CitedFarewell, My Concubine. Dir. Kaige Chen.
Perf. Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang, Li Gong. DVD.
Miramax Films, 1995.