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Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine” was a victim of Harvey Weinstein’s notoriously artistically corrupt studio management, leading to almost 20 minutes being cut from its Palme d’Or-winning version to the one released theatrically in the United States in 1993. That the edited version of Chen’s masterpiece was still such a critical smash that Roger gave it four stars and it landed two Oscar nominations is just thanks to the sheer power of its artistry, even when that’s been diluted. It’s also worth noting that Weinstein’s poor decision-making here wasn’t as drastic as Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster,” which was almost destroyed by a bad edit. The 1993 version of “Farewell My Concubine” was still a powerhouse of emotion and epic storytelling, but now it’s been restored to its original Cannes greatness with a 4K full release getting a theatrical launch for the first time this month. The movie is more stunning than ever, a daring blend of history and personal storytelling with one of the most striking performances of its era from Leslie Cheung, a performer who left us way too soon.
“Farewell My Concubine” is a flashback narrative as two opera performers reunite for the first time in years, leading to a look at how they got here. Chen's adaptation of the Lillian Lee novel then jumps back to the 1930s, when a feminine boy named Douzi (Leslie Cheung) and a young man named Shitou (Fengyi Zhang) become allies at the brutally abusive Peking Opera Academy. The boys there are put through intense physical training, ridiculed, beaten, and turned on each other. Because of Douzi’s appearance, he is given female roles, but his growing pains in both his art and himself make him even more of a target. These early scenes of Chen’s film are sometimes hard to watch, partly because Chen draws such natural, moving performances from his young cast. Yin Zhi is particularly compelling in performance scenes as Douzi.
Douzi takes the stage name of Cheng Dieyi, and Shitou becomes Duan Xiaolou as they ascend to prominence on the stage, furthering Chen’s themes of fractured identity. This is a story of boys who are beaten to remove any sense of individuality so they can take on the roles required by the opera. Their names are gone, and they become not just performers but their characters, a theme made even sharper by blurring the lines between the play “Farewell My Concubine” and the people who perform it. Chen then drops the curtain on his characters in the form of the violence and oppression of the Cultural Revolution of China, another thing that tries to dehumanize these people until their identity is completely destroyed.
Tension builds between Dieyi and Xiaolou in the form of Juxian (a stunning Gong Li), who proves the point in a love triangle for Xiaolou’s affection. The love triangle and the performances from Cheung, Zhang, and Gong give “Farewell My Concubine” an emotional register to offset the stories of the shifting art forms and political pressure. When the Cultural Revolution firmly pulls apart its trio of characters, “Farewell My Concubine” is as stark a tragedy as the opera within the film, leading to a series of unforgettable, heartbreaking scenes to close out his three-hour masterpiece.
Of course, there are unforgettable scenes before the ending of Chen’s epic too. In fact, they’re throughout the piece, enabled by Gu Changwei’s fluid, lyrical camerawork that always perfectly frames its characters without calling attention to the piece's epic nature. “Farewell My Concubine” is somehow both breathtakingly gorgeous but also tactile and relatable at the same time. It doesn’t fall victim to the traditional trappings of films that unfold over a half-century, movies that often place too much weight on the production and costume design, making them feel hermetic and distant. “Farewell My Concubine” takes place in a world unlike most of those occupied by its viewers, but the emotions and empathetic storytelling make it current and resonant. Like a great opera, Chen's film will transcend centuries and maintain its power.
It helps to have committed performers like this trio here, especially the future star Gong Li and the unforgettable Leslie Cheung. I forgot how expressive and powerful he could be, and I hope the restoration of this film leads people back to his work in films like “A Better Tomorrow,” “Days of Being Wild,” and “Happy Together.” Chen’s film gains added emotional weight 30 years later when one considers how much was lost by Cheung’s passing in 2003. Gong and Zhang are excellent too, but how openly Cheung wears his emotions on his face holds this film together.
As for the restoration, it looks better than ever, and the recut version shows no signs of editing issues. In fact, I had to go to a list to see where beats were reinserted, only catching one or two that felt different than I remembered as I was watching, but I hadn’t seen the Weinstein version in three decades. Those more familiar with the 1993 version will likely spot them immediately. To this viewer, they all feel like material that never should have been excised in the first place, as they enhance the story rather than distract from it. It took 30 years, but if this version brings “Farewell My Concubine” to a new audience, it will have been worth the wait.
Opens in New York and Los Angeles on September 22nd, with additional markets to follow.
Leslie Cheung as Cheng Dieyi / Xiao Douzi
Zhang Fengyi as Duan Xiaolou / Xiao Shitou
Gong Li as Juxian
Ge You as Master Yuan Shiqing
Ying Da as Na Kun
Lu Qi as Master Guan
Lei Han as Xiao Si
Yi Di as Zhang the Eunuch
Yin Zhi as Xiao Douzi (teenager)
Ma Ming-Wei as Xiao Douzi (child)
Zhao Hai-Long as Xiao Shitou (teenager)
Fei Zhenxiang as Xiao Shitou (child)