Farewell My Concubine AKA Ba Wang Bie Ji [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (27th February 2016).
The Film

"Farewell My Concubine" (1993)

Taking place in the 1920’s in China, a young boy is taken to a Peking Opera training school by his mother, who is a prostitute and has no means to take care of him anymore. But as the boy has a birth defect with an additional finger on one of his hands, he is immediately rejected. The mother takes her son to a nearby market, uses a butcher’s knife, and slices off the boy’s superfluous finger, in which he screams in agonizing pain. The school accepts the boy, but is immediately teased by the other young boys for being the son of a whore, and given the nickname “Douzi” (played by Ma Mingwei). Not all are mean, as fellow schoolmates Laizi (played by Dan Li) and Shitou (played by Fei Yang) take in Douzi, helping him through the strict and rigorous training. Whether it’s the straightening and stretching of their backs, using cinderblocks to have the boys practice the splits pose, or having them do handstands for lengthy periods, the physical training is a torturous experience. In addition, the children are beaten for wrongdoings, disobeying, or for flubbing lines, until blood is spilled.

One day, an acting troupe comes to town for a festival and so Douzi and Laizi escape from the school to get a glimpse of the performance as well as eating candied crab apples - Laizi’s favorite. The boys sneak into a theater and watch an awe inspiring performance of the Peking Opera troupe performing “Farewell My Concubine”, one so beautiful and powerful that it brings tears to Douzi’s eyes. But it is not tears of joy when returning to the school, as Shitou is being beaten by the headmaster for not stopping the two boys from escaping. Douzi say he will accept the consequences for running away and is beaten even harder by the headmaster, but Laizi cannot accept his fate at the school anymore and hangs himself to death.

Bn 1937, Douzi and Shitou become popular actors in the theater world, now going by the names “Cheng Dieyi” for Douzi (played by Leslie Cheung) and “Duan Xiaolou” for Shitou (played by Zhang Fengyi) the two of them perform “Farewell My Concubine”, in which Xialou plays the King Xiang Yu and Dieyi plays his concubine. As Japan and China are about to embark in battle in WWII, there are protesters in the streets, a feeling a political unrest, and cultural disinterest. Although Dieyi is acting the part of Yu on stage knowing the part since he was young, with the line of “I am by nature a girl, not a boy” is one that he still sometimes has trouble with, a he used to screw up the line by saying “I am by nature a boy, not a girl”, in which he was frequently punished for his constant mistake. Even as an adult, it is a line that doesn’t come naturally or smoothly. Xiaolou falls in love with a woman - Juxian (played by Gong Li) a courtesan working at the House of Blossoms. Unfortunately, what is supposed to be a beautiful bond in engagement and marriage for the two of them turns into pure jealousy from the viewpoint of Dieyi…

“Farewell My Concubine” or “Farewell to My Concubine” or “The Hegemon-King Bids His Concubine Farewell” depending on the translation, is a traditional Peking Opera telling the story of Warlord Xiang Yu who battled Warlord Liu Bang and lost everything - his army, his power, his riches, his land, and his family. The only person to stay by his side was his faithful concubine Consort Yu, until she kills herself by his sword, signaling the end of the play. Peking Opera emerged as an art form from the 18th century and it still continues to this day, with its elegant costumes and exaggerated makeup, distinctive style of singing dance unchanged for hundreds of years.

Director Chen Kaige’s 1993 film “Farewell My Concubine” was one of the most lauded, talked about, and eye opening films at the time of its release. The beauty of Peking Opera was introduced to film audiences around the world, who were both in awe of the spectacular costumes and music, though at the same time disgusted and horrified by the process of the training. The film was unflinching in how young boys were put through arduous training, beatings, and a sheltered life from the world in order to shape them into the performers on stage. The story even starts with the disturbing scene of a mother having to slice off her son’s finger and give up the child while covered in blood. Over the course of the story, the audience can see the formation of Dieyi’s character towards women - the abandonment by his mother, the shame of being the son of a prostitute, the embarrassment of having to play the part of a female concubine on stage, and the distrust of a woman entering his stage partner’s life. Dieyi was raised by men and boys to play a woman on stage, which psychologically questions his own sexuality and gender role, as he frequently flubs the “I am by nature a girl, not a boy” line continuously. Dieyi’s fate is like that of the main characters in “The Red Shoes” (1948), “Black Swan” (2010), and “Birdman” (2014) - with characters that start to meld the real world and the theater world into one, causing paranoia, distrust, and confusion. The Dieyi character’s downfall also mimics that of a standard “rock and roll excess” story, with fame leading to the abuse of sex and drugs, and eventually causing mental and physical anguish for the people around him. Although Dieyi is not able to separate the concubine character’s life and his own life well, Xiaolou is able to. He clearly states to Dieyi that he knows he is not the king and he is a man only playing the part, but it is this comment and his relationship and marriage to Juxian that causes Dieyi to lose control. The old saying of “never let a woman come between two men” is appropriate in “Farewell My Concubine”, as her strong willed character and presence causes the men’s relationship to sever over time, although it is clearly not her intention to do so.

But it is not just one woman that causes suffering, but the circumstances of the times - the Japanese invasion of China during World War II, the Communist Revolution, and the Cultural Revolution take a severe backlash against them and the art of Peking Opera. There are court trials, violent attacks, and even the devastating loss of an unborn child presented during the harsh times. Like the film “Y tu mama tambien” (2001), which also concerns the story of two boys and one woman, the social protests and political struggle are like background noise to the main characters, though in “Farewell My Concubine” the socially changing country comes to haunt and destroy the characters, such as in “The Last Emperor” (1987), which also deals with the same timeframe and place. “Farewell My Concubine” is an epic film spanning 50 years plus, starting from the 1920’s and ending inl 1977 which bookends the film, all within a nearly 3 hour runtime. The film was a huge international success immediately, even winning the Palme d’or at Cannes in 1993, being the first Chinese film to receive the prestigious honor. Though it had some trouble in its home country, as Chinese government censors initially banned the film for its slightly negative depiction towards the communist government. Luckily the ban was only for a short time and was released theatrically to wide acclaim in China.

Also impressive is the visuals of the film. The use of color, such as the muted opening flashback sequence, the rich colors of the make-up and costumes for the Peking Opera scenes, and of course the blood red color, are all visually impressive. Visual motifs are present with multiple foreshadowings, such as the hanging scene of Laizi, Shitou breaking the stone block, and the bloodied mother of Douzi, all later referenced throughout the course of the film. Besides director Chen Kaige having an international breakthrough, it was actor Leslie Cheung whose career significantly rose to a new height. Debuting as a Cantonese pop singer in his teens in the early 1980’s, he also acted in many successful Hong Kong films such as “A Better Tomorrow” (1986), “A Chinese Ghost Story" (1987), and “Days of Being Wild” (1991, with critical acclaim for his performances and popular acclaim with fans of music and film. “Farewell My Concubine” would mark his debut for a film made in mainland China, though it was a careful and risky decision by Cheung. With a character of homosexual undertones and playing a woman on stage, it may have alienated many fans at the time, but fortunately it didn’t, and instead raised his acting status even higher. Gong Li was one of the most praised Chinese actresses at the time, winning critical acclaim for her films directed by Zhang Yimou, her film debut “Red Sorghum” (1987), the first Chinese film nominated for an Academy Award “Ju Dou” (1990), and “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991) and “Story of Qiu Ju” (1992) in which she won various acting awards. Her powerful performance in “Farewell My Concubine” earned her a Best Supporting Actress award by the New York Film Critics Circle. For actor Zhang Fengyi, his career never had a significant high or low compared to Cheung or Gong, but has been a face in Chinese cinema and television since the 1980s. Interestingly in 1994 he starred in the film “The Great Conqueror’s Concubine”, this time as warlord Liu Bang, who defeated Xiang Yu. The film also happened to star Gong Li.

The film was nominated and/or won many awards internationally, including winning the aforementioned Palme d’or at Cannes, winning Best Foreign Language Film awards at UK’s BAFTA, Japan’s Mainichi Film Concours, The Golden Globe Awards, and the Cesar Awards. It was also nominated for two Academy Awards though didn’t win either.

Note this is a region B locked Blu-ray disc and can only be played on a region B or region ALL Blu-ray player.

Video

“Farewell My Concubine” is presented by the BFI in 1080p in the theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 in the AVC MPEG-4 codec. As a film that is mesmerizing in visuals and use of color cinematography, the Blu-ray image is a bit disappointing. Colors are not as crisp and colors are not as deep as they should be. When there is a contrasting light / dark moment, such as a brightly lit actor against a dark background, or the white/black lines in the make-up of the King, digital noise is present on the border looking like a digital noise reduction artifact, being quite distracting. This is not a 4K or 2K remaster, though the film would have definitely benefited if it had been. On the plus side, the print itself is in very good condition with no splices, cuts, scratches, or color fluctuations to be found. The bitrate is quite high, with the main feature taking up 42 gigabytes of space on the BD-50, so space or compression is not an issue.

This is the uncut original Chinese version of the film, running (171:14). Note that when the film was issued in the United States by Miramax, it was cut by about 20 minutes for theatrical release and video releases, though the US Miramax DVD did in fact restore the cut footage. The accompanying DVD copy in this Dual Format 2-disc set is in PAL, region 2.

Audio

Mandarin LPCM 2.0 stereo
The original Mandarin stereo track is extremely lively, with music and sound effects constantly using the left and right separation channels. The opera music and singing sound wonderful and dialogue sounds great, mostly coming from the center. There are no instances of audio dropouts, hisses, or pops. One could even mistake it for a full surround track if setup with Pro-Logic. The accompanying DVD copy has the audio in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo.

There are optional English subtitles for the main feature, in a white font. For the translation, it was a bit surprising at how much swearing there was in the English translation with “Fuck” and its variations used very frequently.

Extras

"Making of Farewell My Concubine" 2003 featurette (23:34)
This featurette produced in 2003 features behind the scenes footage, interviews, and film clips. We hear thoughts from actors Leslie Cheung, Gong Li, Zhang Fengyi, and director Chen Kaige on the making of the film, the actor’s analysis of the characters, and more. Ironically Cheung says that he is not like the character of Dieyi and isn’t a tragic figure and leads a happier life, which doesn’t hint anything toward his tragic suicide in 2003. The featurette ends with footage of international screenings, photos, and a list of awards won, with the song “When Has Love Become the Past” sung by Leslie Cheung. This featurette is also available on the DVD copy.
in upscaled 1080p, in 1.33:1 and 1.85:1, in Mandarin LPCM 2.0 stereo with optional English subtitles

Sadly this is the only extra on the BFI disc. The Chinese and Korean Blu-rays had a commentary track, which was not carried to the UK disc. It would have been interesting to hear about the controversy it caused in China, the director’s reflection on the cuts made by Miramax, or even background information about Peking Opera. Also, there is no booklet for the release - a rarity for a BFI release.

Overall

“Farewell My Concubine” left a powerful mark on me when I saw it for the first time on VHS in a cut form as a kid. Watching the film again for the first time in more than 20 years in the original version, the powerful effect was not lost at all, with its beauty, horror, and emotional depth. Fans looking for a gorgeous video transfer will be underwhelmed, and the supplements are lacking especially without a BFI-standard booklet, but the audio is great and the film is absolutely unforgettable.

The Film: A+ Video: B- Audio: A Extras: C- Overall: B

 


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