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Farewell My Concubine (film)

Farewell My Concubine (), a 1993 Chinese drama film directed by Chen Kaige, is one of the central works of the Fifth Generation movement that brought Chinese film directors to world attention.[1] Similar to other Fifth Generation films like To Live and The Blue Kite, Farewell My Concubine explores the effect of China's political turmoil during the mid-20th century on the lives of individuals, families, and groups, in this case, two stars in a Peking opera troupe and the woman who comes between them.

The film is an adaptation of the novel by Lilian Lee. Lilian Lee is also one of the film's screenplay writers.

The actor Leslie Cheung was used in the film to attract audiences because melodramas are not a popular genre. Also, due to Gong Li's international stardom, she was used as the other main character in the film.[2]

Farewell My Concubine remains to date the only Chinese-language film to win the Cannes Palme d'Or.


  • Synopsis
  • Use of Beijing Opera
  • Release
    • Box office and reception
    • Miramax edited version
    • Accolades
  • See also
  • References
  • External links


Farewell My Concubine spans 53 years, presenting the lives of two men against the historical backdrop of a country in upheaval.[3][4] In 1977, the year after the end of the Cultural Revolution, two men in Beijing Opera costumes, one in a female role, the other as a stage king, enter the performance hall and are greeted by a voice off camera they haven't performed in twenty-two years and a single spot light falls on them.

The beginning scene, now shot in sepia, cuts to 1924, near the end of the period when the warlords ruled China. Farewell My Concubine is about the story of Dieyi and Xiaolou and how their lives are lived and affected with the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930's, the surrender of the Japanese in World War II, and in the end, the victory of the Communists in 1949.

In this scene a woman walks hurriedly with a small child in her arms through a crowded Chinese market. A man, recognizing her, tries to speak to her but she roughly pushes him off as he shouts,"Whore!" A crowd is watching a troupe of boys from a Beijing opera training school perform for coins in the street, supervised by their aging director, Master Guan. One of the boys, Laizi, tries to run away, and the crowd is insulted. The leader, a possible warlord, begins pushing around Master Guan. One of the troupe, Shitou (meaning "stone"), distracts the crowd by breaking a brick on his head. The crowd cheers, but Shitou is later punished for pulling such a stunt.

The mother takes the boy to the troupe house but Master Guan refuses him because of a birth defect, a superfluous finger. Throughout the scene the audience can hear a peddler calling out his skill as a knife sharpener. The mother goes and gets a sharp knife and cuts off the extra finger. She signs the contract with his thumb print in blood and leaves after giving him her robe. Shitou welcomes him as "Douzi" [Bean]. The two boys soon become good friends.

A few years later. Laizi, craving freedom and candied crab apples, and Douzi escape, but return after seeing a performance by an opera master that makes Laizi weep and ask how they became stars, and how much they had to endure to become stars. Inspired, Laizi and Douzi return to the troupe, only to find Master Guan beating Shitou for allowing the escape. In the meantime, Laizi hides to quickly stuff his mouth the rest of the crab apples. Douzi walks to the beating bench to accept his punishment. Master Guan begins to beat him mercilessly, but Douzi never screams though Shitou begs him to say he is sorry. Shitou charges the master but the assistant yells for the master to come: Laizi had hanged himself.

Douzi attaches himself to Shitou and is trained to play Dan (female) roles. He practices the monologue "Dreaming of the World Outside the Nunnery," but when he is to say, "I am by nature a girl, not a boy" he instead says "I am by nature a boy..." The monologue comes from the kunqu "The Record of an Evil Sea," kuhai (the Evil Sea) being a Buddhist term for a life of sorrow. Shitou learns the jing, a painted-face male lead. For punishment Xiaolou gets a stick and forces it into Douzi;s mouth,[5] causing his mouth to bleed. The agent begins to leave with the future of the troupe at risk. Soon enough, after he has gargled enough of his blood, a soft whisper of, "I am by nature a girl... not a boy" spills out. He had gotten his line right and everyone cheered with happiness and a sense of relief.

A while later, Douzi and Shitou perform for the Eunuch Zhang, who admired their performance and summon the boys for an audience. Shitou admires a beautiful sword in Zhang's collection, stating that if he were emperor, Douzi would be his queen. Douzi says that one day he hopes to give Shitou a sword like that. The boys are told Douzi is to meet Zhang alone, where he is given the sword.

Douzi walks in on the old man in a lascivious embrace with a young girl. Douzi is afraid as the man eyes him up and down. He wishes to find Shitou because,"I have to pee." The old man brings a glass dragon jar, tells him to pee, stares in lusty amazement at the boy's body, and reaches for him. Douzi tries to flee, but Zhang pushes him to the ground. Hours later he emerges, and Shitou cannot get him to say a word. It is clear that Douzi had been traumatized. On their way home, Douzi spies a baby abandoned in the street. Master Guan urges Douzi to leave the baby, saying "we each have our own fate, or yuanfen," but Douzi takes him in and eventually Master Guan trains him.

Douzi and Shitou become stars of Beijing opera and take on the stage names Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou. The adult Dieyi is in love with Xiaolou, but the sexual aspects of his affection are not returned. When they become a hit in Beijing, a patron, Yuan Shiqing, slowly courts Dieyi. Xiaolou, in the meantime, takes a liking to Juxian, a headstrong courtesan at the upscale House of Flowers. (Although she is later accused of being a "prostitute" in the Blossom House, she was somewhat more elevated than Dieyi's mother in the first part of the film). Xiaolou intervenes when a mob of drunk men harass Juxian and conjures up a ruse to get the men to leave her alone, saying that they are announcing their engagement. Juxian later buys her freedom and, deceiving him into thinking she was thrown out, pressures Xiaolou to keep his word. When Xiaolou announces his engagement to Juxian, Dieyi and Xiaolou have a falling out. Dieyi calls her "Pan Jinlian", a "dragon lady" from the novel Golden Lotus. Dieyi takes up with Master Yuan, who gives him Zhang's sword. Master Guan shames them into re-forming the troupe.

The complex relationship between these three characters is then tested in the succession of political upheavals that encompass China from the onset of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The film also follows the fates of Na Kun, who turns his theater troupe over to the new government after 1949, and the abandoned baby, who is trained in the female roles. He is called "Xiao Si", or "Little Fourth Brother." They go through Japanese Occupation, Kuomintang regime, Liberation in 1949, as the People's Liberation Army enters the city, and the Cultural Revolution in which the traditional opera is attacked as feudal. The portrayal of these events led the film to be initially banned in China. "Xiao Si" and Douzi have an argument about "Xiao Si" training and punishment at the end of which "Xiao Si" threatens revenge.

On the eve of the Cultural Revolution, Shitou and Juxian are seen burning now contraband literature and clothing. After a few drinks, they rekindle their relationship. The next scene shifts to Shitou being questioned by the communist party on a few unpatriotic words he said years ago and overheard by their manager. "Xiao Si" is seen in the background seemingly in a position of power. The Beijing opera troupe is taken out for questioning and offered a chance to repent. Under duress, Shitou confesses that Douzi performed for the Japanese and may have had a relationship with Yuan Shiqing. Douzi, enraged, tells the mob that Juxian was a prostitute. Shitou is forced to admit that he married a prostitute but swears that he doesn't love her and will never see her again for the sake of his life. Juxian is crushed to hear his words and when given the chance to visit her, he had found her hanged. She had committed suicide from a broken heart. "Xiao Si" is seen in a gym practicing Concubine Yu's role, happy over having usurped Douzi's position. Communist cadre catch him in the act. His fate is unclear.

The film then jumps back to the first scene of their reunion in 1977. Douzi and Shitou are practicing Farewell My Concubine. Their relationship seems to have mended since the tribunal and suicide of Shitou's wife. They exchange a smile and Shitou begins with the line that gave Douzi trouble forty years ago. Douzi makes the same error of finishing the line with "I am not a girl". Shitou corrects him and they continue practicing. Douzi then commits suicide by sword in the same manner as in the play.

Farewell My Concubine won a Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival (1993), as well as Best Foreign Language Film from the Golden Globes(1994) and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association(1993). Gong Li won a Best Supporting Actress Award from the New York Film Critics Circle (1993).

Use of Beijing Opera

Running through the film is the Beijing opera also known as Farewell My Concubine. The opera becomes Dieyi and Xiaolou's staple act and scenes from it are performed throughout the film.

The events in the film parallel the play. The opera focuses on the loyalty of the concubine Consort Yu (aka Yuji) to Xiang Yu, Hegemon-King of Western Chu, after Xiang's defeat by Liu Bang, founder of the Han Dynasty. The transition to Han Dynasty rule parallels the transition to the People's Republic of China. The concubine's fatal devotion to her doomed king is echoed by Dieyi's devotion to Xiaolou. At one point in the film, Xiaolou snaps to Dieyi, "I'm just an actor playing a king. You really are Yuji."


Box office and reception

The film was released to three theaters on October 15, 1993, and grossed $69,408 in the opening weekend. Its final grossing in the US market is $5,216,888.[6]

In 2005, some 25,000 Hong Kong cineastes voted it their favorite Chinese-language film of the century (#2 was Wong Kar-wai's Days of Being Wild).[7]

Miramax edited version

At the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, the film was awarded the highest prize, the Palme d'Or.[8] Miramax Films mogul Harvey Weinstein purchased the distribution rights and removed ten minutes. This is the version seen in U.S. theaters (and also in the U.K.) According to Peter Biskind's book, "Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film", Louis Malle, who was president of the Cannes jury that year, said: "The film we admired so much in Cannes is not the film seen in this country (referring to the U.S.), which is twenty minutes shorter but seems longer because it doesn't make any sense. It was better before those guys made cuts."

Most of the cuts were not long extended scenes, but rather a minute or so from many different scenes.

The uncut film has been released by Miramax on DVD, and is the original 171-minute version.


  • 66th Academy Awards, 1993
    • Best Foreign Film (nominated)
    • Best Cinematography Gu Changwei (nominated)
  • National Board of Review (USA), 1992
    • Best Foreign Film
  • Cannes Film Festival, 1993
    • Palme d'Or tied with Jane Campion's The Piano from New Zealand (1993)[8]
    • FIPRESCI Award for Best Film in Competition[8]
  • BAFTA (British Academy Award), 1994
    • Best Film not in the English Language
  • Mainichi Film Concours, 1993
    • Best Foreign Language Film
  • Golden Globe Awards, 1993
    • Best Foreign Language Film
  • Los Angeles Film Critics Association, 1993
    • Best Foreign Film
  • Boston Society of Film Critics Awards, 1993
    • Best Foreign Film
  • Chinese Performance Art Association, 1993
    • Special Award Leslie Cheung
  • New York Film Critics Circle Awards, 1993
    • Best Supporting Actress Gong Li
  • Political Film Society, USA, 1993
    • Special Award
  • International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography (Camerimage), 1993
    • Silver Frog Gu Changwei
    • Golden Frog Gu Changwei (nominated)
  • C sar Awards, 1994
    • Best Foreign Film
  • Japanese Critic Society, 1994
    • Best Actor Award for Foreign Movie Leslie Cheung
  • Ranked No. 97 in Empire magazines "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.[9]

See also

  • Cinema of China
  • Cinema of Hong Kong


  • Clark, Paul. Reinventing China: A Generation and Its Films. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2005.
  • Zha, Jianying. China Pop : How Soap Operas, Tabloids, and Bestsellers Are Transforming a Culture. New York: New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton, 1995.
Further reading

  • Braester, Yomi. Farewell My Concubine: National Myth and City Memories. In Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes, edited by Chris Berry, 89 96. London: British Film Institute, 2003.
  • Kaplan, Ann. Reading Formations and Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine. In Sheldon Lu, ed., Transnational Chinese Cinema: Identity, Nationhood, Gender. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.
  • Larson, Wendy. The Concubine and the Figure of History: Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine. In Sheldon Lu, ed., Transnational Chinese Cinema: Identity, Nationhood, Gender. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997; also published as Bawang bieji: Ji yu lishi xingxiang, Qingxiang (1997); also in Harry Kuoshu, ed., Chinese Film, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.
  • Lau, Jenny Kwok Wah. Farewell My Concubine': History, Melodrama, and Ideology in Contemporary Pan-Chinese Cinema. Film Quarterly 49, 1 (Fall, 1995).
  • Lim, Song Hwee. The Uses of Femininity: Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Zhang Yuan's East Palace, West Palace. In Lim, Celluloid Comrades: Representations of Male Homosexuality in Contemporary Chinese Cinemas. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i, 2006, 69 98.
  • Lu, Sheldon Hsiao-peng. "National Cinema, Cultural Critique, Transnational Capital: The Films of Zhang Yimou." In Transnational Chinese Cinema, edited by Sheldon Lu, 105-39. Honololu: University of Hawaii Press, 199.
  • McDougall, Bonnie S. "Cross-dressing and the Disappearing Woman in Modern Chinese Fiction, Drama and Film: Reflections on Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine." China Information 8, 4 (Summer 1994): 42 51.
  • Metzger, Sean. "Farewell My Fantasy." The Journal of Homosexuality 39, 3/4 (2000): 213 32. Rpt. in Andrew Grossman, ed. Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the Shade. NY: Harrington Press, 2000, 213 232.
  • Xu, Ben. "Farewell My Concubine and Its Western and Chinese Viewers." Quarterly Review of Film and Television 16, 2 (1997).
  • Zhang, Benzi. "Figures of Violence and Tropes of Homophobia: Reading Farewell My Concubine between East and West." Journal of Popular Culture: Comparative Studies in the World's Civilizations 33, 2 (1999): 101 109.

External links

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