30/08/2017

Farewell, My Concubine - Fate & The Free Willing

Quick Thoughts: Farewell, My Concubine (Bàwáng Bié Jī, 1993)


Made by Chen Kaige, this is the Chinese film of the series.


Complicated and ambitious. Very rarely could a movie come to define these two words any better than Farewell, My Concubine. Whilst its 171 minute run-time may seem intimidating - and whilst this narrative admittedly holds some pacing issues - there is an inordinate amount of history, culture and drama jammed into this story. Spanning decades upon decades of political and governmental upheaval, this narrative follows to Peeking, later Beijing, Opera male actors, one of which (our protagonist, Dieyi) plays dan, meaning female, roles. This introduces to this story a plethora of themes connected to gender, abusive relationships, dependence, loyalty, trust, truth and lies, time, jealously, etc, etc. Having more familiarity with Chinese history and this narrative, there would then be an awful lot to be said about Farewell, My Concubine. However, what has struck me on this first watch is the theme of fate which overshadows this entire narrative.

With the juxtaposition of our protagonist's, Dieyi's, complex relationship with his "theater brother" and his wife (who, following their marriage, is an ex-prostitute) with Chinese history and opera, this narrative winds towards calamity with a sense of predetermination. In such, with every misstep on our character' behalf and their country's there seems to be the turning of a page in a script. From the very beginning of this movie there then builds a tension that we all know must explode - and so, it seems, are the characters within this narrative aware of this. The world of Farewell, My Concubine is then one in which fate is the stage director of people who have free will and self-determination, but fail to use it.

The question this narrative then poses to Dieyi is if he should have joined the 'theater' or 'opera' as he did. Of course this has literal translations, but the decision of Dieyi to become an actor of dan roles under the circumstance of being given up to his abusive theater master by his mother, who is a prostitute and who disguised him as a woman, has its metaphorical implications. Deiyi was given two paths before him: truth and fate. It seems the world wanted him to be a woman, to play the dan, against his wishes. Instead of fighting for what he saw to be the truth, instead of staying loyal to this self-conceptualised, honest reality, Deiyi folds - and such was the beginning of his undoing, just as it would be the undoing of any person or system who follows a given fate under false pretenses instead of establishing their own.

For this subtext, Farewell, My Concubine is a highly rewarding film that takes some patience, and a fair dosage of concentration, to get through. So, to end, have you seen this movie? What are your thoughts?

UPDATE: For another film from China, click here.

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