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Farewell My Concubine

Movie poster Cannes Film Festival
Directed by Chen Kaige
Produced by Hsu Feng
Written by Lilian Lee (also novel)
Lei Bik-Wa
Lu Wei
Starring Leslie Cheung
Zhang Fengyi
Gong Li
Music by Zhao Jiping
Cinematography Gu Changwei
Editing by Pei Xiaonan
Distributed by Miramax Films
Release date(s) 15 October 1993 (U.S.)
Running time 171 minutes
Country China
Language Mandarin
Gross revenue $5,216,888 (domestic) [1]

Farewell My Concubine (simplified Chinese: 霸王别姬traditional Chinese: 霸王別姬pinyin: Bàwáng Bié Jī; literally "The Hegemon-King Bids Farewell to His Concubine"), a 1993 Chinese film directed by Chen Kaige, is one of the central works of the Fifth Generation movement that brought Chinese film directors to world attention.[2] 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.

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



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 eleven years—and a single spot light falls on them.

The scene, now shot in sepia, cuts to 1924. A woman walks hurriedly with a small child in her arms through a crowded Chinese market. A man 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. One of the troupe, Shitou [Stone], shames the crowd by breaking a brick on his head, as the crowd cheers.

The mother takes the boy to the troupe house but Master Guan refuses him because of a birth defect, a superfluous finger. The mother runs to a knife peddler. As the child whimpers that his hands are freezing, the mother covers his eyes then cuts her son's extra finger off. She signs the contract with his thumb print in blood and leaves without a word.

Shitou welcomes him as "Douzi" [Bean]. Laizi, craving freedom and candied crab apples, and Douzi escape but return after seeing an opera performance that makes Laizi weep and ask how he can become such a star. As Master Guan brutally beats Shitou for allowing their escape, Laizi hides to eat his 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 has 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. [1]

When the famous theatrical agent, Na Kun, a Manchu, visits the troupe, Douzi is brought out to recite his bravura role, but he says again "I am by nature a boy," and the agent begins to leave. With the future of the troupe at risk, Shitou twists a tobacco pipe into Douzi's throat until he gargles in his own blood. Suddenly there is a soft whisper of, "I am by nature a girl... not a boy."

Jump cut to Douzi in full costume at an elaborate stage in front of a large audience in an elaborate private pavilion of the aging Eunuch Zhang, who admires him and his talent. Douzi and Shitou sing the famous duets, and the audience roars.

After their performance, the two are summoned for an audience with Eunuch Zhang. 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.

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. 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 trains him.

Douzi and Shitou become stars of Beijing opera and take on the stage names Cheng Dieyi, now played by Leslie Cheung, and Duan Xiaolou, now played by Zhang Fengyi. 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, played by Ge You, slowly courts Dieyi. Xiaolou, in the meantime, takes a liking to Juxian, played by (Gong Li), a headstrong courtesan at the upscale House of Flowers. (Although she is later accused of being a "prostitute", 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", which has the same sound as "little death." 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. Juxian is crushed to hear his words and hangs herself.

"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. It is unclear of his fate.

The film then jumps back to the first scene. 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 he is not a girl. Shitou corrects him and they continue practicing. Douzi then commits suicide by sword in the same manner as the play.

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

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.[1]

Miramax edited version

At the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, the film was awarded the highest prize, the Palme d'Or.[3] 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. [2]

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

Awards and nominations

See also


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ Paul Clark, Reinventing China, p. 159; Zha, China Pop pp. 96-100. -
  3. ^ a b c "Festival de Cannes: Farewell My Concubine". Retrieved 2009-08-17.  


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

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Raise the Red Lantern
BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language
Succeeded by
To Live


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