Farewell my Concubine is an intriguing film that follows two Chinese opera performers through social and political upheaval in China during the 20th century.
A point of order that must be quickly addressed is that well known Hong Kong performer Leslie Cheung was overdubbed by Beijing actor Yang Lixin in this film simply meaning that his vocal performance must be deemed inadmissible for the purposes of this review. Cheng though happens to be a character where the physical performance is more important than the verbal one. The character is often silent and when he is not he most often is merely reciting portions of an opera. The film follows Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) throughout their lives starting with their time as beginners in the opera which consists of constant repetition and beatings in order to basically mold them into performers. This is accomplished and the two become friends through supporting each other through the brutality they endure. Their relationship early on is when it is perhaps most earnest, as the two merely care for each other, when they become adults is when the complications begin to ensue and when Fengyi and Cheung take over the roles.
Now there are several scenes throughout the film where we are given the performances which are very strict representations of the Chinese Operas. Now Cheung is very good in terms of portraying this sort of picturesque perfection in manner while still exuding this grace of the performer. His work shows how well Cheng has become in fulfilling the female roles of the opera, in that it has become second nature to him at this point. There is no hesitation or difficulty in Cheung's performance of the performance which is exactly as it should be. In the film the opera is essentially the constant though. The two men always come to perform the roles they learned as children and do so without issue, this is despite the changes in China going around them including the Japanese occupation and multiple revolutions. Early on it seems they can wholly ignore them as even when in public the two men exude the same type of grace as they travel around in their troupe, despite the fact that so many other Chinese disprove of this certain detachment.
In private the men are very much changed by life as they begin to grow apart due to Duan becoming involved with a prostitute Juxian (Gong Li). This proves to be difficult as Cheng's affection for Duan goes further than friendship. Cheung is excellent in his portrayal of this desire in Cheng given that it largely left silent and unsaid for most of the film. The understanding of it comes from Cheung's work as the very way he interacts with Fengyi is very particular. Cheung never suggests the glances of a friend, but rather conveys this connection that alludes to sexual attraction. Cheung though does not simplify this though to make it look as though Cheng is merely lusting after Duan. He makes it purer than that in a way, in that he suggests a real love in Cheung for the other man. A love that transcends even sexuality in a way as Cheung inhabits this history of the men as he looks upon. There is a history of mutual burden but also one of mutual warmth and affection.
Unfortunately for Cheng Duan's own affection only goes so far, and Duan's growing relationship with Juxian slowly creates a divide between the two men. Cheung manages to illustrate the wretched pain in Cheng so effectively, as he brings this intensity to the hatred against Juxian, which only grows the deeper her relationship with Duan, grows, and builds to the breaking point which seems to end the personal relationship between the two men. Cheung is very moving in portraying this decaying state of Cheng after this point, suggesting a man almost lost without the guidance Duan once offered him. This leads to him becoming addicted to opium which Cheung shows as almost his attempt to find a comfort of sorts due to having no one to turn to any longer. Eventually though his condition worsens to the point that Duan and Juxian return to nurse him back to health. Both Cheung and Fengyi are incredibly moving in the quiet reconciliation between the two. They make it convincing as it is all in their eyes that seem to reach an understanding by once again returning to that same warmth as they comforted each other as children.
Their reconciliation only lasts for so long before the Chinese Cultural Revolution takes place which forces out the worst of both men as they are interrogated by Red Guards and prodded to betray each other. Duan does so by accusing Cheng of having performed for the Japanese invaders while Cheng returns the "favor" by revealing Juxian's former profession to the mob. Although this is one of the few heavy speaking scenes for Cheng in the film, outside of the performances, Cheung's work in no way should be hand waved. In his face Cheung brings out this madness brought upon a rage, an old pent up jealous rage built up over years for Duan's preference for Juxian over him that is light to even further by Duan's betrayal. The fallout of the revolution still leads them once again back to the opera for one more performance. Cheung is rather heartbreaking though as he reveals the very end of Cheng after so many years of physical and psychological torment. In that Cheung reveals a man almost captured into insanity in the moment as he seems to technically embrace his role more than ever, but in his eyes there is the sense of a man who has lost touch with the very reality of his existence. Cheung through his powerful silent portrait creates makes Cheng's final act an inevitability, as his performance has shown the path to this final act where essentially his real life finally crosses over with the static life of the opera.