Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Alternate Best Actor 1993: Leslie Cheung in Farewell My Concubine

Leslie Cheung did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Cheng Dieyi in Farewell My Concubine.

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.


Luke Higham said...

Louis: Ratings and thoughts on the cast.

RatedRStar said...

It is pretty cool that Cheung chose his first name from....Leslie Howard because he loved Gone With The Film =D, that is cool.

If you were to conduct a poll in Hong Kong for the general public, who is the best actor, I guarantee that Leslie Cheung would win the public vote, even over Andy Lau.

"In my life I have done nothing bad. Why does it have to be like this"?"

RatedRStar said...

Wind I meant to say lol.

Leslie Cheung not being nominated by the Hong Kong Film Awards was one of the biggest snubs in HK award history.

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Louis: Had Cheung not been dubbed, would he have been a 5?

Luke Higham said...

Louis: A good quality version of Moonlight is online.

Anonymous said...

Louis: Although an actor is primarily responsible for giving a bad performance, who do you think should get more blame: the director or the script?

Robert MacFarlane said...

I think Girl on the Train is a good example of actors given bad direction. Tate Taylor left all of them completely adrift, except Blunt who he overdirected.

Calvin Law said...

I thought Cheung was pretty good in this. I'm not a huge fan in general but he was certainly a talented fella.

Charles Heiston said...

Great performance, Knew you'd like him.

RatedRStar said...

Calvin: Who would your top 10 favorite HK actors be?

Calvin Law said...


1. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai
2. John Lone (I'll count him as one if that's alright)
3. Nicholas Tse
4. Lau Ching Wan
5. Francis Ng
6. Anthony Wong
7. Bruce Lee (presence for miles man, even though he wasn't a great 'actor', so to speak)
8. Roy Cheung
9. Leslie Cheung
10. Jackie Chan (can't deny how influential he was on the world of physical comedy)

Calvin Law said...

Oh and probably Chow Yun-Fat as well.

RatedRStar said...

I didnt know that you liked Anthony Wong that much =).

Charles Heiston said...

Shocked to see Wong on there,

Calvin Law said...

Wong has grown a lot on me, suffice to say. The actor who's fallen off the most for me has been Andy Lau. I still think he's downright brilliant in Infernal Affairs and great in A Simple Life, but extremely lacklustre in everything else I see him in.

RatedRStar said...

Calvin: Roy Cheung will send his triad after you for putting him 8th haha lol.

RatedRStar said...

I think Andy Lau is certainly a lazy actor very often, in terms of his HK nominations, most of them tend to be fine towards solid with a few being better than solid and a few being below fine.

Deiner said...

Great review Louis, I liked him a lot as well. This is off topic Louis, but do you think you can check out Aquarius when you have spare time? Sonia Braga gives one of my favorite performances from this past year in that film and I'd love to read your thoughts on her and the film itself.

Charles Heiston said...

I was very shocked when i heard Farewell My Concubine won the Palme d'Or.

Calvin Law said...

Louis: I'm not sure if you'll want to reveal them yet, but could I have your thoughts on Santoro, Berdal, Knudsen, and Marsden on Westworld?

Calvin Law said...

Haha I'll bet!

RatedRStar said...

Louis: In terms of 1993 supporting, I do have a lineup, but 3 of them are real shot in the dark choices so, its a shame because 1993 Supporting is one of the only supporting categories outside the 28 and most of the 30s that I dont really have a firm selection aside from the 2 that I think are good enough to be reviewed =D.

Louis Morgan said...


Fengyi - 3.5(I liked his chemistry with both Cheung and Li but past that I found his performance far less dynamic. He's good enough most of the time in also realizing both the opera scenes and the personal scenes, but just he's never the most fascinating part of any scene. He also has a few moments where he goes into somewhat over the top acting, but he does have some very effective moments with Cheung that make up for them.)

Li - 4.5(A striking performance as she manages to be both ethereal and earthly in her work. She's marvelous the way she gives the presentation of something more while still showing the reality of her position as a prostitute. She though buttresses that well though in creating an earnest and warmth filled relationship with Fengyi, and as well conveys the right complexity in her difficulty in dealing with Cheng as well. In the end though she is particularly devastating as she brings so much honesty in her heartbreak when she is essentially cast out by everyone.)


The director, because in a worst case scenario a bad director could force a terrible performance out, or at the very least create an inconsistent one.


Thanks. I'll try to see it sometime soon.


It's finally coming to a theater near me on Friday so I'll watch it then.


Santoro - (Generally a terrible actor, but he's at the very least used well here. In that he fits the purposefully over the top villain he is suppose to be, and to further support that though his more emotional scenes he's actually quite effective in such as his later scenes with Newton.)

Berdal - (Great at the intense stares to be sure, and fits the part incredibly well. Brings the right viciousness with a needed devilish glee.)

Knudsen - (Really strong work as she effectively brought someone without pretense to the proceedings and exuded the right cynicism of someone just trying to run Westworld as a business. In addition she deserves some extra credit for managing to elevate her scenes with Quaterman and Thompson to the best of her ability. Beyond that I found especially compelling in her scenes with Wright as she managed to find this right sort of combination of a coldness with a genuine affection in their scenes together. And of course she was also great in her scenes with Hopkins, even in her somewhat reactionary role in those moments, though that's all I will say about that.)

Marsden -

Louis Morgan said...


Potentially, if he gave an equally good verbal performance.