The opening 30 minutes or so of Farewell My Concubine, which take place in a Dickensian opera training school for boys, are flat-out mesmerizing–full of strange sounds and visuals. Otherwise, this Chen Kaige melodrama tracing the triangular friendship between two boyhood friends who grow up to be celebrated performers of Chinese opera–one gay and the other straight–and the prostitute who becomes the straight boy’s wife is plodding, dramatically tepid (though, “juvenille” might be a more apt description) and only occasionally interesting. The movie is overlong by a good 45 minutes if not more–the drama is cheesy, simplistic and too stodgy in its presentation to really hold up to its historic framing and epic sweep. Still, there’s a lot about 20th-century Chinese history of which I’m ignorant–including the centrality of Beijing opera in traditional Chinese culture–and Kaige’s movie provides a very baroque and sumptuous window on 50-plus years of turbulent political events, serving as a backdrop to a rather overcooked story unfolding in the foreground. Still, some beautiful images and Gong Li’s fantastic performance make at least portions of it worthwhile.
Directed by: Chen Kaige
Screenplay by: Bik-Wa Lei, Wei Lu
Cast: Gong Li, Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang, Qi Lu, Da Ying, You Ge