Magnificent 'Farewell My Concubine' is in a world of its own

March 11, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In the first few minutes of Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine," which opens today at the Charles, it becomes clear that we are on a new planet.

Everything is different but everything is real. We are in the All Luck and Happiness Training Academy for Boys in 1925, a drafty structure that looks like a barn. Name aside, it is neither a happy nor a lucky place. Ruled by eunuchs at a pitch of twisted hysteria, it makes the Prussian officer's schools of the 19th century look like Kind-R-Care Centers. Its goal is to produce performers for the Peking Opera -- or corpses. Nothing else will do.

The sexless men patrol the acolytes, looking for crime. When they find it -- a misplaced finger, a dropped word, an inappropriate smile or gesture -- they punish it vigorously. They are cruel, driven only by the ideal of opera; the boys must be tormented into performers. If their bodies resist, their bodies must be mutilated into acquiescence. And if their minds resist, their minds must be mutilated into acquiescence.

But the planet we are on is not the planet of the opera; it is the planet of the Great Movies, and the stunning beginning to Chen Kaige's mind-blowing film only begins to hint of the distances it will travel, the pains it will unleash, the labyrinths it will penetrate. When you get out, at least you won't be hungry to see another movie in a half an hour.

At the school, two boys -- the slight Douzi (Ma Mingwei) and the hefty Shitou (Fei Wang) -- attract the most punishment because they are the most talented. The ordeal bonds them. It turns out that the chunky, athletic Shitou is fated to play "the King" and the wispy, effeminate Douzi the "Concubine" in a famous opera, "Farewell My Concubine," whose intricacies and ironies will dominate the two men's lives for the next 70 years.

"Farewell My Concubine," the opera, is stylized and to Western eyes wholly abstract. To the untutored, it consists primarily of men in clown makeup and Halloween costume humming loudly through their noses; and of woman who are delicate, sublime, petal-like and . . . guys. Yet one power of the movie is to make palpable the hold this refined and seemingly unknowable art form has on the collective unconscious of its culture. It makes you see why boys would give up every shred of dignity and endure terrifying pain to master its passions.

As a narrative, the opera sounds a bit like a "Lear": It tells the story of a famous king who loses everything except a last horse and his most loyal concubine. Clearly doomed, he waits for the enemy dynasty to close in; and in a sublime act of sacrifice, the concubine cuts her throat, because a life without his is inconceivable.

And that, in its way, is what happens between the two men.

For in a terrible way, Douzi will be forced to become a woman; he will live the love the opera demands he feel for Shitou. Gay or not isn't the question: The structure crushes him into giving up on that Y chromosome so that the love he feels is a woman's love for a man. And a few years later, when, now called Chen Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and a great star, his love for the man now called Duan Xialou (Zhang Fengyi) is pure and driven. Until a concubine comes between them.

Gong Li has played ethereal Chinese beauties for a decade now, in such films as "Red Sorghum" and "The House of Red Lanterns." Here, as Juxian of the House of Flowers, who becomes Xialou's wife, she's one tough cookie. Her Juxian is as shrewd and gutty as any linebacker and an eternal problem for Dieyi. He cannot get Xialou to love him as Xialou loves her.

But this drama, the eternal triangle imagined completely afresh and glazed with an irony so sublime it mocks the very meaning of "romance," is also played out against the larger tapestry of the incredible upheavals of China in the 20th century, with throbbing versions of the Warlord Era, World War II, the coming of the Communists in 1948 and the terrifying purges of the Cultural Revolution of 1966.

The meanings are dizzy with complexity. In one sense, the opera is a metaphoric version of "Old Society" and reflects the old social order: Violently autocratic and debauched, it is nevertheless in its driven way impressive and nurturing. The movie evokes it without sentimentality or particular nostalgia; it's the cruelest of worlds. At the same time, the movie watches how the forces of change buffet it and ultimately destroy it. But they replace it with -- what?

Kaige has nothing but contempt for the banal agitprop of "New Society" opera and the political shenanigans that accompany it. One of the subplots watches as a talentless young man rises to authority over the opera with only a gift for politics. He is the one who personifies the film's terrible conclusion, the unleashing of the Cultural Revolution, which makes the great stars into petty informers, selling each other out for the most inane of reasons.

At the same time, Kaige never loses track of the personal and the warped triangle between Dieyi, Xialou and Juxian, which, being irrational in heritage and construction, cannot be dismantled. Though Juxian makes heroic attempts to defuse Dieyi's rancor, she never can, and in the end it spells her doom.

No American director, not even Spielberg or Scorsese, is working on a level with Chen Kaige; for sheer audacity of ambition, visual theatricality, density of theme and texture and pure drama, no movie I've seen in years matches "Farewell My Concubine." Sensual, dazzling, captivating and terribly cruel, it's about the opera that is life and the life that is opera.

"Farewell My Concubine"

Starring Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi and Gong Li

Directed by Chen Kaige

Released by Miramax

R-rated

*** 1/2

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