Farewell, My Concubine is not an easy film to watch. It deals with social and political upheaval in China from the Japanese invasion through to the Cultural Revolution, by following the three main characters through those difficult times. But it is still a very moving, and very beautiful, film, with some superb performances.
The story follows two boys training in a Beijing Opera school, who grow up to be major stars. Shitou, the older of the two, is a strong outgoing boy, and takes care of his younger sibling. Douzi, the younger, arrives as the son of a prostitute who can no longer keep him at the brothel, and from the start is a thin quiet child with an other-worldly beauty. This marks him for the female roles, which in turn brings him to the attention of two rich men who lust after his youthful self.
Both young boys playing Douzi have the wary look of young wild animals, untrusting of humans. Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing, who takes over the role as the adult Douzi (who takes the stage name Cheng Dieyi), makes it his own. His enormous talent shines through here, and it’s tempting to see hints of the unhappiness that drove him to suicide this April. He gives a marvellously tragic portrayal of a chronically unhappy man, devoted to his stage brother and used by the various opera groupies who covet him. He is particularly good at this type of unlovable yet charming tragic figure: other examples are in the Wong Kar Wai films Happy Together and Days Of Being Wild.
Zhang Fengyi and Gong Li both despatch their roles with elan, but this is definitely Leslie’s film. His icy demeanour and delicate gestures as he is scolded by Juxian (Gong Li) express a maximum of polite contempt with a minimum of motion: he brushes a costume headress with idle flicks of his fingers, using his eyes to show his supreme disinterest in her diatribe. Then, a few scenes later, the desperate fury of his opium withdrawal scene is truly shocking in its intimacy. You get the same feeling of horrified shame as you would seeing a friend wracked in the same way.
This will be one of the films Leslie will be best remembered for. Solid arthouse from beginning to end, it gives Leslie a chance to demonstrate the awesome talent he had for bringing troubled characters to life.