Kaige Chen's 1993 film Farewell My Concubine traces the development of several characters and the evolution of China throughout the twentieth century, from the Warlord Era in the 1920s until the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. The social and political upheavals occurring in the country mirrors the strife in the personal lives of Cheng Dieyi, Duan Xiaolou, and Juxian. War, chaos, and social turbulence are apt backgrounds for the depiction of these three central characters. The events of the film begin in Beijing during the warlord era, in 1924. A prostitute names Yanhong carries her child through a crowded public area, where a performance by the Beijing opera enthralls a rowdy crowd. Yanhong ignores a man who calls her a whore, an act that sets the stage for one of the film's overarching themes: social class conflict and the ill treatment of both actors and of prostitutes. During the performance, a young boy names Laizi tries to run away from his troupe, and a bold teenager named Shitou proudly beats a brick over his head as a display of prowess and strength. His teachers subsequently beat him for his divergence from the script, and while he is being badly beaten, the prostitute with the young boy wave to him kindly.
The Beijing Opera school doubled as a sort of orphanage, and Yanhong brings her boy over for enrollment. She begs the master, "Don't look down on us." The boy is denied entry because he has six fingers on one of his hands; Yanhong runs into the alleyway, cuts off her son's extra finger with a cleaver, and returns to the master. Her son, Douzi is admitted into the school, but is promptly called a "son of a whore" in the boys' dormitory. The school is run rigorously, with an oppressive atmosphere and almost tyrannical atmosphere. Soon, Shitou takes Douzi under his wing and the two not only become stage brothers but also very close friends.
From this early in the film, sexuality and sexual identity emerge as major issues for Douzi. When he first enters the Beijing Opera he is noticeably effeminate and quickly lands the part of Concubine Yu in the ancient Chinese opera "Farewell My Concubine." Douzi's gender identity is conflicted throughout the film, and he falls deeply in love with Shitou. Their friendship develops in a way that closely mirrors the events of "Farewell My Concubine," with Douzi easily playing the part of the concubine, and Shitou easily playing the role of the "bold and resourceful" King Chu. One of the main messages of both the film and the opera "Farewell My Concubine" is that "no matter how resourceful you are, you can't fight fate." The main characters of the play-within -- the play and the main characters of the film cannot escape their fates, and the movie unfolds like a classic Greek tragedy.
The film moves through several successive stages in China's twentieth century evolution. After the Warlord Era, the final hurrah for the Manchu rulers, China is invaded by imperialist Japan. The invasion sparks an infectious wave of nationalism, which Shitou (called Duan Xiaolou in his adulthood) takes to easily, but not Douzi (whose adult name is Cheng Dieyi). The differences between Duan Xiaolou and Cheng Dieyi first emerge during the Japanese invasion, and the rift between them only grows deeper when the handsome and clearly heterosexual Duan falls in love with a courtesan from a local whorehouse named Juxian. Thus, just as Japan invades China and threatens the old order, so too does Juxian "invade" the lives of Duan and Dieyi. In both cases, tragedy ensues, and the tragedy closely follows the basic plot of "Farewell My Concubine." The search for personal identity on the part of the three main characters parallels the Chinese search for a national identity during these turbulent times.
In spite of the Japanese invasion, the Chinese social hierarchies remain solidsly in place. At the bottom rung of the ladder are the actors and prostitutes. Masters Guan and Yuan Shiqing become clear representatives of the upper class. Wealthy patrons of the Beijing Opera like Master Yuan Shiqing play a key role in Farewell My Concubine, because their demise after the impending communist revolution illustrates the total restructuring of Chinese society. Master Yuan Shiqing becomes not only patron of the opera but a personal sugar daddy and lover to Dieyi. Thus, Dieyi further falls into his role as concubine, and his life begins to mirror the life of Concubine Yu uncannily. Dieyi's dual roles as both actor and as concubine also solidify the class connection between actors and prostitutes that is elucidated in the film.
The treatment and perception of prostitutes is also illustrated through the character of Juxian, who was once the prettiest courtesan at the House of Blossoms. Duan rescues her, Cinderella-style, from the whorehouse. When she leaves, the madam tells her condescendingly, "Once a whore, always a whore." Her words ring true as the events of the film unfold to reveal that Juxian is never able to escape her past, even years later during the Cultural Revolution.
Juxian and Duan become engaged; what started as another little "play" turned into a real marriage. Their relationship troubles Dieyi, making him insanely jealous. "This is the day we say good bye," he tells Duan, and breaks off their professional and their personal relationship. Dieyi then tries to play the role of social superior to Juxian, sarcastically claiming that now Duan is acting out the play "Gangster King and his Whore."
Social stratification even plagues those at the lowest rungs of the ladder, who must vie for as high a position as they possibly can. For example, when Master Yuan Shiqing commissions the opera and pours money their way, Dieyi feels even more elevated one more rank in the eyes of society, as he quickly becomes the most in-demand actor in the opera.
Actors were viewed poorly by the Japanese as well as by the Chinese. One night the Japanese call Duan Xialou a "low-life," sparking the young man's temper. The Japanese forces proceed to imprison Duan Xiaolou for his nationalist leanings and outspoken resentment toward the Japanese. The Japanese, apparently enamored with Chinese opera and having heard of Dieyi's greatness, blackmail him into performing for them. Although Dieyi still harbors resentment toward his friend for marrying, he agrees to perform for the Japanese if it means freeing his friend from prison.
Dieyi feels little if any of the nationalist sentiment. Rather, his main loyalty is to the Chinese culture, to the opera, to perfecting his art. Politics mean nothing to him. However, his performance in front of the Japanese army would plague Dieyi throughout the remainder of his life. Even Duan Xialou is disgusted with his friend's betrayal of the Chinese people and although he has been released from prison, spits on Dieyi and shuns him.
The Chinese nationalist forces finally triumph over the Japanese in 1945, but the peace is short-lived. The opera suffers, as the Chinese Nationalist Army heckles Dieyi's performance because of his willingness to act in front of the Japanese. Duan Xialou speaks up for his friend and a riot ensues. The Chinese nationalists say that Dieyi "encouraged the enemy and disgraced the people." Dieyi remains loyal to the opera, noting that "If Aoki had lived he would have taken the Beijing Opera to Japan." Dieyi is deemed a traitor but is released on bond. Duan Xialou becomes exasperated and the rift between the two grows.
The chasm in their friendship is juxtaposed with the chasm that occurs within Chinese society: a mere three years after nationalist forces triumph over the Japanese, Chang Kai Chek and the Chinese nationalists flee to Taiwan. Just as the nationalists are exiled from the mainland, so too are Duan and Dieyi exiled from each other. In the wake of an invasion by the Communist-run Chinese Liberation Army, the communists impose a strict restructuring of society and collectivize the Beijing Opera. Dieyi cares little that red flags fly high in the opera hall, so long as he can perform his masterpiece. However, the proletarianizaiton of Chinese culture wreaks havoc on Dieyi's life and the life of those close to him.
First, his patron and lover, Master Yuan Shiqing is soon exposed for being a counterrevolutionary. Yuan Shiqing is held out as an example of the communist determination to level the social playing field and eliminate the centuries-old structure of Chinese society. As the Communists drug the populace with propaganda, Dieyi envelops himself in a cloud of opium and alcohol addiction. Once again, the instability in his personal life reflects the instability around him.
The communist leaders also change the nature and themes of the Beijing Opera, to Dieyi's dismay. Without interest in the stories of kings, the communists ask that the opera reflect proletarian ideals. Costumes are designed differently to deny social stratification. Dieyi openly rebels against what is called the New Society Theater, which…