Farewell, My Concubine (Ba wang bie ji)


The King and I.

The King and I.

(1993) Drama (Miramax) Gong Li, Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang, Qi Lu, Da Ying, You Ge, Chun Li, Han Lei, Di Tong, Mingwei Ma, Yang Fei, Zhi Yin, Hailong Zhao, Dan Li, Wenli Jiang, Yitong Zhi, David Wu, Qing Xu. Directed by Kaige Chen

Life imitates art, it is said, much more than art imitates life. Art can only capture an instant, a moment at best but life is long term. It is rich and full of the twists and turns that are not entirely all of our own making. We are relentlessly buffeted by the tides of history, even if we aren’t aware of it.

In the mid 1920s a prostitute brings her son to a prestigious school where the various disciplines of the Peking Opera are taught. However, he is rejected because he was born with a sixth finger. Undeterred, she takes her son home and hacks off the extra digit with a carving knife, then brings the boy back to the school where he is at last accepted. There, he meets a friend who will be an integral part of his life both professionally and personally.

The discipline at the school is brutal and absolute. The smallest of infractions, the most trivial of mistakes would lead to extravagant punishments painful, bloody and over-enthusiastic by the somewhat sadistic Master Guan (Lu). Eventually the boy and his friend grows up, becoming Cheng Dieyi (Cheung) who performs female roles as a male and Duan Xioulou (Zhang) who takes the masculine roles.

Their most famous roles come from the classic opera Farewell, My Concubine in which Dieyi plays the concubine, a most loyal servant of a King (played by Xioulou) who takes her own life after a military defeat of her master even though she has the opportunity to leave safely. The two become the toast of China and Dieyi, trained from boyhood to be effeminate, develops an attraction to Xioulou who doesn’t feel the same. When Xioulou meets and marries a former courtesan of the infamous House of Blossoms, the headstrong Juxian (Gong Li), a rift develops between the two friends that lead to the dissolution of the company on the very night that the Japanese invade.

The two men and the woman who has become unwittingly the third part of a triangle endure the tribulations of the Japanese occupation, the Kuomintang administration, the Communist revolution and eventually the Cultural Revolution. They have to endure the betrayal of Xiao Si (Lei) whom Dieyi rescued as a foundling and who becomes an opportunist, jealous of Dieyi’s status within the troupe. Eventually they have to endure the consequences of their decisions over the years.

Epics of this scale have become exceedingly rare over the years, due in large part to the prohibitive cost of making them but also because of the shift in moviegoers’ tastes over the intervening years. For American audiences the subject matter, the turmoil of 20th century China, is largely new territory. Most of us are taught little of events in that country in school and those of us who lived during some of the events either didn’t pay much attention to them or dismissed them altogether. Kaige Chen brings those events to life, giving audiences who didn’t live in that place at that time a sense of the horrors that took place. I can only imagine what those who lived through them thought of the film.

The Dickensian opera school would make Oliver Twist sympathetic to the plight of the boys while the lavish productions of the Opera are stunningly rendered by one of the last three-strip Technicolor labs left. While Cheung is exceptional as Dieyi and portrays his inner torment (and outer bitchiness) with a great depth of emotion, it is Gong Li whose performance will remain with you for a long time after you see this movie. Hers is a tormented soul, suffering through love for a man who isn’t entirely hers. It is as exquisite a performance as you’ll ever witness and reason alone to laud her as China’s finest actress (although I’m still partial to Michelle Yeoh myself).

The Chinese government had some issues with the movie – not the least being the depictions of the hardships during and after the Cultural Revolution and not a little because of the underlying homosexual relationships – and has banned it and un-banned it repeatedly. It shows China with all her warts and scars, but also her spirit and perseverance. It is a marvelous portrait of 20th century China, a nation in upheaval that rose to becoming the dominant world power that it is now. Even though the movie might be overly long for some, it is nonetheless more of an education than it is an entertainment, although there is plenty of the latter to be had as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A beautifully shot lyric poem. Gong Li is breathtaking.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags on a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of rough language not to mention some pretty heavy thematic material that may be inappropriate for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film from the People’s Republic of China to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: While complete box office figures aren’t available, it is worth noting that the movie pulled in $5.1M at the American box office, an unusually high figure for Chinese films until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came along nearly a decade later.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Scent of Green Papaya

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: 27 Dresses

Mongol


Mongol

There are more than four horseman of the apocalypse in Mongolia.

(2007) Biographical Drama (Picturhouse) Tadanobu Asano, Honglei Sun, Khulan Chuluun, Odnyam Odsuren, Aliya, Ba Sen, Amadu Mamadakov, Ba Yin, He Qi, Su Ben Hou, Ji Ri Mu Tu, A You Er, Hong Jong Ba Tu, E Er Deng Ba Te Er, Sai Xing Ga, Bayersetseg Erdenebat. Directed by Sergei Bodrov

 

Speaking for myself personally I have a great love for history. Understanding what has happened in our past helps us to understand who we are in the present. The history of Asia, Africa and Australia are largely unknown here as we are mostly taught the history of the United States and Western Europe.

Temudjin (whose name should properly be spelled Temuchin) would later be known as Genghis Khan, a man even ignorant Western ears have heard of. However, as the movie opens up, he is a little boy (Odsuren) whose father (Sen) is a warlord who needs to see his son betrothed. While his father is eager for a more politically advantageous union, his son becomes smitten with Borthe, a young girl (Erdenebat) with a feisty nature. Temudjin manages to convince his father to allow him to become betrothed to Borthe, promising that he will come to claim her in five years. The party heads for home.

On the way home his father is poisoned by a treacherous tribe betraying the Mongol tradition of hospitality. His father names him Khan which doesn’t sit well with the rest of the warriors who know that Temudjin’s mother was the war prisoner from a different tribe.

One of those warriors, Targutai (Mamadakov) spares the life of the young Temudjin, claiming that Mongols don’t kill children but they apparently do leave them in the steppes to die. Temudjin is found face down in the snow by Jamukha who becomes his blood brother.

Later, Targutai captures Temudjin and enslaves him. He escapes and grows to manhood (Asano) without a tribe. He is once again captured by Targutai who is now free to kill the adult Temudjin but the young man escapes anyway and this time finds Borthe (Chuluun) and resolves to bring her back to his family. However, they are attacked by the tribe Temudjin’s mother had been captured from and he takes an arrow. Borthe whips the horse Temudjin is on, sacrificing herself for the man she loves and becomes the slave/concubine of the warlord Chiledu (Ga).

Temudjin approaches Jamukha (Sun), now a Khan himself, and asks for help in liberating his wife from the Merkit. Jamukha agrees to this, but a year passes before the attack actually takes place. In the interim Chiledu has passed away and Borthe has had a son by Chiledu. Temudjin takes the son as his own, despite the mutterings of both his own warriors and those of Jamukha. The next morning when Temudjin takes his leave to return home, a pair of warriors from Jamukha’s tribe accompany him since Temudjin distributes more plunder among his warriors than their former Khan. Jamukha rides after them and demands their return but Temudjin responds that every Mongol is free to choose their own Khan. Jamukha warns Temudjin that this will undoubtedly lead to future conflict which it does when Jamukha’s brother is killed attempting to steal the horses back of the warriors who had defected to Temudjin’s tribe.

Jamukha has vast numerical superiority and quickly overwhelms Temudjin’s forces. Rather than execute his childhood friend, however, he chooses to sell him into slavery. Borthe is misinformed that her husband is dead. Will Temudjin be able to escape once again?

This is  magnificent sprawling epic of the sort that David Lean used to make. Using a pair of cinematographers, Bodrov manages to create magnificent vistas of the barren steppes as well as lovely recreations of ancient Ulan Bator (the Mongolian capital) as well as villages of the era. This is as beautiful-looking a film as you’re likely to see in the last five to ten years.

It also boasts the fine Japanese actor Asano. While the movie is subtitled, Asano is magnificent with his facial expressions. You may not always understand what he’s saying but he conveys everything he is thinking and feeling with his face and eyes, his expressiveness giving flesh and blood to the historical figure Temuchin. Asano also has fine chemistry with Chuluun who amazingly enough is not a professional actress but was someone that the casting director met in the Russian embassy in China when she was leaving after having searched fruitlessly for the right actress to play Borche.

Now, as far as historical accuracy is concerned things get a little dicey. For one thing, not much is really known about the great Khan’s childhood and young adult life as the Mongolians didn’t really believe in written records. Much of what we see onscreen is conjecture and to be honest some of it seems somewhat unlikely given what few facts we do know.

There are plenty of battle scenes here with lots of arterial blood spurting in graceful parabolas through the air to liberally coat the camera lens. It can be pretty brutal and not for the squeamish. We also don’t get a whole lot of insight into everyday life on the steppes. We just get the sense that Temuchin went from slavery to battle to battle to slavery and so on. I’m quite sure there was more to his life than that.

This was the first film in a projected trilogy which unfortunately will not be completed – the other two to cover his rise as Genghis Khan and his eventual fall. While the remote locations helped keep costs down in making this movie, the movie was nevertheless unprofitable and the great difficulty in making the movie to begin with has essentially derailed the project permanently. I would have liked to have seen those films, but at least we have this one to excite our imaginations and certainly Mongol does that expertly.

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning cinematography. Asano turns a magnificent performance in.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags in places and is probably a good 15-20 minutes too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some battle sequences that are quite bloody and gory.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed on location in Kazakhstan and Inner Mongolia (a province of China where more Mongolians live than in Mongolia itself) in places so remote that roads had to be built by the crew in order to travel there, and where dailies – which normally take 24 hours to make it back to the production, took three weeks to arrive.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.5M on an $18M production budget; the movie lost money during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: 21 Jump Street