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

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The Last Mistress (Une vieille maîtresse)


The Last Mistress

Asia Argento gets her Spanish on.

(2007) Drama (IFC) Asia Argento, Fu’ad Ait Aattou, Roxanne Mesquida, Claude Sarraute, Yolande Moreau, Michael Lonsdale, Anne Parillaud, Jean-Philippe Tesse, Sarah Pratt, Amira Casar, Lio, Isabelle Renauld, Lea Seydoux, Nicholas Hawtrey, Caroline Ducey. Directed by Catherine Breillat

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the human heart is a tricky thing. Not everything is easy to assess, quantify and analyze when it comes to human emotions. Not everything makes logical sense; we can only follow our feelings and hope they lead us on some sensible course that will arrive at our eventual happiness. It doesn’t always turn out that way though.

Ryno de Marigny (Aattou) is about to get married to the beautiful Hermangarde (Mesquida), granddaughter of the Marquise de Flers (Sarraute). It is 1835, during the reign of the last French King. Ryno has been a bit of a libertine so it turns more than a few heads and gets some tongues to wagging when the Marquise allows the engagement of her beloved granddaughter to such a notorious rake as Ryno, who is a son of a noble house but has fallen on hard times. The marriage to the wealthy Hermangarde is extremely advantageous to him.

The Marquise is fully aware of Ryno’s reputation however and invites him (more of a command actually) over one night to talk. She has heard of his most scandalous affair and wants to know if he has given the relationship up before he marries. She demands he tell her about the relationship in detail and so he does.

Ryno met La Vellini (Argento) at a party. By then she was married to the ineffectual Sir Reginald (Hawtrey) and was already an accomplished courtesan. At first they don’t take to each other; he calls her a mongrel for her Spanish-Italian heritage and she thinks of him as a haughty little boy. Then in fine romantic fashion the two who despise each other so much find themselves attracted as two lovers have never been. This leads to a duel between Ryno and Sir Reginald in which Ryno is gravely wounded. Of course, La Vellini flies to his side and nurses him to health, even sucking the blood from his wound so great is her passion for him.

This leads to a torrid affair that has all of Paris talking, particularly a pair of gossipers (Lonsdale and Moreau) who have a certain French flair for seeing the ridiculousness in their passion. Still Ryno knows that he must end the affair with La Vellini. However, La Vellini is the sort of woman who ends things on her terms – and at the moment her terms are far from having been met.

Based on what was at the time a scandalous novel by the French writer Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly written in 1851, noted French director Breillat has put together what is unusual for her, a period piece. Breillat is noted for her films that ooze sexuality but show sex in a more realistic fashion; there is sweat and not moisture, grunting and not moaning, bodies contorted into awkward shape and little grace. It is more like the act itself without the sentimentality that Hollywood (and yes, French films as well) depict the act with.

She also has a penchant for using non-professional actors and she’s spotted a good one in Aattou. His boyish looks are perfect for the role physically and his performance nicely recalls the actions and sentiments of a down-on-his-heel noble, mid-19th century style. As is not uncommon with European films, there is far more dialogue than in their American cousins and that is true particularly here with much of the action taking place in drawing rooms and Aattou handles the conversations well; they don’t seem forced.

Argento has been criticized for not being a great actress but I have found her to be a solid actress. I have yet to see a great performance from her true, but it is rare to see a truly bad performance from her either and she is quite good here. I honestly can’t fault her performance which is very sexually charged; even in the mannered environment of that time and that place, she comes off as highly sexual which is rare for movies which tend to make the people of that time kind of sexless. La Vellini would be a hot, sexy woman in any era.

The movie, like many European films, is paced at a rather slower pace than American audiences are used to so be aware of that. There are certainly some frenetic moments but for the most part younger audiences might not have the patience to sit through this.

Sarraute, who has been a journalist for some 50 years although was quite an accomplished actress at one time, makes a rare screen appearance of late and makes the most of it. I really enjoyed the warmth and depth she brought to the Marquise; as Roger Ebert so perceptively put it, she’s the kind of movie character whose salon you’d love to hang out in with her, just having conversations about the indignities of life.

Overall I really loved this movie a lot. It’s sexy but not pornographic – a movie about sexual obsession has to have some sex in it after all. But it’s the rich characterization of the main participants in the drama that held my attention; the plot is a bit on the soapy side but no matter. This is wonderful drawing room filmmaking at its very best.

WHY RENT THIS: Very sexy. Nice period piece. Sarraute, Argento and Aattou are mesmerizing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A very leisurely pace.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexuality and some brief nudity as well as a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director discovered Aattou in a Parisian cafe; up until that point he had no professional acting experience.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.8M on a $6M production budget; the movie didn’t make back its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Liaisons

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop