Chen Kaige directs Leslie Cheung, Gong Li and Zhang Fengyi in this Chinese period saga following two Peking Opera performers; from their childhood of brutal orphaned training to persecution during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Spanning a lifetime and with moments of extreme cruelty and petulant betrayal, Kaige’s unrequited romance is quite the achievement. Moving with cinematic sweep of Lean and achieving the intimacy of Rossellini, this showcases two great performances. Leslie Cheung as the closeted, distant female performer is a heartbreaking, androgynous enigma. Gong Li as the acquisitive interloper who marries into the trope and at times threatens the partnership of the stars, while at other times saves it, is an equally tragic and absorbing figure. Farewell My Concubine delivers a history lesson and an emotional rollercoaster, managing to always look immaculate while it does it. The only negatives really are Chinese Opera is bit grating on the old ears. But you can tune out and just observe who the audience is made up of, a key indicator as to what particular point in China’s century of political turmoil we are in.
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