'Life is Nothing Without Obsession'
Five Details You Missed in 'Farewell My Concubine'
Selected by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 Best Movies of All Time, the digitally-restored version of the Chinese cinema classic “Farewell My Concubine” is playing in theaters to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its 1993 release.
Five Details You Missed in 'Farewell My Concubine'By Lin Hsin-chieh
“Farewell My Concubine”, based on the book of the same name by Hong Kong novelist Lilian Lee, tells an epic love story spanning half a century, from the 1920s to the aftermath of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In the story, young Cheng Dieyi (portrayed by Leslie Cheung) is sold to a Peking opera troupe, where he and fellow actor Duan Xiaolou (portrayed by Zhang Fengyi) rise to stardom with their performance of the classic opera piece “Farewell My Concubine”. (Read: Conveying the Human Touch of Taiwan Through TV Dramas)
Xiaolou, who plays the romantic hero Xiang Yu onstage, becomes engaged to popular courtesan Juxian at the upscale House of Blossoms. But Dieyi, who plays the Concubine, is truly and obsessively in love with his co-star. Played out over 50 years, the trio’s ill-fated love story traces the tumultuous modern history of China from the founding of the Republic of China, to the Second Sino-Japanese War, to the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War. (Read: Yesterday’s Red Guard Has Something to Say to Today’s Taiwan)
Directed by acclaimed Chinese director Chen Kaige and starring Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, and Gong Li, the production of this movie is also a tale of talent and obsession. These highly dedicated artists worked obsessively to turn an outstanding script into a timeless cinema classic.
It’s also a movie rich in symbolism. Here are five highly important symbols hidden in the masterpiece that you might’ve missed on your first viewing experience (contains heavy spoilers):
1. Deadly Candied Hawthorn
It is said: “there is no love among prostitutes, and no honor among performers.” Yet the three central characters are two stage actors and a courtesan. As the story begins, a prostitute begs the opera troupe director Master Guan to take her unwanted son Douzi (Cheng Dieyi’s childhood name) under his wing. Guan’s begrudging response: “Why not? I didn’t expect to find stars in the gutter” sets the tone for our main characters’ reluctant acceptance of their unhappy fate.
Another child actor in the troupe, the talentless and much-abused Laizi, wants nothing more in life than to taste the bright red candied hawthorns peddled by hawkers on their street. One red-letter day, as colorful ribbons and kites stream past their door, Laizi could stand the abuse no more and tries to run away with Douzi.
He spends three of Douzi’s precious silver coins to buy candied hawthorns, and the two boys steal into a theater to watch their troupe perform the hit show “Farewell My Concubine” onstage. Laizi begins to cry when he sees the Master’s favorite pupil enchant the crowd with his acting—“Think of the beatings he suffered!”—and after finishing the candies and returning to the troupe, Laizi takes his own life.
“Onstage success necessitates offstage sacrifice,” says the troupe master. Douzi perseveres and grows up to be the lauded actor Cheng Dieyi. As his fans mill about and sing his praises, he hears a vendor hawking candied hawthorns from the back of the crowd. He turns; it is as if the ghost of Laizi brushed his shoulder.
2. These Silk Slippers Are Made for Walking
To be with her man Xiaolou, the fashionable courtesan Juxian of the House of Blossoms empties her savings to buy back her freedom. In a moment of desperation, she offers her silk slippers to her pimp as collateral. Barefoot and humiliated, she walks to Xiaolou’s abode, but it is a moment of triumph, because few women of the era determined their own fate.
Xiaolou gives his bride new red shoes to wear for their wedding. The years pass, and our three main characters come to live under the oppressive rule of Communist China. When Xiaolou is forced to betray his wife to the Red Guards during a struggle session, Juxian despairs and commits suicide. Before she hangs herself, she takes off her shoes and neatly set them aside. She determined her own fate every step of the way.
Source: Applause Entertainment Limited
There is one more pair of shoes in Juxian’s story. The first time they meet, a jealous Dieyi tosses a pair of shoes for the barefoot Juxian to wear, but she refuses his charity. Her marriage to Xiaolou makes them mortal enemies. But all her best scenes are with Dieyi, because they love the same man, and so they understand each other despite their antagonism.
The international star Gong Li, who portrayed Juxian, said: “I admire her capacity to forgive. The script treats her very fairly, especially in the way she cares for Dieyi.” During the Cultural Revolution, when all the troupe’s theatrical props were labelled as contraband, Juxian saves Dieyi’s stage sword from the bonfire—the sword that the Concubine kills herself with at the conclusion of each performance.
3. One Sword, One Life, One Love
Dieyi’s very existence is a paradox. He is a man who plays a woman onstage, and he falls in love with his stage-husband Xiaolou. Leslie Cheung’s mesmerizing performance brought life to this conflicted character.
The Concubine’s sword symbolizes all the passion and tragedy of his life. The first time they lay eyes on the sword, Dieyi and Xiaolou are boys about to premiere their rendition of “Farewell My Concubine” for the powerful eunuch Zhang, a retired official of the dwindling Qing Dynasty.
“Had the hero Xiang Yu this sword by his side, he would have slain the villainous Liu Bang and become emperor, and you would have been my empress,” boasts a youthful Xiaolou. Dieyi hears a declaration of eternal love.
Source: Applause Entertainment Limited
The night Xiaolou pledges himself to Juxian, a furious Dieyi gives himself to Yuan Shiqing (portrayed by award-winning actor Ge You), an elderly patron who has been courting him, in order to borrow the old stage sword. But when he brings the sword to Xiaolou, Dieyi is devastated to discover Xiaolou has long forgotten his childish promise.
Ironically, the only character to recognize the sword’s worth is Dieyi’s rival, Juxian. After the Sino-Japanese War, Dieyi is accused of treason. Juxian takes the sword to old Yuan Shiqing and urges him to save Dieyi. And during the Cultural Revolution, when the outlawed theater props were abandoned to the bonfire, Juxian plucks the sword from the flames at her own peril. Only she knows the sword is Dieyi’s life.
At the end of the movie, when Dieyi and Xiaolou rehearse “Farewell My Concubine” for the last time, the heartbroken Dieyi ends his own life with this one memento of what he believed was Xiaolou’s endless love.
4. Breaking Your Head on Brick
“This is a story of betrayal,” said director Chen Kaige. The betrayer is Xiaolou, who plays the Concubine’s beloved hero Xiang Yu. Xiaolou’s childhood pet name is Shitou, literally meaning stone. At the start of the film, young Shitou entertains the mob by breaking a piece of brick on his forehead. It becomes his signature act. In times of crisis, whenever the audience got rowdy or even violent, Shitou employs this trick to placate the crowd
When Juxian is harassed by drunks at the House of Blossoms, Xiaolou uses this ploy to intervene. And when Douzi (young Dieyi) offends a patron, Xiaolou diverts their attention with this trick.
But in the end, the hero could not save those closest to him. Subjected to a tribunal of Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, Xiaolou gives up his wife Juxian’s and friend Dieyi’s dirty secrets. His tormentors taunt him by asking him to perform his famous brick trick, but Xiaolou is unable to do so. The hero has lost his secret weapon; he has failed to protect those he loves.
Source: Applause Entertainment Limited
5. The Concubine Paints the Hero’s Brows
Before each performance, Dieyi finishes putting on the Concubine’s makeup, then helps Xiaolou complete the hero Xiang Yu’s more elaborate makeup by painting on the eyebrows. After Xiaolou marries Juxian, an embittered Dieyi no longer helps his co-star with this small act of camaraderie. Complains a bewildered Xiaolou, “You need to help me paint on the eyebrows or the hero won’t look good!”
Most poignantly, during the Cultural Revolution when Peking opera was considered part of the “Four Old Things” that Chinese culture needed to eradicate, the two actors are forced to parade the streets in their stage costumes for onlookers to ridicule. Xiaolou’s makeup is a mess—his tormentors drew a mockery of the proud hero’s war mask on his face. In steps Dieyi, already decked out in the Concubine’s outfit. He calmly picks up the brush and completes the eyebrows for Xiaolou.
Is this revenge or compassion? Whenever Dieyi picks up the brush—whether it is before a stage performance in the good old days, or before being paraded through the streets during the bad times, he always does so with unspeakable tenderness. It is a symbol of devotion to his love and craft.
When the two are boys, opera troupe director Master Guan describes the play for them: “One last time, the Concubine pours wine for her hero; one last time, she performs the sword dance. Then she slices her neck. She was thorough!” Young Cheng Dieyi drinks in the lesson and never forgets a single word.
Translated by Jack C.
Edited by Tomas Lin