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sabato 4 febbraio 2012

Farewell My Concubine

Farewell My Concubine is a complex film that follows the lives of two theatre actors spanning 53 yaers of Chinese history. It won the prestigious Cannes award ex aequo with another wonderful film: The Piano, by Jane Campion, in 1993.

In 1924 Beijing, a desperate woman leaves her child at a small acting troupe in order to grant him a future. The child, Douzi, finds himself in a harsh, cold environment, where young boys are taught to act pieces from the Beijing Opera through obsessive training and hard physical punishments. As Douzi gets closer and closer to another boy in the school, Shitou, it becomes clear that both are particularly talented and they will grow up as major opera stars.
Their warm friendship soon begins to resemble a shy, devoted love, especially on the part of Douzi. (There are scenes of unforgettable tenderness between the two of them, especially considering the cold, violent environment they live in). Douzi and Shitou, later known as Chen Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou, are inseparable, until Juxian comes into their lives. From that point on, everything seems to fall apart: the relationship between the two actors is irretrievably poisoned, while, on a broader level, we see China go through dark moments of its history.

The film is neatly divided into 8 chapters, including two 1977 moments that open and close the story. Each chapter focuses on a different era in Chinese history while depicting the lives of the characters. In this way the lives of Dieyi and Xiaolou are set against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of China, the Cultural Revolution, and the Communist takeover.

Dieyi, wonderfully played by Leslie Cheung, is a truly fascinating character. He is innocent and oppressed by a huge love he seems unable to manage, especially after Juxian comes along. His gender identity is unclear, and also his sense of reality outside theatre seems unstable. His mother was a prostitute who abandoned him, he was raped by a disgusting old men in his adolescence, he was forced to act feminine roles to the point of forgetting his real identity and he is homosexual in a strongly repressive environment. All this merges to create a fascinating character in which almost everyone can somehow recognize themselves,because I think everyone, more or less consciously and, of course, without experiencing the same traumatic events, has gone through moments of identity crisis, or felt betrayed, or unable to express and share a love they were forced to keep inside. In this way, Farewell My Concubine is both a detailed historical film and a strongly intimate one.

In the book on which the film is based the character of Juxian is far less important, while the love relation between Dieyi and Xiaolou is more explored. I think this makes much more sense, especially considering that Chen Kaige, when asked why he made this choice, he simply answered that, if you work with such a "diva" as Gong Li, you can't have her play a minor role. I think giving Gong Li a smaller part, that is remaining closer to the novel's plot, would have made the film even more beautiful, but this is just my personal feeling about it.

There are very violent scenes, especially in the beginning, with a particularly disturbing quality about them. My knowledge of the immense and multifaceted Chinese culture is too limited to comment on this point, but I can say in some moments I got the same feeling I get reading Mo Yan.
There's a wide selection of studies on violence in Chinese culture, and this collection of essays seems to be particularly interesting: Violence in China: essays in culture and counterculture, by Jonathan Neaman Lipman. The essays try to answer this intriguing question: "Why does a culture that condemns violence [...], and seeks harmony over all other values, in fact display such frequency and variety of violent behaviour, that is, of the use of physical force against persons"? I don't know if this book is a reliable source on the subject, but it is at least an interesting read.

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