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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

entry arrow9:08 PM | 1993 Best Foreign Language Film Reloaded: How to Survive Chinese History

Part 4 of a Series

I approached Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine with some trepidation when I watched it again last night, knowing full well how much I disliked it when I first saw it some 21 years ago. I suppose my earlier reaction was one borne out of the inevitable disappointment that came from much-too-high expectations.

But I remember sorely wanting to like this film. Gong Li then was my recently discovered film siren -- someone I latched on to in my younger "Fuck-Hollywood-The-Rest-of-the-World-Has-Much-to-Offer" years. I was also just discovering the vastness of Asian cinema, and I was devouring the works of Jafar Panahi, Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Zhang Yimou, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and so many others. That the film had won the Palme d'Or from Cannes also sent my expectations to the stratosphere; its gay subtext also proved quite inviting.

And then I saw it, and I felt let down: Farewell My Concubine seemed like a mess. Its promise of a story set to epic scale seemed dwarfish in execution. The characters and their stories did not draw me in. And, worst of all, it had none of the visual poetry of Zhang Yimou's films. I had just seen Raise the Red Lantern, and I was overwhelmed by its lyricism, its sense of history unfurling in uncanny domestic melodrama. Yimou was my idea of a perfect Chinese film from the Fifth Generation of filmmakers. Kaige's effort seemed like the product of a crasser cousin: pompous, overlong, rough, uninvolving.

So I surprised myself for liking the film this time around. What had changed in the interim? Perhaps my middle-agedhood? (I'm quite old now, or at least, old enough.) Perhaps I have seen so much more of life (that cliche...), and have felt so much more the frail tango of desire and recrimination we do with the people we love? Perhaps I have known so much more the cruel subtleties of loving and the many languages of betrayal?

Because it is the convoluted relationships between the film's three main protagonists that I have responded to so much more now. I still though Kaige's execution to be rough, but this time, it felt more in keeping with the theme of its story. It follows the trajectory of the lives of two Beijing Opera performers -- one who plays the king and the other the consort in the popular play "Farewell My Concubine" -- from their harsh training in childhood to the harsher reception they get in the real world as history unfolds in modern China. The central motif, of course, is the dramatic details of the play they have been performing for all their lives. We see how the motif plays out in their lives outside of the stage as they confront the changes in society, from the fall of the monarchy, to the rise and fall of the Koumintang, to the invasion by the Japanese, to the rise of Communism, and the complete ravaging of the Cultural Revolution. Their lives is made even more complicated by the entry of a woman -- a prostitute played ably by Gong Li -- who has married the "king" (played by Zhang Fengyi) and has set the "concubine" (played immaculately, like a secret dragon, by Leslie Cheung) into an extended jealous fit. How subtle the ways they manipulate each one in their complicated triangle! And how equally subversive how they demonstrate their love and hate as well! I adored the complexity of their untidy melodrama.

Compared to the similar shenanigan's in Trueba's melodrama, Kaige's film easily trumps the Spanish one, and the latter suddenly seems like a horny teenager's depiction of sexual politics. Farewell My Concubine is smart, and is easily the better-made film. Belle Epoque's Oscar feels like frivolous win.

Next: Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet...

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