Saturday, August 4, 2007
Farewell My Concubine - The Contextualization of Choice
Historical it is. Or is it? Is it merely it? Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine is indeed a magnificent piece of art which exemplifies nothing less than art itself, the Peking opera, which is actually the ultimate form of Chinese art I must say.
The portrayal of the Peking opera, as well as the people around it however is so strong and is intensely submerged within history that at the peak of historical and cultural unfolding in China, I came into thinking that it is not simply a historical film. This is not just about the evolution of the Peking opera. It’s revolution.
Having known of the Kaige’s first-hand experience of the Cultural Revolution in China, it then became clear that the film is nothing less than a critique to the movement which attempted to vanquish all previous elements – may it be in religion or art – in China. The Cultural Revolution did not only take away China’s old culture. It has taken away China’s higher culture.
The movie however did not show that solely on the history of opera, and instead also somewhat portrayed it in other forms such as thought the lives of Farewell My Concubine the play’s Concubine Yu, and the Peking Opera actor Cheng Dieyi. The opera’s attempt to resist and struggle against Cultural Revolution is also thus mirrored in the lives of the two characters in the film.
There were therefore three faces of revolution that were showcased in the film. It was the battles and hardships of Concubine Yu, representing a classic Peking Opera piece; Cheng Dieyi, an image of a celebrated Peking Opera actor; and the Peking Opera itself – all struggling to preserve their own but shared glorious moments in China’s cultural stage.
For comparison, I was able to see some points of parallelisms, as shown in the film, among the lives of these three characters. Grounds for comparisons are thus set to further understand how the director have progressed the revolting dispositions of each of the said characters, representing the revolting Peking Opera on a macro level of Chinese Cultural revolution.
The characters, except maybe for Concubine Yu, have undergone a painstaking path to greatness. At a young age, Dieyi was faced with tremendous challenges, before and upon entering opera. From the beginning he was looked down by society, being a prostitute’s son, as well as having eleven fingers, on which the eleventh was cut by his own mother, he then encountered more challenges inside the opera as he was harshly forced to think of himself as a girl. Perfect should be the word and there is certainly no room for mistakes. That one also goes with Peking Opera. It was first shown as something being done merely on streets colorless, helpless. It was a struggling path for the opera, same as Dieyi’s. It was the begging for finding, the never-ending training for the actors, the hard beatings of the students, and the like – all for the dreamt glorious days of the Peking Opera.
As portrayed, the Peking Opera have had absolutely high standards. It was considered close to sacred as imperfections were certainly not allowed. Everyone behind it has put up tremendous efforts just to uphold the highly precious Peking Opera. The opera was nonetheless a product of sweat, tears, and blood and Kaige was needless to say successful in making reels out of it.
The glorious days of the opera came as the stage was painted with different colors. With colorful costumes, makeup, props, acrobatics, dances songs, the film was actually Peking Opera brought back to life. It seemed quite effortless for the film to show hoe Peking Opera was then adored, respected, and appreciated, by the Chinese who were genuinely fans of opera. The character of Dieyi also experienced the golden moments of her life the same time as the Peking Opera have. Opera indeed was the center of Dieyi’s life. It might have even become his life. It was certainly an amazing display of Chinese culture before the Cultural Revolution. Everyone definitely has put the highest premium to the Peking Opera, and has worshipped its actors. Everyone loved Peking Opera.
Another interesting points in the movie is the depiction of Peking Opera’s resilience and resistance to destruction,, even though it witnessed power’s several change of hands. The actors were constantly performing, and the stage was constantly filled with color, even though the backdrop of the audience symbolized by varying flags was constantly changing, until the Cultural Revolution was imposed by the new holder of power.
Decades of greatness or the Peking Opera was suddenly, immediately shattered by that imposition. As everything in the past was tagged as evil, the Peking Opera, at least that which the people knew during that time, as also considered as such and thus, must be at all means, destroyed. Repercussions on the life of the people, not just those within the Peking Opera, were for sure also ruined, as the character of Dieyi has exhibited. It was then time to bid the great Peking Opera goodbye, as that for Cheng Dieyi, and Concubine Yu. It was then farewell.
Farewell My Concubine has captured the greatness of the Peking Opera until it was finally shattered by Cultural Revolution. It was such an intensely, as well as a passionately, created film which was in a sense meant to let today’s people of China realize what they had back then, back when their higher culture was eliminated, back when they still have their highest form of heritage. Kaige undeniably created a very strong medium for political socialization, through political realizations of there’s such a thing. It was indeed so hard to bid farewell to a nation’s foundational treasures, even if someone argues that it is for the building of better ones. Nevertheless, Chen Kaige’s farewell My Concubine is certainly one great national treasure all for the Chinese to keep.
For a film that lasts for almost three hours, I may say that the film, “Farewell, My Concubine” was really worth my time.
Originally entitled “Bàwáng Bié Jī ”, this 1993 Chinese period film which was directed by Fifth Generation film maker Chen Kaige, shows the story of two opera performers of the Peking Opera Troupe, Xiaolou and Deiyi, as they undergone the different periods of political upheavals in China and how, these period of time had affected their lives as well as their art. Recipient of the prestigious Palme d’Or award by Cannes Film Festival in 1993 (along with “The Piano”), Farewell, My Concubine can be classified into different genres, just as the same with the other film studies. As mentioned above, the film is mainly a period film but it could also fall under drama, romantic epic or classified to be a gay or lesbian film. And its themes include political unrest, totalitarian states, life in the arts, gender- bending (homosexuality), star- crossed lovers and, as what I found to be a very important theme, betrayal.
Now, aside from the abovementioned thematic focus of the film, there is one concept that I would like to be my central argument in this discussion and that is the concept of public and private divide. In this short entry, I would like to show how the Farewell, My Concubine encapsulates the “public vs. private” concept and show how the film, could be seen, in the end, to be an effective medium for political socialization.
So what is said to be public? And how does it differ from the private? The public, as Heywood defines it, are “the institutions of the state (the apparatus of government, the courts, the police, the army, the social security system and so forth) and can be regarded as ‘public’ in the sense that they are responsible for the collective organization of community life (Heywood, 2002).” This public realm is shown in the film in two ways. One which could be considered to be the public would be the different political periods (and political changes) that China had undergone, from the time before the People’s Republic of China came into existence. to the Japanese invasion of China, then to the rule of the National Government, then to the Chinese Civil War, up until the Cultural Revolution. The other, which could be said to be depicted in the film as the public, would be the Chinese society.
The private realm, on the other hand, are “areas of life that individuals can do and manage for themselves (the economic, social, domestic, personal, and artistic spheres, and so on) (Heywood, 2002).” In the film, this is also portrayed in two aspects- the first is the Peking Opera and the second, the lives of Deiyi and Xiaolou.
Now, the film shows that there exists an interplay between these two realms- the public and the private. The film explains that the two concepts are dialectical in nature and somehow, one could not be divided from the other. So how is this shown? For one, the film depicts the effects of various Chinese political turmoil during the 20th century on a Peking Opera Troupe and shows how half a century politics could greatly have an effect on the lives of two performers and friends. Clearly, we see how the public greatly affects the private and that the public has always something to do with how the private lives their lives. In particular, we see how the Cultural Revolution had affected the Peking Opera and how it had, in a way, contributed to the death of the art. Also, we saw how this revolution led to betrayal among the characters of the film. If we are to analyze this, we could say that the friendship which the two main characters have developed is a private thing and it should be kept as that. But due to the Cultural Revolution, we saw how a public matter had infiltrated this private thing which eventually led to its destruction.
Another example where this interplay of public and private is seen is during the scene when Juxian (wife of Xiaolou) killed herself. Suicide is indeed a private matter. However the reason behind it may be seen to be what is public. Though it had not been explained, we could say that she killed herself because of the betrayal that her husband did to her- again a private matter. But is it not that the reason why Xiaolou betrayed her was because it was what the public, in this context the cultural revolutionaries, dictated? Again, we see how the public affects the how the private reacts.
So how does this film becomes a medium for socialization? The film, as I see it, is used as a medium of political critique. The film is utilized as a critique to communism and shows that communism is not all good. This is turn leads us to accumulating the “other face” that communism could take and shows us how this communism caused the downfall of the art of the Chinese, which is the opera. A person who is so entranced with the goodness of Communism would probably, after watching the film, (the same with how I felt) not feel the same way. On the other hand, one who is so into the art of the opera would now, after the film, understand, in one way or the other, why communism had this bad feeling towards it. The art of opera has its bourgeois and royal traditions, something that the new regime opposes. In a more general view, since the film shows to us that the private is indeed intertwined with the public, this would lead us to acting in ways that in deciding on our private matters, now, we would take into consideration the public realm.
As a conclusion, I bring to you my favorite line in the film, one that I feel has a great part on both the lives of the characters. “by nature, I am a boy, not a girl.” Indeed, Deiyi, by nature is a boy, not a girl but he will always be Concubine Yu to me.