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  • Writer's pictureLucas Friesen

Sunday Cinema: Farewell My Concubine

Farewell My Concubine is a 1993 Beijing Film Studio movie directed by Chen Kaige. It stars Leslie Cheung with support from Gong Li and Zhang Fengyi. Based on Lilian Lee’s 1985 novel of the same name, it was adapted for the screen by Lu Wei. It jointly won the Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival (along with Jane Campion’s The Piano). A few weeks after its release in China, it was banned by the politburo. After 14 minutes were cut by the censors, screenings were again allowed within the year.

The movie is unbelievably complex, with noticeably more layers than most movies made. It can be looked at and studied from multiple angles. Some of its themes include sexuality, identity, history, fate, separating art from artist, friendship, love, work, bonds and bondage, abuse, trauma, and discipline.

I knew little about this movie. In the Toronto International Film Festival’s program, I saw that a new restoration was showing. The still used by the festival in their promotional program looked enticing. Unfortunately, tickets were sold out. When I found it streaming, I jumped at the chance to watch. I thought it would be similar in tone to In the Mood for Love. Although Farewell My Concubine is cinematically spectacular, it is much more intense and devastating than Wong Kar-Wai’s magnum opus.

A still from the movie Farewell My Concubine. The face of a dancer in costume from the Pekin opera.

Farewell My Concubine follows two actors, Leslie and Zhang, from their childhood to the end of their careers. They are inseparable and their relationship is central to the movie. They star in the Pekin opera titled Farewell My Concubine (or The Hegemon-King Bids His Lady Farewell). Leslie plays the female concubine, while Zhang plays the king. They go through many tribulations together off the stage, with the one constant in their lives being the opera. This is tested by the changes of China in the 20th century.

The movie begins in 1942, the “The Warlord Era,” and goes through Japan’s invasion in World War II, the surrender of Japan, the rise of communism and the cultural revolution. The Pekin opera acts as the constant for Leslie and Zhang, as the world changes around them. The movie is unbelievably ambitious in painting a heartbreaking and difficult journey for its main characters.

The cinematography of Gu Changwei is masterful as is the mise en scène. Sometimes, it is said that every frame of a movie is a painting. In no movie is this truer than Farewell My Concubine. It is a complete visual delight, even if sometimes the images are hard to bear.

The movie deals directly with fate. Our protagonists get persecuted for a lifestyle that they never had a choice in. Not only that, but they were also tortured into greatness and then had their countrymen turn on them like they had any say in the matter. They were a product of their environment and were still so even when times changed their environment. Even a forced betrayal could not destroy the lifelong bond of the king and courtesan – both on and off the stage. Later in the movie, had the main character not left the baby to its fate, as his teacher warned, would they not have avoided persecution? And, as such, saved a life? A life whose very death is shrouded with subtext of Leslie’s jealous concubine.

This is a movie created by people who had something to say. It comes from the Fifth Generation of Chinese cinema, when artists like filmmakers and writers of scar literature were more open to frank discussions about their past, ones that were not censored or that did not pander to the ruling class. As such, we seemingly get a more realist depiction of 20th-century China rather than the prevalent propaganda of all-good-in-the-hood imagery provided by the ruling party.

Farewell My Concubine is essential viewing for cinephiles, historians and aesthetes. Although harsh, it is a poignant watch that I will certainly revisit in the future. By telling the story of these two Peking opera actors, Chen and team find their constant in the story of China’s revolutionary 20th century.

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