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Farewell My Concubine Turns 30

Chen Kaige’s award-winning film sees a resurgence in local cinemas

It’s not often that Montreal theatres, even independent ones who have significantly more control over their programming, feature Chinese films in their roster. Rarer still are there any Chinese films from the 80s and 90s — a critical time of cultural renaissance which allowed fifth generation Chinese filmmakers to break into the international scene. Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine is largely considered to be one of the greatest-of-the-greats among its contemporaries. It also remains the first and only Chinese-language film to win the Palme d’Or –– the highest- ranking award at the Cannes Film Festival. This Chinese-Canadian critic is deeply pleased to report that in celebration of its 30th anniversary, Chen Kaige’s transcendent 1993 masterpiece is now gracing the screens of cinemas worldwide. 

Farewell My Concubine epitomizes the historical epic: it chronicles the lives of two young Beijing Opera stars — Douzi (Leslie Cheung) and Shitou (Zhang Fengyi) through their highs and lows during the most tumultuous decades in modern Chinese history. We follow them from their scrappy beginnings training under a ruthless troupe master, to their eventual ascension as two highly respected masters of their craft; they also assume new stage names, Chen Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou. Conflict ensues as their life-long friendship and partnership is tried by Xiaolou’s new fiancée, Juxian (Gong Li), just as the political strife from the Sino-Japanese War and Cultural Revolution quickly spell the end of their art form as they know it.

In early October, tickets for a local screening of Farewell My Concubine sold out in a matter of days. In a conversation with Cinema Moderne’s head of programming, Benjamin Pelletier, he said that this is partially due to the admittedly compact nature of their auditorium, but this response also indicates a thriving Montreal audience hungry for more Chinese and Asian film screenings. “The Chinese diaspora are really excited about this,” he said, “I’m really thrilled about that.”

While presenting a few of the film’s screenings, it became apparent to Pelletier that most of the ticket-goers were already very familiar with it, with many having watched the film several times before. It’s clear that for many, Chen’s work has already ascended to “classic” status.

Farewell My Concubine is, incidentally, also a staple in queer Chinese cinema. Dieyi is unabashedly in love and devoted to Xiaolou, which is what drives much of the film’s interpersonal drama. He is played by Leslie Cheung, one of the only openly queer celebrities in 90s Chinese pop culture, who was also one of the most prominent Cantopop and film icons of his generation. For queer viewers in China and in the Chinese diaspora, Farewell My Concubine evokes the treasured experience of seeing themselves represented in a mainstream Chinese movie as a deeply sympathetic, though tragic, hero figure.

 A new uncut 4K restoration of Farewell My Concubine is currently showing in select screenings at Cinema Moderne.