霸王别姬 (Farewell My Concubine). Dir. Chen Kaige. 1993.
Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993), adapted from a novel of the same name by Lilian Lee, is a sweeping epic that follows the relationship between two Peking Opera stars, Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) as they navigate the tumultuous political landscape of 20th century China. Set in Beijing, the film covers a span of 53 years and begins in the 1920s, depicting Dieyi and Xiaolou’s brutal opera training, their eventual rise to fame, and their subsequent struggle to survive and maintain the glory of Peking opera, all against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion, the Chinese Civil War, and the Cultural Revolution.
The name of the film references one of the famous operas that Dieyi and Xiaolou star in, in which Dieyi plays the role of Concubine Yu, who commits suicide out of loyalty to the Chu king, performed by Xiaolou. Dieyi, who is trained as a dan (female) performer, develops an ambiguous gender identity and blurs opera with reality, falling in love with and becoming deeply committed to Xiaolou. Xiaolou does not return his affections and instead marries a prostitute named Juxian, played by the then-rising star actress Gong Li. The film simultaneously depicts the bitter love triangle between Dieyi, Xiaolou, and Juxian, while also weaving personal trauma into a national allegory of the Chinese state.
Farewell My Concubine is considered as a representative work of China’s Fifth Generation film movement. It received international acclaim and won the prestigious Palmes d’Or award at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival.