I first saw “Farewell My Concubine” (DVD | VHS) in China, in a theatre in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, soon after it was released in 1993. I had only been in the PRC for a couple weeks, and seeing this film somewhat “in context” was a startling, moving experience. Most theatre-goers that evening were university students - I was certainly the only non-Chinese in attendance - and as I saw the history of 20th century China played out on the screen, I couldn’t help but think that most of the students surrounding me had been born during the Cultural Revolution, which figures prominently in the film.
I would go on to hear some of their own stories of the period that year: The student who hardscrabbled on the streets for a few months with other children and toddlers after their parents were all jailed for “rightist tendencies”; the professor who, as a university student himself, had been sent to the countryside for reeducation and risked punishment by studying English by candlelight; the student whose uncle, a well-known painter, was jailed and tormented for his earlier “non-proletariat” art.
If you’ve never seen “Farewell My Concubine”, I don’t think you can find a much better introduction to both modern Chinese history and Chinese cinematography. And if you haven’t seen it lately, isn’t it about time to experience it again?
Trivia: John “Wu Man” Wu, the former MTV Asia VJ, has a cameo role in this film as the leader of the Red Guards persecuting the opera troupe.
Farewell My Concubine