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Socialist Review, January 1994

Sabby Sagall


Song of betrayal

From Socialist Review, No. 171, January 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Farewell my concubine
Dir: Chen Kaige

This is a film on a grand scale. It is the story of two actors from the Peking Opera, one homosexual, one heterosexual, and a prostitute, whose enmeshed lives reflect the dramatic changes in 20th century China. History is powerfully narrated through the lives of individuals.

In the 1920s the nationalist government under Chiang Kai-Shek ruled only the south, unable to impose its will on the warlords who controlled much of the country including Peking. Life and politics were unstable, but there was one anchor: the opera. Wealthy and poor alike could take comfort from it and its stars were heroes.

The film traces the lives of Xiaolou and Dieyi from 1925 when they meet as apprentices struggling with the tough discipline of the Peking Opera school. Actors specialise for life in certain roles, so because of Dieyi’s ‘feminine’ looks he takes on female roles, while Xiaolou’s strength gears him for military parts. They study an opera, Farewell my Concubine, the story of a king about to suffer defeat. He begs his concubine to flee, but she kills herself with a sword as the enemy closes in.

By the time of the Japanese invasion in 1937 Dieyi loves Xiaolou deeply, but the latter marries a high class prostitute, Juxian. When Japanese troops enter Peking, there is widespread anti-Japanese sentiment and many arrests, including Xiaolou, who is eventually released when Dieyi performs to secure his freedom. But he condemns Dieyi for capitulating. When in 1945 the defeated Japanese are ousted and the nationalists take over, the two actors join in the celebrations but Dieyi is tried as a traitor. His eventual release is because a high ranking officer wants to hear him sing, ironically since his acceptance of an invitation to perform for the Japanese was his original crime.

The film’s story continues through the twists and turns of life after Mao’s revolution in 1949, through the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to the late 1970s with the death of Mao and the trial of the ‘Gang of Four’. The story is one of coming to terms with change and of betrayal. During the Cultural Revolution, the two men denounce one another, and Xiaolou betrays Juxian with devastating consequences.

Dieyi’s character embodies the view of art as self contained, cut off from the wider social struggle, so the distinction between art and life for him is often blurred. The film seems to imply that art has a responsibility to fulfil a political role. But art can fail to develop or to relate to new historical conditions, simply reproducing traditional forms as a young Maoist accuses the Peking Opera of doing.

The film is visually sumptuous, powerfully evoking the different worlds of modern China.

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