Random Thoughts on Farewell My Concubine (1993)
Farewell My Concubine (1993) 霸王别姬
Dir. Chen Kaige
Leslie Cheung nails it! He captures the essence of Cheng Dieyi/Consort Yu with his alluringly feminine demeanour and posture in his first appearance in the film, namely the photo shoot sequence where his full face is visible to the audience. Gong Li also gives a superb performance as Juxian, who acts more like an overlord than Zhang Fengyi’s Duan Xiaolou/Xiang Yu the Overlord. This Xiaolou, in my opinion, is a bit out of character in comparison with the original by Lilian Lee (Li Bihua).
Some critics are disgruntled with homophobia, the absence of female subjectivity and the disappearance/castration of Hong Kong identity in the film. In response to the first two points, I would like to raise three scenes featuring Cheng Dieyi’s gaze out of the window that may be suggestive of the formation of his sexuality or gender identity, the awakening of his female subjectivity, and his desire for a female body respectively: little Dieyi, who has just got his extra finger cut off (implying castration), following his mother with his eyes as she leaves and never comes back; little Dieyi watching Xiaolou being punished by lifting a tub filled with water in the snow; and grown-up Dieyi peeping through the window into Xiaolou and Juxian’s room where the couple is making love. As for the third point, it is undeniable that Hong Kong is completely erased from the Chinese production, the political and cultural implications of which are interesting. A Comp Lit saying would be what is absent is more important. The film adaption turns the original anticlimactic ending into a tragic ending with a sense of fatedness, addressing a different thematic focus.