The film farewell my concubine is a Chinese film which has received much attention from the world. It explores the impact of the Chinese political turmoil on its citizens during the middle 20th century. The movie illustrates this by using two stars in a form of traditional Chinese theatre maybe with some music playing along, and in this movie there is a woman who comes between the two stars. This movie uses two stars in a Peking opera troupe and a woman as an object to illustrate the predicament and frustrations of the Chinese people which was brought about by its political turmoil. This film was adopted from Lilian Lee novel entitled farewell my concubine.
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This film is centered on a love triangle which involves two opera singers and a former prostitute, this provides emotionally charged lens through which one is enabled to view and visualize the major china’s historical events of the mid 20th century and also brings clearly out the oppressive communist rule of Chairman Mao. The plays structure is provided by the historical context of the time period then. This play explores a number of themes for instance sex, survival and love.
Cheng Dieyi who is a man effeminate, as a boy and through opera trainings he is trained to act like a woman to symbolize the limitations of art and also to demonstrate power in the real world. Dieyi is used as an object to demonstrate power and limitations of art being faced in the actual real world. In this play we also notice that many of the younger characters are being referred to as “Xiao” meaning small and an indication of childhood. This film starts with an introduction where the audience is introduced to the two stage characters namely YuJi who was effeminate therefore the woman and the man General Xiang Yu, it is important to keep in mind, that the two actors are men.
At the beginning of the film we see that when the little boy, Xiao Douzi is taken for training to the Peking opera instructor, Master Guan refuses to take him until Yanhong(his mother) chops off Douzi’s extra finger, a birth defect with a clever and the contract is signed with a thumb print in blood. This symbolizes the hardships to be endured by the little boy, Douzi in order for him to be trained; it also reflected the numerous challenges awaiting him on this journey which he had to follow. This is also seen in the following proceedings where a ten year contract is signed between the Peking opera trainer and Yanhong during which Douzi’s life and his earnings goes to the trainer in exchange for the training.
At the beginning we said that this film was done to illustrate the frustrations of the Chinese people in the mid 20th century after the political turmoil and this is reflected here in that, this training is not comfortable and the conditions being met for the student to be trained are tough. His extra finger has to be chopped off and this is accompanied with a lot of pain, Douzi has to work for ten years without ever seeing his salary or not even touching it, on addition to already existing tough rules his life belongs to this man meaning he can use him for anything and in any way that he wants. Douzi because of his craving for freedom tries to escape and only returns after seeing a performance that makes him to weep and also enquire on how much they had to endure in order to become stars. Shitou is brutally beaten for allowing Douzi to escape who also after returning receives his share of punishment. It appears like the boy has been sold completely in exchange for the opera training yet life and freedom is important than all this. As away to consol himself he befriends Xiao Shitou who is the informal apprentices’ leader and due to the long days of practice they both distinguish themselves as the most talented. When the play starts Douzi is chosen dan, or female lead while Shitou is chosen sheng or in other words a male lead (Silbergeld 96-97).
As adults having graduated they are employed by an opera company and given new names and Douzi becomes Cheng Dieyi while Shitou becomes Duan Xiaolou the characters we are introduced to at the beginning of the play. In this play there’s a lot of weeping as a result of the beatings received which symbolizes the anguish and pain of this people and that is why Douzi yearns for freedom from this imprisonment. During the training Douzi dreams of the outside world to the extend that instead of saying “I am a girl by nature, not a boy” he says “I am in nature a boy”. The future of the troupe is brought at risk because of Douzi’s problem of identifying himself with his new gender and there arises a need for quick remedy in order to secure the troupe. The solution to this is very frightening as his friend Shitou twists a tobacco pipe into his throat until Douzi gargles blood in the pipe which in turn forces him to softly whisper “I am in nature a girlâ€¦not a boy”.
The pipe is used as an object to symbolize the kind of enforcement they applied to force its victims to subject to the world that was created for them. With such kind of punishment and torture one has no other option but to obey. This is the second time we are coming a cross blood and since life is in the blood whenever you come across blood there’s fear since it posses threats to life and it also brings about uncertainty its like venturing in the unknown, in the dark. After the performance Douzi is summoned to meet eunuch Zhagy alone who during there meeting looks at him lustfully and in the process molests him. From the act of the eunuch its clear that those in power and with resources care less about other people and that is why they exercise this power in unspeakable disgusting way that lowers other peoples dignity to the point that it becomes hard to the people victimized to share the predicament that befall them even to there best friends. This is seen by the fact that his friend whom he really longed for to be near him so that he could tell him what he was feelings fails to get him to say a word about the proceedings at the eunuchs place and maybe even the purpose for the invitation or more to that why he had to go alone.
Also when Douzi notices an abandoned baby on the street and expresses his concerns to take him but he is urged by his master not to do so because even each one of them knows not there fate. People seem to care only for themselves and do not think about the need people around them or even the innocent like that baby who can not speak for themselves or rather struggle to survive as many would do if life became hard or when faced with difficulty circumstances. The form of training given to do this kind of a job is one that hardens and excludes you from the normal life and society norms or culture.
On stage the adult Dieyi is in love with Xiaolou though sexually his affection is not being met. Though the two are courting, Xiaolou starts to like Juxian who is allegedly said of as being a prostitute. When Xiaolou intervenes in Juxian’s attack she proposes marriage to him which is followed by an engagement in order to free her from prostitution and as a result wrangles emerges between the two famous actors who were in love and they fall out. Dieyi after accepting Yuan Siye’s invitation due to his frustrations of being left by his love falls in another trouble since he is raped after being made drunk and in the morning ashe lives he takes the sword that they had early seen in the market place which he had wanted to give to Xiaolou as a wedding gift. Dieyi starts to use opium in order for him to get over his frustrations and this symbolizes the crimes and wrong decisions made by the people in order to rid there pain and humiliation. We also see the Japanese soldiers beating up the Chinese patrons which makes Xiaolou angry to the extend that he refuses to perform the opera farewell my concubine again, this leads to his imprisonment and his freedom is bought by Dieyi thou they fail to keep the terms of that agreement.
During the play betrayal is seen and a lot of insincerity as the people fail to keep the promises made and as a result they hurt the other parties in the agreement. There’s fighting for power and this is witnessed when Xiao Si usurps Douzi’s position as a reflection of the turmoil in the Chinese economy brought about by the fighting’s for position and power after the withdrawal of the Japanese government. The maliciousness of the leaders is seen and this brings the china’s economy down. The aspect of bribery comes out when Dieyi is released after performing for the government when he had been arrested for treason. Also in the drive and the urge to protect one another Juxian is hit in the stomach and she looses her baby. The baby was as a simple of a new birth, hope, a new beginning but because of strive amongst them it’s lost through a miscarriage. This sudden death brings about China’s fall since it’s surged and put under the control of the liberation army of the communist people.
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This complex relationship between the three involved parties is an illustration of the political issues affecting china as a nation since its second mid 20th century war. The three actors have been used as a simple to illustrate the underlying issues for instance betrayal emerges when Xiaolou who is in love and also courting Dieyi engages Juxian. This enormous war that frustrated the Chinese citizens was caused by imperialist policy aimed at securing raw material reserves in particularly food and labor and also to cause its domination in politics and military at the expense of its people. There is a few happenings after the airing of the film like for instance the theater troupe is turned to the government and the abandoned baby whom Dieyi trained and was given the name little brother, Xiao Si. In this film we are told that little forth brother has the same sound as “little death” this is very symbolic as it’s followed by the burning of the film in china (Zhu 127-130).
It can also symbolize an end to the freedom that was there for this people. The limitations in the peoples freedom of speech is seen also when Shitou is questioned by the communist party about the words he uttered many years back which they consider them to be unpatriotic. There’s unknown fate for Xiao Si for usurping Douzi’s position and Juxian hangs herself when she is rejected by her husband and as a result the reunion of the first relationship between Douzi and Shitou occurs.
These deaths are not just for fun but they symbolize dead or an ending. Throughout we are seeing a frustrated people, people that are oppressed and weeping because of the many things that are happening to them and around them. The Chinese people who have been frustrated by war until they lost all the hope and that is why there are children who are very innocent but they have been abandoned by there loved ones, the only people they knew and trusted, people responsible of taking good care of them and giving them brighter future. All this symbolizes the cry of the people who have been abandoned by there government and subjected to a lot of pain and suffering. Hopes only revive in china after the death of the chairman Mao which is followed by his political sect being overthrown and consequently there arrest for the crimes they have committed against the people of China. Finally when Xiaolou and Dieyi met a few important things happened which symbolized a re-birth of a better life for the Chinese people, since they had lost most of there former school boys as a result of the numerous china’s political campaigns. These two main actors forgive each other for the ugly things they had spoken and done to each other.
Where there’s forgiveness there’s growth and incomparable peace meaning that the citizens of china have an obligation to forgive each other in order to live in harmony, peace, unity and in love with one another. And once this is done it will pave way for development and on addition it will be easy for everyone to move on with there own lives.
Jerome, Silbergeld. China Into Film. London, UK: Reaktion Books, 1999.
Ying, Zhu. Chinese Cinema during the Era of Reforms. Westport,CT: Greenwood publishing group, 2003.
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