The intense love triangle at the heart of Chen Kaige's sumptuous epic Farewell My Concubine could be the least of its concerns, but it's not. As Rick Blaine told us, "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world," and it's difficult for a pair of lifelong, opera-singing friends (Leslie Cheung and Zhang Fengyi) and a gorgeous, willful prostitute (Gong Li, late of Raise the Red Lantern, et al.) to compete with the vast sweep of twentieth-century Chinese history with which their lives happen to coincide--the Japanese invasion of the Thirties, World War II, the regimes of the Nationalists and the Communists, the Cultural Revolution and the numbness that followed.
Still, director Kaige qualifies as the Eastern equivalent of David Lean: For more than two and a half hours, he manages to weave a complicated personal soap opera about love, sexual identity, art and loyalty through the great currents of political and social upheaval. As in Lawrence of Arabia or, to a lesser degree, Dr. Zhivago, the private and public affairs on this ambitious canvas illuminate each other admirably.
From the shocking revelations of the horrors of Chinese opera training (the protagonists, Dieyi and Xiaolou, meet as schoolboys in the 1920s) to their breathtaking performances onstage as adults, Kaige hurtles through history like a typhoon, all the while finding the right connections between the disturbed emotions of his characters and, for example, the follies of war, building sturdy dramatic bridges between artistic ferment and incessant political change.
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Cheung is wonderful as the adult Dieyi, the street waif forcibly reinvented as a star through damaging sexual manipulation: Like China itself, this self-absorbed, painfully vulnerable creature remains uncertain as to who he is as revolution surges all around him. Meanwhile, Fengyi surveys Xiaolou's grandiose poses with equal fervor: Delusional and fickle, he seems another aspect of his homeland. Gong Li, who has become the alter ego of Chinese director Zhang Yimou in half a dozen films, shows her range here as Juxian, the pivotal woman.
The huge, barely manageable undertaking of the film is cemented by the classic Chinese opera of the title, an ancient tragedy in which a concubine remains so loyal to her king that even as he faces annihilation, she dances for him, then cuts her throat with his sword. The symbolic echoes of the opera resound through the movie to grand effect.
Co-winner of the grand prize (with The Piano) at last year's Cannes Film Festival, Farewell My Concubine reinforces in no uncertain terms the notion that some of the most compelling and richly textured films of our time now come from China. There, despite the protests of the government, a creative revolution seems to be heating up--one through which we will all become the wiser.