I finally got a chance to see "Farewell my Concubine." I'd been anxious to see it since its initial release in 1993. It surprised me in its depth and technical skill.
Three points make this film outstanding. The first is the technical skill of the director and the luscious taste of the director of photography. The entire film is a feast for the eyes, taking full advantage of elaborate costumes and exotic locations. The second strength is in the actual storytelling. The plot is a fascinating tragedy, it feels almost Shakespearean. The acting is nothing short of incredible. Some of China's finest actors demonstrate their ability to carry a story that covers 52 years. Normally, these two strengths alone would be reason enough to see a film, but "Farewell my Concubine" succeeds in satisfying one more category (the bain of any epic): historical accuracy.
"Farewell my Concubine" is exceptionally accurate in portraying the monumental changes that were sweeping China at the time. The film doesn't just treat these events as background events, but drags them right into the plot and pins the characters into their surroundings. This is interesting when you consider that the story takes place in the Peking Opera, not the most likely place for these events to have effect. Instead, as we see the new China emerge, we watch these vestiges of old society fall, and the work of all involved make this transition an achievement to behold. The power of this film was not missed by Chinese censors who banned, removed, and then banned the film again several times over -debating whether or not its artistic brilliance was worth subversive portrayals of suicide and homosexuality. Unlike "The Last Emperor," this film was made by Chinese film makers and is in tune with its subject. I recommend this film highly!
As one last note, the version I saw was a DVD containing the original 170 minute version of the film, in its wide-screen splendor. From what I understand, the shorter versions released internationally deleted and shortened some opera scenes for fear that they would be lost on Western audiences. Having no prior experience with any Peking Opera, I found the scenes fascinating and integral to appreciating the entire story. Spend the extra time if you can.