Horizon at Sandy Point

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Writing, my concubine

Writing is often an extension of thinking. I plod from stepping stone to stone - as in a murky river - sometimes leaping wildly hoping there's indeed submerged rock where I see ripple, hoping not to have to turn back and thread another way, hoping not to sink in still water. Hoping not to have to start over.  Reviewing (writing about) films is an exercise in writing, which exercises thinking.  Was the film, the action, the denouement (how it all came out) a worthwhile commitment in time, and whether it is useful at all, or entertaining. In the case of my writing, did it make me think?

When I picked up Farewell My Concubine at the video club, I was told, "That's old, you must have seen it already." I had not. I had no clue about this 1993 China-made film that won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Like so many films that come out of China from the post- Cultural Revolution era, it is layered through ancient tradition, revolutionary history and contemporary technique to present a face of multi-faceted China, to itself and to the west. Sometimes so much layering, so much texture can be confusing. In another age too, the unfamiliar cadences of Chinese language, the high sing-song would be annoying.

Prostitute turned wife, Juxian, played by Gong Li
The concubine in ancient cultures was a woman who lived with - or was dependent on -  a (usually high born) man, but was not accorded the status of a wife. He may already have had at least one wife. To the Chu king, waiting for the end of his reign (c. 200BC) - and his life - at the hands of the Han king storming the gates, the concubine is more than mistress; this is his last friend at the end of the world. Go, the king commands her. She stays.

The great irony of Farewell is that - like classic theatre, Noh or Shakespeare or Beijing opera - the concubine is played by a man. Two women - and only two - feature in this film. The first is the young prostitute who cannot continue to work at the House of Blossoms and raise a child. So we see her in 1924 following a street performance of the Beijing theatre troupe, with her five year old. She takes the child to the master who rejects him because he has a sixth finger. The desperate mother finds a sharp knife to do what is necessary to deliver a perfect child to the company. A hard life of sadistic brutality disguised as discipline and training ensues; but the young Douzi is never self-pitying. In the  environment of the opera school, the timid reserved Douzi is befriended by the boisterous Shitou. Together they have each other's backs against the world.

They grow to manhood with poetry and music in their heads, desiring fame above all, in the cloistered world of the Beijing opera.

By 1940's Shitou - now known as Xiaolou - attracts the attention of fans, among them the beautiful Juxian who is determined to escape old age at the House of Blossoms by marrying the actor. For his part he knows where the mask ends, and enjoys her attention. But Douzi - the adult Dieyi - is seldom out of his role: the concubine as best friend forever, status-less, yielding, always the supplicant.

Dieyi as the concubine Yu
We see Juxian, played by Gong Li, glad to give up her trade for the status of wife. She is a pliant but worldly woman. The loss of her unborn child in the scuffle with Japanese soldiers evokes no self pity. She is loyal to her husband, and supports his friendship with Dieyi, interceding on the latter's behalf even when he is betrayed by the foundling child who eventually replaces him to star as the Concubine. Wife, advocate, Juxian never again has the chance for the role of mother, and to love but be without love becomes her undoing.

The opera, the film, the intertwined lives of the characters are set against the turbulent fifty year span of contemporary China: from pre-World War II desperation, the occupation by the Japanese, the tug-of-war between the Nationalists and Mao's Communist forces, to the birth of new not-yet-confident China in the 1970's. The two actors meet again after eleven years. They intend to perform the classic Farewell.
Xiaolou as Chu the king; and Dieyi as Yu the concubine
Unencumbered by Western morality or ideology, Farewell My Concubine is rich in metaphor, symbolism, sexuality, and love manifested as loyalty, sacrifice, selflessness and devotion. And so, we come to the final performance of the ageless Dieyi and still vigorous Xiaolou. She sings the pain and pathos of fifty years yearning; and finally, Dieyi has the strength to take the concubine's way.

In the end, it is writing that is the concubine - often inadequate, stilted, weak, one-dimensional but as faithful as humanly possible - to the thought.

Looking back, it is remarkable the number of good films made in 1993 - among them The Remains of the Day; In the Name of the Father; The Piano; Jurassic Park; Groundhog Day; Schindler's List; What's Eating Gilbert Grape; Indecent Proposal; Philadelphia; Cool Runnings; Sommersby - each of which began as a thought in some writer's head. 

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