Farewell My Concubine: A Queer Film Classic

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

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An early installment in Arsenal Pulp Press’s QUEER FILM CLASSICS series, Helen Hok-Sze Leung’s Farewell My Concubine (2o10) takes a queer cultural studies approach to a close reading of Chen Kaige’s 1992 Chinese film, starring Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, and Gong Li. After reading this one short (120 pocket-sized pages) study from the series, I look forward to seeing what more they have coming in future.

Leung provides a concise historical and cultural background to the film’s production and reception, noting,

While it may not have met any one region’s [Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Mainland China] cultural expectations, the film’s transregional character actually reflects the heterogeneous, negotiated, and not necessarily coherent nature of contemporary Chinese film culture. (42)

Thus, her assessment of the film against the backdrop of contemporary film and cultural institutions incorporates regional Chinese history, the history of Beijing opera, the political and cultural shifts (revolutionary and otherwise) throughout China in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the complex, dynamic understandings of economics, class, sociality, and sexuality as they have changes throughout this period. In the end, she summarizes her view of the film as a resistance to the projection of presentist appraisals of historical moments regarding gender, sexuality, and embodiment:

Farewell is thus a “queer classic” not because it portrays realistic or positive images of gay and transgender lives in the present day. Rather, the film shows us a queer way of being that we can barely recognize, that may even offend our modern sensibilities, but that deserves to be remembered and understood in all its human complexity. (47)

Here, Leung’s response to the film provides one of the more interesting and admirable appraisals I have read precisely because it carefully queers the film and our receptions of it rather than imposing a heteronormative or homonormative regime of authority, authenticity, or identity upon it.

In her close look at the queer/trans* character of Dieyi (Cheung), she follows closely on the work of Teri Silvio and Lim Song Hwee in arguing,

our notion of “gay”–which did not come into circulation in Mainland China until well into the 1980s during the post-Mao era of reforms and globalization–is definitely not applicable to Dieyi. A character living in that time period would not have been able to conceive of his sexuality in such terms. Unfortunately for Dieye, he also lives through such rapid and intense social and political changes that previous categories of sexual subjectivity–those the precede the emergence of gay identity–are also slipping into irrelevance right in front of his eyes. In a very real sense, Dieyi, as a sexual subject, is lost in history. (85-6)

A few lines later, Leung continues along this incisive tack,

If we can let go of our contemporary epistemological framework for understanding sexuality and place Dieyi in a specific historical context, we see that the filmmaker’s [Chen] struggle lies not so much with his ability to portray a gay person openly and accurately, but with how best to present a sexual subject that is caught between identity categories. (86)

It is not so much a question of repression or censorship (Nationalist, Maoist, post-Maoist, or otherwise) as it is a question of the dynamics of cinematic deployment and sexual articulation. Farewell My Concubine is not a film that succumbs to political or cultural strictures (as many have argued) as much as a film that addresses one of the most complex and complicated arcs of the history of Chinese embodiment and displays the ambiguities and aporias of that history.

In the closing pages of the book, Leung focuses as well on the question of addressing the presentation of gender in this film in the context of this historical and cultural arc. Developing the work of Nikki Sullivan and Susan Stryker on trans* practices of becoming and unbecoming, Leung regards the display of gender in the film as a set of denaturalizing practices that articulate how all bodies become dynamically transformed within institutions of “normality” and “strangeness.” She argues:

In the film, the process of Dieyi’s “becoming” a dan [female role] performer and an embodiment of an ideal type of femininity through “unbecoming” a boy may initially appear to be a uniquely coercive form of gender transformation. Yet, on closer look, the process appears to be a paradigmatic process of gendering, period. In other words, how Dieyi learns to embody a type of stylized femininity is similar to how other characters learn to embody other roles. (102)

Throughout the book, Leung emphasizes the dynamics of the last 130 years of Chinese history and culture–the social and aesthetic impact these dynamics have had on China and the region, the connections and breaks with the past and future of Chinese artistic traditions, and the ambiguous, aporetic, and contradictory demands these dynamics have placed on Chinese bodies and desires. In an interesting and compelling analysis Leung firmly establishes the importance of Farewell My Concubine as a crucial recollection and critique of this context of shifting institutions, expectations, and practices.

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Brian Bergen-Aurand is the editor (with Mary Mazzilli and Hee Wai Siam) of Transnational Chinese Cinema: Corporeality, Embodiment, and the Ethics of Failure (Bridge21).

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