Helen Hok-Sze Leung, Associate Professor of Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC, Canada, has published widely on queer cinema. She has written this exemplary volume on Chen Kaige’s film, Farewell My Concubine, for the Queer Film Classic series published by Arsenal Pulp Press. Its diminutive size, a mere 129 pages with 30 illustrations, belies the amount of information this book contained between its covers about this celebrated film. The structure of the book is clear, the discussions are lucid, and considerable recent scholarship is brought to bear on a number of key issues raised by the film since its 1993 release.
The book opens with a brief three-page synopsis and film credits. This is followed by a short discussion of the character of Concubine Yu, who is traced from her origins as an actual historical figure right down through to her treatment in Chen Kaige’s film. Then, Leung places the film within Kaige’s artistic oeuvre and discusses his place among Fifth Generation Directors. But, given that this book is part of the Queer Film Classic Series, Leung focuses most of her discussion on the character of Chen Dieyi (Leslie Cheung), who she feels is the film’s “queer soul.” Leung follows two lines of inquiry in relation to the character of Chen Dieyi. First, she looks at research into the lives of dan performers (men who played female roles on stage) in Beijing Opera and brings the fruit of this research to bear in understanding the character of Chen Dieyi during the time in which the film is set. Second, she examines the interpenetration of the character of Chen Dieyi and the actor who brought the role to life on screen, Leslie Cheung. According to Leung, the role of Chen Dieyi took Leslie’s career down an adventurous new path that would later come to define his iconicity. After his death, Cheung’s iconicity in turn transformed how the role of Chen Dieyi was understood and received by the gay community. These twin threads are the core of the book and are, for the most part, successful in offering a very compelling reconsideration of the film and, in particular, the character of Chen Dieyi.
When the film premiered in 1993, it was a popular and critical success. Audiences flocked to see it in Asia; and it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, a Golden Globe for Best Foreign picture, and was nominated for an Academy Award. Reviewers overseas were entranced with the film: scholars, whether overseas or in Asia, less so. Scholars faulted the director for his presentation of Chen Dieyi, finding it lacking or even highly offensive. The character on the screen did not accurately reflect what scholars and activists had hoped to see in a character they identified as “gay.”
Leung devotes considerable space to discussing the changing perception of the star who played Chen Dieyi—Leslie Cheung—and how this transformation has led to a reevaluation of the film. With his sudden suicide in 2003, Leslie Cheung was embraced by the gay community as an example of a public figure who was “out and proud.” The reality of Cheung’s life was more contradictory and nuanced, as Leung has shown in her book on Hong Kong queer culture, Undercurrents: Queer Culture and Postcolonial Hong Kong, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2008. In the current work, her discussion of Leslie Cheung and his handling of speculation around his sexuality is rich and sensitive. He engaged in a complex dance around this issue, revealing much on stage and screen, but saying virtually nothing about it in relation to his private life. Leung’s characterization of Leslie as embracing queerness while adamantly refusing to be disclosed and consumed as “gay” is spot on.
After his death Leslie was embraced by the gay community as a gay icon and this, in turn, has significantly changed the reception of Farewell My Concubine. The blurring between art and life compels many to project Cheung onto his character and vice versa, with Chen Dieyi becoming Leslie Cheung and Leslie Cheung becoming Chen Dieyi. That Cheung had stated while alive Chen Dieyi was his favorite role, and that his family dressed his wax figure at Madame Tussaud’s in Hong Kong as Chen Dieyi does nothing to neutralize this mythmaking.
Leslie Cheung wax figure at Madame Tussaud’s in Hong Kong, seen on Madame Tussaud’s website
In discussing the paired figures of Chen Dieyi, dan Beijing Opera performer, and Leslie Cheung, Hong Kong superstar, Leung does an exemplary job of presenting current scholarship around gender, sexuality and transsexuality in terms that are accessible to non-specialists. She largely avoids academic jargon and specialized terminology. The book is aimed at the general reader, not necessarily someone who is a specialist in Chinese film or gender studies. She deals with many aspects of Beijing Opera culture that will add to anyone’s enjoyment of the film and her discussion of the character of Chen Dieyi represents a major advance. Likewise, her rich and nuanced discussion of Leslie Cheung takes full advantage of her understanding of Hong Kong popular culture (which goes far beyond film), her knowledge of “queer culture” in Hong Kong, and her ability to access not only Western language sources, but Cantonese and Mandarin sources as well. She does a very good job of synthesizing all of this material and makes a major contribution to the scholarship around the film Farewell My Concubine. As a bonus, there is an appendix with the author’s translation of a lecture Leslie Cheung presented at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2002 where he speaks about playing Chen Dieyi. This lecture offers additional insights into the character of Chen Dieyi and the actor who played him, which would otherwise be inaccessible to anyone not reading Chinese.
While the focus on Farewell My Concubine as a “queer film classic” might at first seem a bit strained, with the benefit of Helen Leung’s careful analysis of the film and its star it becomes apparent why today the film has achieved this status. It is a pleasure to read such a well thought-out, well researched and well written book. Highly recommended.
Marie Jost (March 28, 2011)