Color, 1993, 171 mins.

Directed by Chen Kaige

Starring Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, Gong Li, Lu Qi, Ying Da / Written by Lillian Lee and Wei Lu / Produced by Hsu Feng / Music by Zhao Jiping

Format: DVD - Miramax (MSRP $29.95)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) / Dolby Digital 2.0

One of the breakthrough art house hits of the early '90s, Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine (Ba wang bie ji) was a surprise hit for Miramax, presumably as the film adopted the powerful aesthetics established by Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) into a sweeping, Western-friendly epic format. Not surprisngly, this film also encountered a great deal of controversy in its homeland but went on to garner several awards, including Cannes and a Best Foreign Film Academy Award nomination. Considering the film's volatile subject matter, this was no mean feat.

Charting the history of twenteith century China into its current status as a Communist nation, the film elegantly weaves together historical information with the fictional story of two young men. Raised within the brutal confines of an opera training school, the two first meet as boys but hold on to their friendship in adulthood. Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) triumphs in female roles on the stage and harbors secret longings for his friend, Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi), who finds equal acclaim in their regular performances of the opera Farewell My Concubine. Much to Dieyi's consternation, Xiaolou becomes involved with the lovely but manipulative ex-prostitute Juxian (Gong Li), whose presence threatens to tear them apart. Meanwhile, the increasingly intolerant political climate grips all three of them into an inextricable web of intrigue and treachery from which not all of them will manage to survive.

In an unexpectedly gracious gesture, Miramax has included, for the first time in America, the full 171 minute edition of Farewell My Concubine for its DVD debut. The original U.S. and U.K. editions ran 16 minutes shorter, with much opera performance footage and some subtle gradations of character development falling under the editor's scissors. Some potentially NC-17 level material was also lost, including some gruesome bloodletting and a disturbing, borderline pedophilic sequence involving urination. The uncut version was released overseas by several different companies on laserdisc, DVD, and VCD, and apparently Miramax realized that the truncated version would be a pointless insult to their target audience. While some newcomers to the film may squirm during some of the opera sequences, which can sound harsh and unnatural to some untrained Western ears, the expanded length restores much of the epic scope to the film and adds to the creative resonance which binds the two male leads. Each of the three primary performers are all in top form, with the always reliable Leslie Cheung making the strongest impression as the fragile, emotionally unstable "concubine." Gong Li looks beautiful and delivers a forceful performance as always, while Zhang Fengyi is both commanding and compassionate in another memorable turn equal to The Emperor and the Assassin, also for director Chen Kaige (Temptress Moon, Yellow Earth). Chen doesn't simply bask in standard epic filmmaking methods, however; his skillful manipulation of recurring masking imagery, coupled with excellent use of mirrors, makes the film as psychologically beguiling as it is visually dazzling.

Apart from the typically asinine liner notes, Miramax's DVD is a consistently satisfying presentation. Crisp, colorful, and pleasingly film-like, the letterboxed image improves considerably upon their older LD release, and the standard Dolby Surround soundtrack has been left intact. It's not much of an aural powerhouse except for devotees of Chinese opera, but the audio gets the job done nicely and features a few directional effects (mostly involving gunshots and the orchestral score). The framing sequences with both men in costume standing in smoky spotlights look as grainy and problematic as ever, which could be easily mistaken for artifacting on DVD, but the rest of the film looks exceptionally vivid. No extras are included aside from 20 chapter stops (very skimpy for a film of this length).

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