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In the world of cinema, China is perhaps the only country that remains relatively uncharted, and it might have remained so if not for the Fifth Generation of filmmakers that emerged in the 1980s. But in arriving at the gates of cinema, China has struggled with decades of oppression, which left lives shattered. Cinema there has hardly had lungs able to breathe.
From the first showing of a Lumiere brothers’ film in Shanghai in 1896 to the indigenous production of The Battle of Dingjunshan , the first film in 1905, China has had a turbulent relationship with moving images.
Being a filmmaker in China has always been a difficult proposition. Cinema’s inception and evolution in the past 100 years has also coincided with the country’s tempestuous idea of being a nation state: facing invasion and mass revolution, and continuously trying to assert its individuality in the last century.
The rise of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution that he set into motion led to a virtual standstill in every aspect of art. Cinema was no exception. Whatever remained was strictly aligned to the political ideology of the state, leaving cinema with no option but to become purely propagandistic.
During the post-Mao reforms, the Beijing Film Academy, China’s national film school, reopened in 1978. Four years later, 153 students — dubbed as the Fifth Generation — graduated, soaked in cinema’s rich traditions.
Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984) began a movement that was accelerated by his comrades Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang. They made films that swept top prizes at coveted film festivals and the world woke up to a volcano that was dormant for decades.
Suddenly, China was everywhere.
The films of this tradition are defined by symbolism, a defiant attitude, and an engagement with the country’s stormy past.
The film, which follows two friends for five decades, begins with a beautiful child being taken to an opera school by his mother, who is a sex-worker. She is so desperate that when the school rejects her son for having six fingers, she chops off the extra one without second thoughts. The opera school is tyrannical in its training, and merciless in its drive to turn innocent ducklings into swans of grand opera. The boy, Dieyi, abandoned to tears and his fate, finds a protective friend in sturdy Xiaolou.
Dieyi is soon made to train for female roles, but he fumbles his lines. He says, ‘I am by nature a girl, not a boy,’ inviting the wrath of his masters. Even Xiaolou forces a pipe down Dieyi’s throat when his fumbling puts the troupe’s future in danger before a visiting patron. Blood dripping from his mouth, Dieyi finally gets the line right.
With the passage of time, the two become opera stars and Dieyi plays the concubine to a king, enacted by Xiaolou.
Their onstage relationship is a reflection of their yin-and-yang dynamic offstage. Dieyi has been in love with Xiaolou for as long as he can remember. But it’s only onstage that he can freely adore his object of desire. Offstage, he is forever burning in the pyre of unrequited love.
When Xiaolou marries Juxian (the enchanting Gong Li), a prostitute, Dieyi is shattered. Ensnared by jealousy, he begins an affair with the satrap of the ruling Japanese government.
Blending the personal with the political, the traverses key periods of Chinese history: the Warlord Era, the Japanese invasion, the Communist age, and the Cultural Revolution. It’s the horror of the political upheaval that changes the equation between the characters as they grow in and out of each other, and betrayal becomes the only option for survival.
There is also a stark representation of feminine conflict in the film. Most Fifth Generation films empower women, with female characters displaying an unwillingness to submissively accept the rigid social order of Chinese society, predominantly defined by marriage. Gong Li, who played many such emancipated characters in Zhang Yimou’s films, plays an outcast in Farewell My Concubine a woman who seeks acceptance in mainstream society through marriage.
On the other hand, Dieyi, despite being a man, plays the role of a woman, albeit metaphorically, as he struggles with his love for another man. China’s terrible compromise of human dignity as a result of political jingoism is trapped in Dieyi’s character, played with manic passion by Leslie Cheung, the iconic Hong Kong star. Dieyi is constantly asked to change himself to fit into a certain role, and is forced to go through physical and emotional changes without his consent. His finger gets chopped off, he suffers oppressive training, shedding blood and tears, gets pushed into female roles, is raped, and stumbles into motherhood when he adopts a baby. Dieyi becomes the personification of China: both go through a ceaseless process of changing identity.
In totality, the film has a bewitching effect.
The admiration it got around the world made the Chinese authorities happy. That is, until they became aware of the subversion in the politics of images, which became the hallmark of the cinema of Kaige and his classmates.
Several of the class of 1982 had suffered humiliation during the Cultural Revolution; Kaige was forced to denounce his own father. This anger led the filmmakers to re-examine the Chinese heritage in their cinema, but they had to find a way to get past the censorship of the state: an act to both celebrate national distinctiveness and condemn its horrors.
Kaige tells the story of Chinese opera through Dieyi and Xiaolou’s ascent and descent. The film’s critical eye, starting with the personal, gradually extends its gaze to the whole system, all captured in a visual sweep that is ambitious in scope, and intimate in its detailing.
Kaige uses allegory in every corner to mirror his implacable rage, to grasp the effects of the past on the future of China, but refrains from offering any easy solution.
In the deep-sea of politics, it’s love that ultimately gets abandoned for the much easier option of hatred.
But Dieyi for all his jealousy and insecurity, never forgets the ability to love, even if he is still searching for his true self within the web of befuddled gender.
In our world of hate-mongering and flag hoisting for the power of the nation state, Dieyi shows us the way to love, so what if our attempts are thwarted.