Harvey’s Hellhole: Farewell My Concubine

Welcome to Harvey’s Hellhole, a monthly column devoted to spotlighting the movies that were poorly marketed, mishandled, reshaped, neglected or just straight-up destroyed by Harvey Weinstein during his reign as one of the most powerful studio chiefs in Hollywood. Let’s go back 30 years ago, when a controversial Chinese epic got awards, acclaim, and the Harvey Scissorhands treatment when it finally played in the States.

Starting this weekend, thanks to Film Movement Classics, Chen Kaige’s 1993 film Farewell My Concubine gets a 30th-anniversary re-release, with the decades-spanning saga in a newly restored 4K restoration. 

But the big news is that American audiences will finally get to see the original 171-minute cut that wowed Chinese and international audiences, and nabbed the Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. When Miramax snapped up the US/UK distribution rights after the Cannes win, you-know-who demanded that 14 or so minutes get cut. 

Of course, this pissed people off. Filmmaker (and that year’s Cannes jury president) Louis Malle was the most vocal, according to Peter Biskind’s Down & Dirty Pictures. “The film we admired so much in Cannes is not the film seen in this country [the U.S.], which is twenty minutes shorter – but seems longer because it doesn’t make any sense,” Malle said. “It was better before those guys made cuts.” But even before Weinstein got his sweaty, sausage fingers on it, Farewell was already sliced and diced by Chinese censors. 

Set in China between the 1920s and the ‘70s, the story follows the tumultuous friendship of Peking opera singers Dieyi (actor/recording star Leslie Cheung) and Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi). BFFs since their childhood days of getting beaten by sadistic teachers at an all-boys’ opera school, they go through hell together, and so does the country. While such society-rattling battles as the Chinese Civil War and the Cultural Revolution literally go on around them, both men strive to be artists — performing their signature, titular play where Dieyi is the concubine and Xiaolou is the hero — as their homeland becomes increasingly oppressive. Things get more complicated when Xiaolou marries Juxian (Gong Li), a former prostitute whose devotion to her husband makes her a rival in the jealous, effeminate eyes of Dieyi, who wants to be Xiaolou’s partner on and offstage.

So, the Chinese government wasn’t feeling all of this. A few weeks after its July release in Shanghai, Farewell was taken out of theaters and banned by the politburo, objecting to scenes that featured homosexuality, suicide, and an unflattering view of Communist-era China. (Sidebar: Cheung’s performance as a suicidal homosexual singer is even more heartbreaking when you know that Cheung was a bisexual singer who committed suicide in 2003.)

It returned to theaters a couple months later (officials feared the ban would incite more global outcry and ruin China’s chances to host the 2000 Summer Olympics), but censors took out 14 minutes. Even though Farewell was a big hit overseas, the cuts his peoples made offended Chen more than the cuts Weinstein wanted. As a member of the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers (which also includes Chen’s Beijing Film Academy classmates Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang), Chen made Farewell — based on a 1985 novel by Hong Kong writer Lilian Lee — to atone for his early years of getting swept up in the chaos. As a teen, he joined the Red Guards, the paramilitary social movement that caused more damage than change in 1960s China. Being involved with these bully boys led to Chen committing such despicable acts as publicly denouncing his filmmaker father Chen Huaikai, who joined the nationalist Kuomintang in the late ‘30s to oppose the invading Japanese. A similar act is played out in the film’s gut-wrenching climax. (Chen’s dad also serves as Farewell’s artistic director.)

Now that the 155-minute Miramax cut appears to have been scrubbed from the Internet (you can still get a used DVD from eBay or Amazon), the damn-near-three-hour original is the official version. This period piece/costume drama/queer romance/cinematic middle finger is sweeping and sudsy in its execution. From Gu Changwei’s shimmering cinematography to Chen Changmin’s immaculate costumes, Farewell is a visually flamboyant, politically charged melodrama — even when the story occasionally lags. As Owen Gleiberman wrote in his Entertainment Weekly rave, Farewell “may be the first film to capture the unique spiritual cruelty of a regime in which beauty itself had become a crime.”

Cutting down Farewell for Western audiences surprisingly didn’t put a damper on Chen and Weinstein’s working relationship. After all, it grossed $5 million over here and snagged several awards and nominations for Miramax, including two Oscar noms for Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film. In fact, Chen’s 1997 follow-up Temptress Moon (which also stars Cheung and Gong) was also picked up by Miramax for American distribution. I guess after dealing with evil, brutal forces in China for most of his life, teaming up with an oppressive ogre like Harvey Weinstein a couple of times must’ve been a breeze.

Farewell My Concubine will begin playing at Film Forum in New York and Sag Harbor Cinema in Sag Harbor on Friday. For more info on upcoming theatrical dates, go here.

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