After watching La Dolce Vita and Farewell, My Concubine back to back, several parallels became apparent. The stunning cinematography and gorgeous frames of both are obvious (one in high contrast black and white, the other using a rather generous and wide palette of colours), but there’s also a strong commonality between two of the main characters since both Marcello and Shitou simply are unwillingly to ever really commit to anything – neither ideas nor people. My favourite similarity between the films, though, is each one’s ability to make 3 hours glide right on by…
Like most films in my blindspot list, these two had been lingering for a long time on the backburner and, to be honest, were there mostly because of their pretty epic lengths. Each is a shade over 170 minutes and appeared to be short on narrative and long on indirect references to central themes. Those, of course, aren’t bad elements in a film, but can certainly press you to “find the right time” to view them. What I hadn’t realized is that each is broken up into episodic pieces that felt like whole entities unto themselves and totaled up to something far greater. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, for example, travels from an iconic opening of Jesus flying through the air (carried by a helicopter), through terribly desperate parties and finishes with a fourth wall breaking stare into the lens showing you that there was at least one person who understands what “the sweet life” is all about. That someone, though, is certainly not the central character Marcello (played by the great and incomparable Marcello Mastroianni). The film follows him through several evenings of existence (by the end of the movie, you feel that calling it a “life” would be somewhat charitable) in his gossip columnist job that drifts him – usually as a hanger-on – through a multitude of parties and gatherings. He never seems to work, though, since he’s only looking for that special something to startle and excite him, that something to draw out his passion, that something to finally get him to exclaim “Yes! This is it!”. He’s not actually looking that hard, so his approach is that he wants it to find him and until it does, he simply won’t commit to anything that might prevent him from scooping it up. He hangs on to his girlfriend Emma and saves her from a suicide attempt, but won’t even promise her that he’ll be home for dinner. He hates his job and talks about having been a serious journalist, but he won’t act on offers to set him up with editors at newspapers. He doesn’t seem to own anything but his car, black suit and sunglasses – tools that allow him to worm his way into any event that may attract somebody or something interesting. But aside from a gorgeous American starlet that he tries to woo (who turns out to be less than the perfect image he had in mind), nothing really interests him. Religion, art, poetry, music, booze, sex – nothing quite galvanizes him. It’s all rather tragic…
In director Chen Kaige’s case, he places his tragic story of two opera singers across 50 years of turbulent Chinese history: from the Warload era in 1924 through the Japanese occupation all the way to the end of the Cultural Revolution. It begins with a prostitute attempting to drop off her young boy with a performing troupe – her inability to properly care for him leads her to these drastic measures and even to chopping off his extra pinky finger just so that the troupe will accept him. Further pain awaits, though, as the masters of this acting school resort to tortuous methods with these boys to instill the proper discipline to become opera stars. The masters themselves face potential imprisonment if their students don’t meet the grade when commissioned to perform by the wealthy elite. This is the environment in which young Douzi finds himself and when the slightly older Shitou shows him some kindness, he latches on to him. As their skills accelerate and they begin to impress – particularly with their rendition of the classic opera Farewell, My Concubine – the boys become a famous act and grow closer. They reach adulthood in 1937 while war with Japan is about to begin and decide to take on new stage names (Cheng Dieyi for Douzi and Duan Xiaolou for Shitou) to fit their increasing fame. In the opera, due to his effeminate manner and voice, Douzi has always performed the female role of the concubine to Shitou’s imposing king. The film also implies that Douzi wants their real life relationship to turn sexual, but it’s careful to show his feelings to be far more than just lustful. Shitou feels strongly as well – though whether it is out of dependence, brotherly love, sexual attraction or all of these, the film never states explicitly – but he resists giving in and eventually marries the prostitute Juxian (played by the hypnotizing Gong Li). His “proposal” is simply an immediate tactic to get out of being beaten up at the brothel, so he becomes caught between these two relationships that he never full commits to. The tensions within this triangle burst several times, but over the years they continue to perform and must deal with the demands of whoever happens to be in power. Further complications arise as the communists take over since they wish to eradicate the country of any old world culture or signs of its decadent past.
Throughout Marcello’s “adventures”, he never quite bursts, but seems to come to a roiling boil almost every night. He tags along like a fifth wheel, makes love simply as something to do, comes to realizations without ever acting on them and continues to slip deeper into his own world. Though the film never delves into fantasy elements, it does flirt with the surreal which adds to the feeling that Marcello and his acquaintances simply live in a different reality than the rest of society. His crowd is a mix of the wealthy and famous as well as desperate hipsters and leeches (looking for fun or profit at others’ expense). One of Marcello’s cohorts is a photographer named Papparazzo who (along with the rest of his cronies) doesn’t care about anyone’s privacy and will even stoop to getting into a young mother’s face to capture her reaction to news of family tragedy. It is widely believed that the origin of the term papparazzi derived directly from this character’s name (Fellini apparently said that he chose the name to reflect an annoying noise like a buzzing mosquito), but others claim it was coined earlier. Little tidbits of information like that simply aren’t relevant in Marcello’s world as his crowd seem only to wait for something big to excite them and look perpetually bored while they do so. On one of his assignments, Marcello “covers” a sighting of the Madonna (no, not the singer…) by two young children. As the whole event turns into a circus (with cameras, lights, actors that pray on command, etc.), Marcello becomes more and more agitated while he looks for a miracle to happen. Meanwhile he misses the smaller, more poignant real life moments around him, like the woman with the sick child who slowly approaches the tree where the Madonna was allegedly seen in order to quietly pray for help. Emma notices this and points it out to him, but it’s just a momentary distraction. Emma finds herself praying to Madonna to bring Marcello back to his old caring self, but at this stage she should be praying to Saint Jude (the patron saint of lost causes).
Stuck between Douzi and Juxian, Shitou is also somewhat of a lost cause – certainly at least by the time the Japanese invade. His fortunes tend to falter when he leans towards either of them (they remain faithful to him) and thus he remains in a no-man’s land that leads to tragic betrayal when the Revolution targets them all. Douzi is specifically in the sights of Xiao Si – a young sympathizer of the communist cause and a proponent of new opera – who was saved by Douzi as an abandoned baby, but now rejects him. Their big falling out boils down essentially to old culture versus revolution for the “labouring masses”. Throughout the film, Kaige is very adept at weaving the storyline into the historical milieu while also tying into the central fable of the Farewell, My Concubine opera. There’s an underlying anger at China’s leaders – whether it is the wealthy, the military or the communists – that they show no honour or faithfulness to their people and culture. Kaige was among the “fifth generation” of Chinese filmmakers and his denouncement of government (particularly the communists) got the film censored, but it’s many thronged story, stellar performances and full bore beautiful recreations of the Peking Opera led to China’s first ever win of the Palme D’Or. Leslie Chung is remarkable as the adult Douzi and slides between being demure, calculating, enraptured, heartbroken and drug-addled. But like the other privileged characters in this story, Douzi always seems slightly detached from reality and only really notices societal changes according to how they affect him and Shitou. This only makes the power grabs that much easier to implement – as the Cultural Revolution begins, it is positioned as something that will touch the soul of the people, but it’s main goals seem to be to eradicate the old society and anything to do with it. By the time Douzi sees this, it’s far too late.
As wonderfully complex, interesting and entertaining as both films are, neither film can claim to be quite perfect. La Dolce Vita suffers at times with that plague of many Italian films of the 60-70s – woeful audio sync. Whether it began with the neo-realist films of Rosselini (which allowed no control of the environment to get on-location audio) or because Fellini’s Cinecitta studios were too close to the airport, all dialogue and sound effects were added later and it’s far too apparent. One could be charitable and say that it adds to the surrealistic tendencies of the film (which is somewhat true in several scenes), but it truly is distracting at times. The post “sync” line readings occasionally come through with completely different beats to the physical acting on screen. Farewell, My Concubine has no such technical issues, but occasionally shortcuts its plot points. Easily forgiven in such a wide-sweeping historical drama, but moments like Xiao Su’s betrayal don’t quite sting the viewer as much due to its almost random nature – a disagreement in philosophy towards staging operas, a quarrel about training techniques and suddenly Xiao Su is leading a squadron of soldiers with what appears one purpose: discredit and dishonour Douzi. But it’s also a minor quibble since shorthands are commonplace tools to allow for more on-screen conflict (the filmmakers assume that the viewer will fill in the gaps). And when both films are shot in such stunning fashion (I could barely contain myself to 40-50 screenshots per film – dropping down to 7 shots for each felt almost criminal), I can forgive just about anything.
There’s a sense of fate at work in both films (Marcello slightly more at fault for setting himself up for it), but all the main characters are presented with either ways out or fair warnings that are ignored. Granted, sometimes these possible solutions are muddied. Marcello is drawn to his friend Steiner’s domestic bliss, but comes to realize it’s all a false front – his wife, the children, his art and his nature recordings are all superficial. It initially appears as a sanctuary for Marcello, but collapses when Steiner tells him that “a more miserable existence is preferable to one protected by an organized society”. In Farewell, My Concubine, Juxian shows kindness to Douzi while he goes through opium withdrawal, but his mush of a brain can’t recognize this potential olive branch even though she is one of the reasons he’s able to come out the other side. Instead, both films shows us over and over again that the poet’s words “don’t choose – even in love it is better to be chosen” (from one of Marcello’s many parties) may not be the most practical advice one could receive. Letting fate take the wheel instead of plotting out your own course can get you lost.