historical analysis of the film Farewell my Concubine

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Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine renders the complex, tumultuous historical events of twentieth century China on an epic, yet intimate and personal scale. Chen foregrounds his cast, centered on the love triangle among two Peking Opera performers and a prostitute, against a backdrop of dramatic and changing historical circumstances in China. The events depicted include the end of the “Warlord period,” the Sino-Japanese War and the period of Japanese Occupation of China, the post-war reconsolidation of the Nationalist Government, the Communist takeover, Cultural Revolution and the later post-Mao period. In this regard, Chen’s film should be seen as both representative and influential within modern (Fifth and Sixth Generation) Chinese cinema, in which the narrative strategy of contrasting the small- and large-scale, with the former emphasized, has become quite common. In addition to this innovative narrative framework, Chen also showcases a number of formal techniques, such as reliance upon medium shots and relatively few edits. More importantly, the film uses this approach as a means of commenting upon the currents of change in twentieth-century China. The formal elements of Chen’s aesthetic are seamlessly married to masterful storytelling, as Farewell makes the political, personal in terms that are intensely tragic yet relatable on a normal human scale. The case of the two main male characters demonstrates how one could be uninvolved with the political events of his day, resistant or sometimes willfully oblivious to those developments. And yet, at the same time, they are nevertheless affected by those changes on an intimate level, for better or for worse. As film theorist Ben Xu has argued with regard to Farewell, official history in China inevitably neglects the manner in which the ordinary field of experience is interconnected and interdependent on the broader strokes of historical change. This understanding of history, “as an objective and transparent...
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