THE BIG PICTURE / Plush pageant of suffering: Adam Mars-Jones on Chen Kaige's visually stunning portrayal of the Peking Opera, Farewell My Concubine

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Chen Kaige's ambitious Farewell My Concubine (15), a prize-winner at Cannes, tells the story across five decades of two stars of the Peking Opera, whose supreme roles are as King and Concubine in the work that also gives the film its title. It's a tall order to make a sophisticated but alien popular art form meaningful to an international audience, and in fact to the unsympathetic viewer, Peking Opera, with its vocal flutings and stiffly fluid esoteric gestures, may look like what the legendary television programme Clangers might have become if it had received imperial patronage, or Art Council grants, for 150 years. But no one who sees the film can doubt that opera means everything to characters who have paid a huge price to be part of the spectacle.

The film is visually rich, but there is no question of it glamorising the past. This is a pageant of suffering, by turns physical, psychological, emotional, historical and political. The nearest approach to happiness that seems to be possible is that once in a great while you are secure enough in worldly terms to afford an emotional trauma.

The first half hour is particularly powerful. Trained as dancers and singers simultaneously, the children do no barre work. Instead they are made to do the splits and are fixed in that position with bricks, or are suspended in various postures to improve their flexibility. They are taught balance and endurance by being forced to kneel in all weathers holding a board above their heads, on which a bowl of water has been placed. The first suicide of the film occurs at roughly this point, a hanging that is only an extension of the academy's educational tortures.

As children, the heroes are parentless, but they live long enough to be denounced, during the Cultural Revolution, by a younger generation. They get it coming and going. It is beaten into them as children that love of opera is the defining human characteristic - only dogs and cats don't like opera - but they survive into a period where they are told they have been the running dog of an elite all along, and must be punished for it.

This is already a large enough subject for a film, but Farewell My Concubine is greedy for themes, and sets up another: the construction of gender. Douzi, one of the boys at the academy, is cast in female roles, while his friend and protector Shitou plays men. This typecasting extends to their lives offstage, and the whole of their subsequent histories.

It is a fact that Peking Opera used males to play both genders (in other regions the performers might all be women), but Farewell My Concubine provides a Freudian fable as much as a historical melodrama. Even before he joins the academy, little Douzi is symbolically castrated by his mother, who chops off the supernumerary finger that would disqualify him from being accepted for training.

The particular torture that persuades Douzi to accept a female identity is a symbolic rape - the mouth that has refused to say 'I am by nature a girl' being gouged with a pipe wielded by his friend. His first sexual experience is with an elderly eunuch who lurches towards him like a maddened witch. Still in shock, he happens on an abandoned baby boy, and takes him home to the academy for informal adoption. Female identity is created by pain and deprivation, maintained by substitute satisfactions. Douzi in maturity becomes profoundly masochistic, addicted to the fantasy fulfillment he only finds on stage and in opium.

This strand of the film with its idea that the female role is a fiction that does not require an actual woman runs in parallel with, say, the play M Butterfly (soon to appear as a David Cronenberg film). Kaige, though, prides himself on having beefed up the female lead of the story, the prostitute Juxian, who was more or less a cipher in Lilian Lee's original novel. This elevating of the biological female is politically virtuous, but in context it is a mistake.

Juxian is anything but passive, a strong woman who has her own sort of loyalty but isn't about to let anyone stand in her way. Her instinctive manipulations are generally successful, while Douzi's melodramatic gestures tend to work against him. In the conflict between real and false woman, the false must lose (particularly when the real one is played by Gong Li, well-known in the West from Raise the Red Lantern and Story of Qiu Ju), and the film's examination of the female role goes by the board.

Chen Kaige seems to have wanted to show a triangular situation in which each person can be seen either as a protagonist or as an interloper between the other two. In practice this is beyond his powers to dramatise. As successive historical convulsions overtake the characters, we feel not dazed by events, as they are, but frustrated at our inability to grasp the emotional dynamics of the situation that has just been superseded.

Farewell My Concubine needs to be Douzi's story before it is anyone else's, but Leslie Cheung, who plays him as an adult, has none of the extraordinary expressiveness of the actor Ma Mingwei, who plays the role as a child. It is understandable that the director doesn't want to portray Douzi in maturity as a gay man of any modern sort. The truth is both simpler and more complicated than that: he is a man who sleeps with men because he is a woman.

But there is also a fatal discretion in the distance from which the film observes Douzi's intimate life. He is kept by a wealthy patron, and we see that they are physically intimate only when Douzi is in character as the Concubine, the patron made up as the King, but we don't even know from which side the impulse for this masquerade comes. Is is Douzi who insists on it or the patron - an opera buff who cares profoundly that the King at a particular point in the opera takes seven steps, no more and no less? We are too far from this relationship to get the measure of its hollowness.

The film's confusing point of view means that its manipulative plotting starts to grate. Again and again historical cataclysm coincides with personal crisis. The night that Douzi accepts the patron's advances and tells Shitou, who is celebrating his engagement to Juxian, that they will never perform together again, is also the night that the Japanese enter the city.

By the time the Cultural Revolution rolls along, the personal and political betrayals have been superimposed on each other so relentlessly that they have become impossible to disentangle. In one scene, Douzi seeks to discipline his adopted son (who has popped in and out of the chronicle rather confusingly) with the old kneel-and-balance-the-bowl-of- water-over-your-head routine he endured as a child. The young man throws it off. It would be wonderful if we were allowed a moment here to reflect that though Douzi is more victim than victimiser, anything that enables this young man to refuse abuse, even the Cultural Revolution, can't be all bad. But the young man immediately says, 'You never really wanted me to succeed, I'll be a star with or without you', et cetera, and it seems we are back in the realm that the film, for all its ambition, too often occupies, not historical epic about the Peking Opera, but visually-magnificent, downbeat soap opera for international consumption.

(Photograph omitted)