Movie Review: Farewell My Concubine

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Films have a unique ability to underscore the cultural reality of many countries and display the many changes a given region of the world might have been experienced by certain citizens. For China and its very powerful and long-standing historical shifts in various cultural changes, especially during the entire scope of the 20th Century, cinema itself has been of intriguing importance to the development and examination of its cultural landscape. This has come about due to a variety of mitigating factors arising from the introduction of many Western ideas into the country during the beginning part of that century and many experts believe it was then that modern Chinese culture began. Therefore, it has been due to the advent of certain films, in this case, two specific cinematic creations to be more closely examined during this research, that Chinese culture has become modernized and more Western in structure, culture, and ongoing shifts in public attitudes regarding new discoveries of a technological and paradigm-shifting nature.

The Films

The two films chosen for this research assignment were entitled “Farewell My Concubine” directed by Kaige Chen and “Eat Drink Man Woman” directed by the celebrated director Ang Lee. In chronological order according to the time period of China’s history in which they take place, “Farewell My Concubine” is of supreme interest for this topic, for it deals primarily with the middle part of the 20th Century and the ongoing Cultural Revolution sweeping through the nation at that time. For instance, the country of China was experiencing massive political instability, due in large part to the then current Second Sino-Japanese War, which at that time was highly influential towards China’s cultural upheaval (“Farewell My Concubine”). In many ways, the film itself is a condemnation of the ongoing censorship of the government of both the past and present.

Although the movie takes place in the 1940s, the current situation in regard to China’s ongoing cultural shifts remains strong long after this time. “Farewell My Concubine” demonstrates this aspect of the research presented here due to the exposure of the counter-culture attitudes of its characters. For example, two of the characters, Shitou and Juxian, are seen burning pieces of contraband literature in an act commiserate with active mandates of revolutionary attitudes (“Farewell My Concubine”). In many ways these acts are related to the ongoing cultural shifts experienced in China during this time, for the civil unrest was ongoing and led to many examples of revolutionary actions. In fact, as the research for this project has shown clearly, a revolution was part of the many actions during that beginning and latter portions of the 20th Century and how the people of China were actively aggressive against the government of that time.

Many of these revolutionary actions came about due to a variety of influences from external (Western mainly) sources during the latter half of the 20th Century. For instance, many historical accounts attribute the rapidly expanding modernization that took place in the 1980s as one of the most influential and culturally important aspects to modern Chinese culture (“China: a country study”). In effect, it has been due to this rapid expansion of modern technologies, including cinema as an art form and more specifically the massive influx of movie theaters all over China’s vast land that has given rise to Chinese cinema as an exclusive and powerful force in its own right. The cross-over success of films like “Farewell My Concubine” demonstrates this fact quite clearly.

A period of transition for any country, which China had been experiencing during the entire part of the century up to the events of this film, is also generally a period of chaos and hectic political maneuvers on the part of those in positions of power. For China, cultural upheavals such as those demonstrated by many of the characters in “Farewell My Concubine”. Also fall into the overview of how politics and culture intertwine. China was, in fact, undergoing massive political, social, and thus as an extension cultural upheaval during this time due in large part because of modernization efforts from their various leaders (“China: a country study”). In essence, a movie like “Farewell My Concubine” could never have actually been made during the time in which it was set, for the political climate at that time period in China’s history was far too oppressive to allow any attitude against the powers-that-be to be spoken without massive censorship on the part of the government. The fact such movies exist now is demonstrative of the great cultural strides the country has made in recent decades.

The second film, “Eat Drink Man Woman” also has its share of cultural shifts within China as its primary focus during much of its structure. In difference to the previous films, however, this one takes greater notice of the positive cultural norms and heritage of China’s past into more consideration. For instance, much of the film is concerned with Mr. Chu’s attempts to portray traditional Chinese culture through his cooking, as he is a master chef, to his three unmarried daughters that are more concerned with breaking seemingly outdated models of Chinese hierarchal behavior (“Eat Drink Man Woman”). Obviously, at this point in Chinese culture, the film takes place in the 1990s, much has changed during the course of the 20th Century, as this is a much more civilized form of discourse.

Gone are the revolutionary actions in the form of violence, civil upheaval, and ongoing hostilities; to be replaced with a family squabble. That alone is the reason to believe the cultural shift within China was nearly complete at that time. Instead, this film is about a family that discusses their lives, including their individual roles therein, in a more civilized and distinctively hospitable manner. For instance, the family is at odds with the older, more traditional form of how decisions are made, mostly through the more established patriarchal form yet the three daughters wish to incorporate new models of actions while still holding true to what has come before (“Eat Drink Man Woman”). Obviously, this creates a good deal of tension in the family and ongoing issues with traditional values versus the establishment of new modalities of behavior; yet overall it demonstrates just how much China changed over the course of the 20th Century as reflected in their films.

Greater China of the 20th Century

The region of the world around greater China, as well as the country itself, experienced incredible culture change during the entire length of the 20th Century for a variety of reasons that have been examined in part during the course material covered thus far. One of the most pressing issues and perhaps the single largest contributing factor to the ability of these films to even have been made at all goes as far back as the very beginning of the 20th Century and the Republican Revolution of 1901. It was this singular event that allowed the country of China to destroy the old order and make way for a new standard of living, one that was, in fact, to be modeled on the rival nation of Japan (“History of China: Table of Contents”). This was only the beginning of the century, however, and as the analysis of the two films has shown, many of the cultural changes and shifts in China became much greater and more dynamic after this initial revolution took place; almost as if it were a mandate of change for the entire century to come.

There were other political shifts that took place that enabled the advent of film to also begin to change the culture of China during this time period in their long history. Just as the Cultural Revolution that was taking place in “Farewell My Concubine” and the familial disputes were discussed in “Eat Drink Man Woman,” China experienced upheaval that was reflected throughout the century. Much of this upheaval and ongoing turmoil reflected in Chinese cinema was also centered on real-world events during this time period and more or less due to necessity. For example, as previous segments of the research demonstrated, the early portion of the 20th Century in China saw a massive upheaval in revolutionary actions due to the creation of the Nationalist Party in 1912 (“Introduction to China’s Modern History”). In many ways, these revolutions created the modern landscape of China’s current reliance on more Westernized practices.

Some of these practices are more practical in nature yet overall it would be impossible to completely discount the influence of cinema on the national mindset and cultural influence of films like the two profiled here. It was the breaking of the previous foundation of Chinese cultural realities during the beginning part of the 20th Century that paved the way for increased freedoms; eventually leading to more and more artistic license being appropriated by many during and after this time. Perhaps the most important political change occurred when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was created in 1949 and the other faction, the Nationalist party, was subjugated to Taiwan (“Introduction to China’s Modern History”). While in many ways the communist rule of the PRC was and continues to be quite stifling towards some creative pleasures, the fact that these and other films are able to better express the social and cultural landscape of this dynamic country is more evidence of the overall ability of films to influence culture and vice versa.

Cultural Shifts

Movies like the ones referenced above have the incredible ability to improve clarity on various cultural shifts in any given society. Ironically for China, many of the cultural shifts that occurred over the course of the 21st Century actually made them much more nationalistic, even with the massive influence of Western society (Louie). In turn, the Chinese culture has actually embraced cinema quite well in that their films have the ability to transcend time and political mandates of behavior in regard to how their characters act, respond to cultural shifts across various political structures, and demonstrate how real-world citizens actually feel about their nation. In many respects, the films detailed with this project reflect the world of Chinese culture during this time better than any history book ever could.


Modern films can help people better understand how culture shapes society and vice versa. With the two films examined for the purposes of this research, assignment demonstrated quite well how politics, culture, and society all intertwine with one another in deeper and more affecting ways than many people might realize, the analysis becomes that much more fully appreciative by the observer. A film critic, for example, might not completely understand the cultural implications of how films “Farewell My Concubine” and “Eat Drink Man Woman” might actually influence society and reflect history, yet the savvy movie fan can if armed with additional information. This information has come in the form of the course materials thus far examined for this topic and thus has led to a greater appreciation of the way movies can reflect the reality of history better than a simple textbook.

Works Cited

China: a country study.” Web. Library of Congress. Accessed 23 April 2018.

Eat Drink Man Woman. Directed by Ang Lee. Performances by Sihung Lung, Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-Lien Wu, and Kuei-mei Yang, Central Motion Pictures, 1994.

Farewell My Concubine. Directed by Kaige Chen. Performances by Leslie Cheung, Gong Li, and Zhang Fengyi, Miramax, 1993.

“History of China: Table of Contents.” Web. Accessed 23 April 2018.

“Introduction to China’s Modern History.” Web. Asia for Educators. Accessed 23 April 2018.

Louie, Kam. The Cambridge Companion to Modern Chinese Culture. London: Cambridge University Press, 2008.