Backstage Musical and Chen Kaige’s “FAREWELL” — to what?

: Farewell as Opera on Stage:
Enacting Spontaneity for no Audience

Having “read” the film as a complex meditation about the art of acting – for whom, at whose instance, for who to judge and on what terms – it is time now to take a quick look at the way the film(/opera) handles that most essential element in tragic drama: the role of spontaneous impulse as the determinant of how the tale shall end, or begin – that is, in the way it articulates the cross-related catharses of love and death as unplanned episodes, madnesses.

I will not pretend to be an expert on the subject of pre-reform stage-opera (gudian wutai xiju), each sub-genre of which or even each title merits a full monograph. (And I HATE monographs…). But (via my interests in film and filmmusic ad with the patient guidance of AG) I have acquired familiarity with a few of the better known ones as presented in cinema: from Peony Pavilion (kunqu) to Xixiangji (Huangmei) to a handful of Mei Lanfang’s Jingju.

That being said, I will go out on a limb and venture that re-considerative modernism – the mode of the 80s and 90s film – has in general no (or little) willingness to address the truly horrific momenta we find (even if only at second hand) in the telling/singing of the classics of this genre. Chen Kaige’s Farewell, as well (or moreso) as his Life on a String, perhaps because they are in the Backstage (Musical/Opera) tradition, cannot achieve the double-diction (felt (sung) from within/seen (acted/danced) from without) that makes operatic ecstasy plausible. His sensibities as an introvert, a regretful retroviewer of past excesses in which he feels himself implicated, thwart any irreversible lunge outward into action. In Yellow Earth, he builds an internal pressure that we sense will drive Cuiqiao to rashness (her father predicts as much), but her end is invisible, while also perhaps also unexplained save by nuance (NOT protest or aria) – ie that she is smitten with an unresponsive Gu Qing but has had to displace him (almost) in her songs as a “brightly feathered rooster” -a code that the viewer will not understand, nor is intended to. It is NOT “The Party that will save us all” (an irony at the expense of White Haired Girl?) but rather a taking in of the Comrade as a surrogate father, to look after, and in turn be looked after by (through book learning).

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