The King of Chu bids Farewell – and Moves to Hong Kong (Bawang Bieji, 1993)

Note to readers: the essay extends an earlier of Oct 12 essay “Backstage Musical and Chen Kaige’s “FAREWELL” — to what?”. But it is a second go: spurred by the of the ever renewing interest in the suicide of 张国荣 Leslie Cheung (d. 2003), and by what this (inter alia) tells us about the Hong Kong movie industry itself as the shaper and producer of the 2 hr 53 min version of 1993 that I was brought up thinking was a Mainland China industry production in the key of Gen-5. Of course a suicide inside the gilded cage of the adored entertainer is always a trump card for the deceased and his/her reputation, so it should not surprise that from that moment the film became “Leslie Cheung’s Farewell etc. And finally let out of its box: the full (Cannes-shown version) immediately flooded the market; we all had to do our homework again.

What I had in fact seen was a 20- minute shorter Miramax release (originally for the US market), which (I can find no details) I would guess was backedited to play down the homosexuality issue (as embedded in the menage a trois conflict), both within the film and the star’s own life (he came or was forced out of the closet in 1995, at that time still a scandal in Hong Kong), and had no children (another blemish) To boot, he (his family line) were of Hakka extraction: a sub-diasporic within a diasporic community. He spoke “standard” Chinese with an accent, Opera bai with no finesse, dance untutored, opera “song” not at all; and his part (on stage) had to be dubbed. He would never become a truly national star. Which mattered a great deal, since the part he played was a signature role of Mei Lanfang, an iconic national star (Drama Kings), who became a national treasure even alive, more so after his 1955 death. But the suicide did not happen until 10 years after the Cannes letdown, so that these lines of explanation alone are not persuasive. They are possibly all factors, but non compelling enough to end the drama as it did.

The actor “I” and the acted-out “I”: The deadly consequence of over-overlap

As I reran the film yet again again, a much simpler and cruel explanation for Cheung’s personal tragedy began (for me) to step out in front. It is an ancient affliction of the actor, who of course as actor must always wander around the edges of identity and self. In my own encounter (I have had brief contact through a cousin active as director) with some of the more successful representatives of the profession (mature ones) I have sensed that role-plasticity onstage has only hardened the layer of self beneath, or better still that that strength was there from the start: how else could they have survived so much dodging, so much mask-changing? such arbitrary rebukes from the syndicated critics?

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