The film is an adaptation of the novel by Lilian Lee, who is also one of the film's screenplay writers. Farewell My Concubine stars Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi and Gong Li. It won the Palme d'Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and went on to win other honours.
As the film opens, a street crowd watches a troupe of boys perform Peking opera, supervised by their aging director, Master Guan. When Laizi attempts to run away, Shitou placates the crowd by breaking a brick on his head; the crowd cheers, but Shitou is later punished for the stunt. An onlooking mother brings her son to the troupe to be trained, using a cleaver to amputate her child's objectionable superfluous finger, and marking the contract with her thumb print in the blood. Shitou welcomes the newcomer as "Douzi" (bean), and the two boys become friends.
A few years pass. Laizi and Douzi run away, but witness a performance by an opera master that inspires them to return to the troupe. They find Shitou being beaten for allowing their escape, and Douzi accepts his punishment as Master Guan beats him mercilessly. Shitou tries to intervene, when an assistant informs them that Laizi has hanged himself.
Douzi attaches himself to Shitou and is trained to play dan (female) roles. Shitou learns the jing, a painted-face male lead. Douzi practises the monologue "Dreaming of the World Outside the Nunnery" but mistakes the line "I am by nature a girl, not a boy" and instead says "I am by nature a boy...". He repeats this mistake, doing so in front of an agent who might fund the troupe. Shitou viciously jams Master Guan's brass tobacco pipe in Douzi's mouth as punishment, causing his mouth to bleed. Douzi looks dazed, but whispers, "I am by nature a girl... not a boy." The troupe cheer, having secured the agent.
The eunuch Zhang appreciates their performance and summons Shitou and Douzi for an audience. Shitou admires a beautiful sword in Zhang's collection, stating that if he were emperor, Douzi would be his queen. Douzi responds that one day he hopes to give Shitou a sword like that. Douzi is to meet Zhang alone, and catches him in a lascivious embrace with a young girl. Douzi is afraid as the man eyes him up and down, and seeks to be with Shitou, but Zhang catches him and pushes him to the ground. Hours later he emerges, and Shitou cannot get him to say a word. It is clear that Douzi has been sexually assaulted. On their way home, Douzi spies an abandoned baby, and despite Master Guan's urging that "we each have our own fate (yuanfen)" Douzi rescues the baby and eventually Master Guan trains him.
Douzi and Shitou become Peking opera stars under the stage names Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou. The adult Dieyi is in love with Xiaolou, but the sexual aspects of his affection are not returned. When they become a hit in Beijing, a patron, Yuan Shiqing, slowly courts Dieyi. Xiaolou takes a liking to Juxian, a headstrong courtesan at the upscale House of Blossoms. Xiaolou intervenes when a mob of drunk men harass Juxian and says that they are announcing their engagement. Juxian later buys her freedom and, deceiving him into thinking she was thrown out, pressures Xiaolou to keep his word. When Xiaolou announces their engagement, Dieyi and Xiaolou have a falling out. Dieyi calls her "Pan Jinlian" (a "dragon lady" from the novel Golden Lotus). Dieyi takes up with Master Yuan, who gives him Zhang's sword. An aged Master Guan shames them into re-forming the troupe.
The complex relationship between these three characters is then tested in the succession of political upheavals that encompass China from the onset of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The film also follows the fates of Na Kun, who turns his theater troupe over to the new government after 1949, and the abandoned baby, called "Xiao Si" (little fourth brother), who is trained in dan roles. Xiao Si and Douzi have an argument about training and punishment at the end of which Xiao Si threatens revenge. The role of the Concubine is usurped by Xiao Si with Xiaolou's complicity. Betrayed, Dieyi leaves and becomes addicted to opium. Later, Xiaolou and Juxian help him to recover and the troupe surrounds him to congratulate his return to health.
On the eve of the Cultural Revolution, Shitou and Juxian are seen burning now-contraband literature and clothing. After a few drinks, they rekindle their relationship. The scene shifts to Shitou being questioned by the Red Guards on a few unpatriotic words he said years ago and overheard by their manager. Xiao Si is seen in the background, seemingly in a position of power. The entire opera troupe is taken out in public for a humiliating struggle session by the Red Guards. Under duress, Shitou confesses that Douzi performed for the occupying Japanese and may have had a relationship with Yuan Shiqing. Enraged, Douzi tells the mob that Juxian was a prostitute. Shitou is forced to admit that he married a prostitute but swears that he doesn't love her and will never see her again. Juxian is crushed to hear his words and commits suicide. Xiao Si is seen in a gym practising Concubine Yu's role, happy over having usurped Douzi's position, but the group of Red Guards catch him in the act and his fate is unclear.
The film then jumps to Douzi and Shitou's reunion in 1977. They are practising Farewell My Concubine, and their relationship seems to have mended since the tribunal and suicide of Shitou's wife. They exchange a smile and Shitou begins with the line that gave Douzi trouble forty years ago. Douzi makes the same error of finishing the line with "I am not a girl". Shitou corrects him and they continue practising. Douzi then commits suicide by sword.Leslie Cheung as Cheng Dieyi (程蝶衣) / Xiaodouzi (小豆子)
Yin Zhi as Cheng Dieyi (teenager)
Ma Mingwei as Cheng Dieyi (child)
Zhang Fengyi as Duan Xiaolou (段小樓) / Xiaoshitou (小石頭)
Zhao Hailong as Duan Xiaolou (teenager)
Fei Yang as Duan Xiaolou (child)
Gong Li as Juxian (菊仙 Júxiān)
Ge You as Yuan Shiqing (袁世卿 Yuán Shìqīng)
Lü Qi as Master Guan (Simplified: 关师傅, Traditional: 關師傅, Pinyin: Guān-shīfu)
Ying Da as Na Kun (那 坤 Nā Kūn)
Yidi as Eunuch Zhang (Simplified: 张公公, Traditional: 張公公, Pinyin: Zhāng-gōnggong)
Zhi Yitong as Saburo Aoki (青木 三郎, Chinese Pinyin: Qīngmù Sānláng, Japanese: Aoki Saburō)
Lei Han as Xiaosi
Li Chun as Xiaosi (teenager)
Li Dan as Laizi (Simplified: 小癞子, Traditional: 小癩子, Pinyin: Xiǎo Làizǐ)
Yang Yongchao as Laizi (child)
Wu Dai-wai as Red Guard (Simplified: 红卫兵, Traditional: 紅衛兵, Pinyin: Hóngwèibīng)
Chen Kaige was first given a copy of Lilian Lee's novel in 1988, and although Chen found the story of the novel to be "compelling", he found the emotion subtext of the novel "a bit thin". After meeting with Lee, they recruited Chinese writer Lu Wei for the screenplay, and in 1991 the first draft of the screenplay came about.
Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung was used in the film to attract audiences because melodramas are not a popular genre. (Cheung's voice is dubbed by Beijing actor Yang Lixin.) Due to Gong Li's international stardom, she was cast as one of the main characters in the film.
The film premiered in Shanghai in July 1993 but was removed from theatres for its porafter two weeks for further censorial review and subsequently banned in August. The film was objected to for its portrayal of homosexuality, suicide, and violence perpetrated under Mao Zedong's Communist government during the Cultural Revolution. Because the film won the Palme d'Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, the ban was met with international outcry. Feeling there was "no choice" and fearing it hurt China's bid for the 2000 Summer Olympics, officials allowed the film to resume public showings in September. This release featured a censored version; scenes dealing with the Cultural Revolution and homosexuality were cut, and the final scene was revised to "soften the blow of the suicide".
The film was released to three theaters on 15 October 1993, and grossed $69,408 in the opening weekend. Its final grossing in the US market is $5,216,888.
In 2005, some 25,000 Hong Kong film-enthusiasts voted it their favorite Chinese-language film of the century (the second was Wong Kar-wai's Days of Being Wild).
At the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, the film was awarded the highest prize, the Palme d'Or. Miramax Films mogul Harvey Weinstein purchased the distribution rights and removed fourteen minutes, resulting in a 157-minute cut. This is the version seen in U.S. theaters (and also in the U.K.). According to Peter Biskind's book, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film, Louis Malle, who was president of the Cannes jury that year, said: "The film we admired so much in Cannes is not the film seen in this country [the U.S.], which is twenty minutes shorter – but seems longer because it doesn't make any sense. It was better before those guys made cuts."
The uncut 171-minute version has been released by Miramax on DVD.
Roger Ebert awarded the film four stars, praising the plot as "almost unbelievably ambitious" and executed with "freedom and energy". The New York Times critic Vincent Canby hailed it for "action, history, exotic color", positively reviewing the acting of Gong Li, Leslie Cheung and Zhang Fengyi. In New York, David Denby criticized the "spectacle" but felt it would be worthy of excelling in international cinema, portraying a triumph of love and culture despite dark moments. Hal Hinson, writing for The Washington Post, highlighted "its swooning infatuation with the theater- with its colors, its vitality and even its cruel rigors". Desson Howe was less positive, writing the first half had impact but gives way to "novel-like meandering", with less point.
The film was included in The New York Times' list of The Best 1000 Movies Ever Made in 2004 and Time's list of Best Movies of All Time in 2005. It was ranked No. 97 in Empire magazine's "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010. and No. 1 in Time Out's "100 Best Mainland Chinese Films" feature in 2014. The film has an 88% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 34 reviews.
At Cannes, it tied for the Palme d'Or with Jane Campion's The Piano from New Zealand. Farewell My Concubine remains to date the only Chinese-language film to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.