Farewell, My Concubine screenshot. Image: qafone.net.

Farewell, My Concubine: How It Changed My Life

This film experience became the genesis of my PhD thesis on Hong Kong star fandom in Japan.


Osaka, 1995.

I was in the other of two rooms in my fluorescent-lit flat, muffled sound from the television my nightly companion. Whatever I had been doing is lost to time. All I remember is catching a song — a bit of Beijing Opera, in fact — that I’d first heard when Sammo Hung sang it in Painted Faces (1988).

I dashed the four feet to the adjacent room to find a film playing on premium satellite channel Wowow that, to that point, I’d gone out of my way not to see.

Farewell, My Concubine (1993) was one of those films everyone was talking about, especially in Japan, and I wasn’t going to be one of the bleating sheep. But I loved that song, loved that the always-enigmatic Sammo had resurrected his own opera training to sing it, had hummed it in the bath for years without even knowing the words, and thus was I compelled to sit and watch through the end of the film.

It wasn’t my first introduction to Hong Kong legend Leslie Cheung (I’d unknowingly seen him in A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) years earlier), but it was certainly the one that stuck.

It wasn’t just his ineffable beauty as the hopelessly pining Cheng Dieyi that grabbed my attention, gripped it, and didn’t let go. It was everything — the breadth of his career, spanning music, television, and film, the paradoxical softness of his steely control.

Through Leslie, I learned of a vast, glittering constellation of Hong Kong stars. Within the year, I found myself completely immersed in the cinema of the city where I’d grown up, where I’d become a full-fledged filmgoer in my own right, yet had been oblivious to what was right in front of me all along.

I began frequenting the same theaters, paraphernalia shops, and even concerts as my fellow (Japanese) fans, and it was this experience that became the genesis of my PhD thesis on Hong Kong star fandom in Japan, as well as research that continues today.

Farewell, My Concubine was a catalyst for things to come, but it didn’t exist in a vacuum. Nostalgia for my Hong Kong childhood had brought me to Painted Faces, Sammo being one of the few stars whose names I recognized from the past, and his own sepia-toned performance had led me to Farewell, My Concubine.

Leslie had been the face of my Hong Kong film fandom, but his untimely death in 2003 wasn’t the end of it. My thesis was focused on that Japanese fandom with which I became so familiar, but today I spend my time tracing its antecedents and effects, reconstructing the historical and cultural web in which it sits.

Which is to say, it seems to me that the films that mean the most — the ones that change your life — are those that speak to something already there, quietly biding its time until that one single film brings it roaring to life.

If you enjoyed this, please hit the green “Recommend” button below so others might also enjoy it.

Follow THE OUTTAKE: Medium | Twitter | Facebook