Picks and Pans Review: Farewell My Concubine

updated 01/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

Gong Li

This 2½-hour epic about the travails of two singers in the Peking Opera is a lot more fun than it has any right to be, possibly because it's ultimately not so much about China's bloody 20th-century history as it is about show business. And, as Chairman Mao failed to note in his little red book, there's no business like it.

This may sound morally imbecilic, given that, for one thing, Concubine covers, in often ugly detail, such nightmares as the Communist revolution, the Japanese occupation during World War II and the Cultural Revolution of the '60s, when artists were attacked with particular vehemence. Still, what we have here is a sumptuous, campy, backstage melodrama—the sort of story in which a little boy, watching an opera, can stand up, tears streaming down his face, and shout, "What does it take to become a star!"

And then there is Li, who starts out as a gold-digging prostitute in a brothel called the House of Blossoms. She has the moxie, the toughness and the fashion flair of your basic Hollywood heroine of the '30s. You could stage a scene with thousands of extras, a blizzard, cannon fire and galloping horses, and the camera would still single out the extraordinary face of this woman: a movie star of the first magnitude. (R)

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