The film name is borrowed from a Beijing opera also known as Farewell My Concubine. The opera becomes Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Xiaolou’s (Zhang Fengyi) staple act and scenes from it are performed throughout the film. The film is about the story of these two men, who met as apprentices in the Peking Opera, and stayed friends for over 50 years. Further, it portrays fifty-year Chinese history which covers Japanese Occupation, Kuomintang regime, Liberation in 1949, as the People’s Liberation Army enters the city, and the Cultural Revolution from the two Peking Opera performers’ personal perspectives.
Approached from another angle, “life is a play” is the other story told by the movie. The life of one character-Dieyi in the film coincides with the leading actor, Leslie Cheung’s personal life. Leslie was born in a big family as the youngest of ten kids and gained little care from parents owing to their divorcement. Then he was sent to Britain. After finishing secondary school, he returned Hong Kong to start his entertainment career by becoming a singer. He has endured a lot to become famous; audience booed him when he was singing on stage.
Similarly, in the film, Dieyi was abandoned by his mother and beaten brutally by his master in the early years of learning Peking Opera. Finally, Deiyi gained when he had paid and a hit in Peking Opera field in the movie. He always played Dan (female) roles on stage and was in love with Xiao Lou, also his partner on stage who plays Shen (male) roles all the time, but the sexual aspects of his affection are not returned. Later on, Dieyi mangled his on-stage life and real life from the moment when he had been “corrected” to sing “I am by nature a girl, not a boy”. It is said by Xiao Lou, “I’m just an actor playing a king. You really are Yuji.” In the last scene of Farewell My Concubine, Dieyi committed his suicide on stage when they two rehearsed the Peking Opera, Farewell My Concubine after they met twelve years later.
As to Leslie, he achieved to be an entertainment celebrity in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China Mainland. At the peak of Leslie’s career life, his private life attracted much more media focus due to his sexuality because he confessed in public that he is gay. The media and social pressure brought him so much mental trouble. He broke down when finishing shooting a horror movie-Inner Sense. In the movie, he killed himself by jumping off a high-rise. In real life, on April 1 of 2003, Leslie left his will on a piece of tissue paper and farewell the world after jumping off the roof of a hotel.
Surprisingly, Dieyi’s and Leslie’s entire life was almost identical and reflects what Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”