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Farewell My Concubine
Farewell My Concubine

Gone Rogue: Lillian Lee’s fiction on screen

We rate how well the novelist’s works have been adapted to the big screen

Written by
Time Out Hong Kong
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2018 is a very special year for fans of novelist Lillian Lee – it’s both the 30th anniversary of the adaptation of her story Rouge and 15 years since the tragic deaths of legendary actors Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui who starred in the film. 

A sophisticated author – her stories include Farewell My Concubine and Green Snake – Lee’s works contain strong feminist themes. However, in Hong Kong’s patriarchal society, her works are not always done justice when adapted for cinema. Here are highlights of hers contrasted with their big screen adaptations.

Lillian Lee's fiction on screen

Rouge (1988)

Originally written in the first-person, Rouge explores the values of women through the heart-breaking romance between Fleur, a prostitute, and her lover, the wealthy playboy Chan Chen-pang. The novel was brought to the big screen by director Stanley Kwan in 1988. Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui are impeccable in the film but the movie hardly scratches the surface of the core values conveyed in Lee’s words. While the novel denies the traditional Chinese view of women being nothing more than bargaining chips when it comes to marriage, Kwan focuses instead on the story’s tragic romance and is unable to make the audience reflect on the patriarchal mindset of our society, which distorts Lee’s hidden messages.

Ratings for interpretation: ★★✩✩✩

The Reincarnation of Golden Lotus (1989)

This story reinterprets the tale of a Song Dynasty courtesan, Pan Jin-lian, who finds herself drawn into sadomasochistic affairs having been reincarnated during the Cultural Revolution. As she is criticised, objectified and harassed by men, Lee demonstrates how the chauvinism of men can obliterate female minds. The movie does a great job in recreating the sense of cruelty common during this era of Chinese history and actress Joey Wong displays the depth of Pan thoroughly. Disappointingly, though, Pan’s character is ultimately too flat and is only presented through the angle of her sacrifice instead of that of a feminist. Casting Eric Tsang as Wu Da, her crude farmer husband, also serves to make the entire movie a bit vulgar.

Ratings for interpretation: ★★★✩✩

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Temptation of a Monk (1993)

A story set during a power struggle for the throne in the Tang Dynasty, Lee’s book illustrates how women face dead ends when attempting to break down the reality of a patriarchal society. In the novel, protagonist Princess Hong-e saves her lover, acting as a strong heroine; on screen, she is degraded into a desperate woman who sacrifices herself for love. The movie’s Category III scenes also undermine her independent spirit and diminish the entire work, turning it into a cliché love story.

Ratings for interpretation: ✩✩✩✩✩

Green Snake (1993)

Once again attempting to demonstrate the miserable destiny that awaits women, Lee, in her novel, breaks down the boundaries between morality and desire, humanising the enchantresses of the story. Director Tsui Hark, however, dismisses the humanity of the transformed snakes and their relationship, reducing the story to a regular folktale about the venomous clamour of two foolish women.

Ratings for interpretation: ★✩✩✩✩

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Farewell My Concubine (1993)

Of all the film adaptations of Lee’s fiction, Farewell My Concubine is the best of all. Devoid of superfluous gimmicks, director Chen Kaige turns the background of the Cultural Revolution into a glorious form of cinematic aesthetic. Putting the spotlight on gender issues, Chen subverts the traditional view of sexuality with Leslie Cheung’s gay character and pushes forward Chinese cinema in doing so. Compared to Lee’s original work, Chen doesn’t get trapped in the jealousy between Cheng Dieyi (Cheung) and Juxian (Gong Li), who both love Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi), but instead digs deep into the issues surrounding gender stereotypes imposed on both Cheng and the attractive Juxian. Chen is even more successful in attempting to show the multifaceted faces of women than Lee herself.

Ratings for interpretation: ★★★★★

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