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Look Back: “Farewell My Concubine” Wins the Palme d’Or at Cannes 1993

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The 71st Cannes film festival kicked off in France last weekend, and as we’ve noted before, China is making a strong showing at this year’s festivities:

Sixth Generation auteur Jia Zhangke‘s latest, Ash is Purest White, is one of 18 films in the running for the festival’s highest honor, the Palme d’Or. The Pluto Moment, a film produced by Chinese video streaming site iQIYI, will show in the festival’s Directors’ Fortnight screening program, an interesting choice given that Cannes this year banned Netflix-produced films from entry. And last month it was announced that Taiwanese actor Chang Chen has been selected for the official Cannes jury, though this announcement led to some geopolitical awkwardness.

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This strong showing represents decades of incremental growth in the sophistication and global purchasing power of the Chinese film industry, and it comes on the 25th anniversary of one of the great milestones of independent Chinese cinema: director Chen Kaige’s receipt of the Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest honor, for his film Farewell My Concubine at Cannes 1993.

1993 was an interesting year at Cannes for a few reasons. Two films won the Palm d’Or, a fairly rare occurrence — Farewell My Concubine shared the honor with The Piano by New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion. Chen made history by becoming the first Chinese director to win the award, but Campion’s milestone was more important: she became the first woman to win Palme d’Or for best film. No other Chinese nor female director has won Cannes’ top prize since 1993, though in 2015, Cannes awarded an “honorary Palme” to French film director Agnès Varda, and last year director Qiu Yang became the first Chinese filmmaker to receive the short film Palme d’Or.

Farewell My Concubine was the fifth film directed by Chen, and is viewed as a defining work of the “Fifth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers. The story follows two Peking Opera performers across 50 years of friendship and China’s tumultuous mid-20th-century historical upheavals. The film’s acceptance among cognoscenti overseas did nothing to sweeten its reception at home, however: soon after Farewell My Concubine‘s Cannes win, its theatrical release inside China was canceled, and it was banned. As the LA Times reported at the time:

The ban is a retreat in what has overall been a process of cultural liberalization in China. Books, magazines, music and art have all been flourishing and mostly finding ways to evade the cultural commissars.

The Propaganda Department, which is adjusting to the times by changing the translation of its name to Information Department, is loosening controls over news organizations and is even allowing a wave of talk-radio programs. Satellite dishes and cable systems are sprouting around the country, allowing millions of citizens to watch Hong Kong and Taiwan films and serials.

Cover photo: Actor Leslie Cheung in Farewell My Concubine (The Idle Woman)

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