It was just like a Hollywood movie premiere: The director and heartthrob star emerged from a black limousine in tuxedos as excited young fans surged forward to take photos.
But the opening Wednesday of “Farewell to My Concubine” was the first and last showing in Beijing — at least for now — of the acclaimed film by Chinese director Chen Kaige. The movie was co-winner of the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
China’s Communist leaders have banned the film, which chronicles the life of two Beijing opera students who become stars together — Cheng Dieyi, a female impersonator, and Duan Xiaolou, the leading man.
The theme of homosexuality runs throughout the movie as Cheng falls in love with Duan, who is devoted to a beautiful prostitute. “My Concubine” also depicts the personal betrayals and persecution that marked the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
In banning the film, the government demonstrated that it continues to maintain tight control over artistic expression even as it insists that China is becoming more open.
“You can try to imagine how sad I am,” Chen said after the screening. “I really hope people will have an opportunity to see this film in the future.”
“I never play the role of the liar. I’m telling the truth in my film and I think the truth is very important for Chinese audiences,” he said.
Leslie Cheung, the popular Hong Kong actor who plays Cheng, said banning the movie “seems very ridiculous.”
“My Concubine,” filmed in Beijing with financial backing from Taiwan, received a tumultuous ovation when shown at Cannes in May. In early July, the Chinese government gave permission for the movie to be shown, but later reversed its decision, apparently unhappy with the ending.
Although the film was slightly edited for the Beijing showing, Chen believes altering the climactic scene would be too great a change. In the scene, Cheng commits suicide when he realizes he no longer will play the role of concubine to Duan’s king in their signature Beijing opera piece.
Authorities apparently are opposed to a film in which anyone would contemplate suicide in the “New China” under Communist rule. Several film officials contacted by telephone refused to comment when asked the status of the movie.
“My Concubine” premiered earlier this week in Shanghai, where it will run through Aug. 4 because tickets for several days’ screenings already had been sold, the production company said. No further showings are scheduled in Beijing, and plans to open the movie in several other Chinese cities have been scrapped.