Black Swan and Farewell My Concubine: Blurring Reality and Illusion in the Name of Art

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Both Black Swan, a 2010 film by American director Darren Aronofsky, and Farewell My Concubine, a 1993 film by Chinese director Chen Kaige, share a central concern with the power of art. In Black Swan, the creative medium of choice is ballet, as the movie follows the exploits and ambitions of a twenty-something ballerina in New York City. Farewell My Concubine, by contrast, is concerned with Beijing opera and the relationship between two highly trained opera stars. Despite the divergence of subject, both films essentially tackle the same theme, which is the immense power, allure, and importance of art as a means of shaping and viewing reality.

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This theme is developed in Black Swan through the career and personal life of Nina Sayers, a young ballet dancer who becomes obsessed with the idea of portraying both the White Swan (an embodiment of innocence) and the Black Swan (an embodiment of sensuousness and hedonism) in a high-profile production of Swan Lake. After initially failing to impress the director enough to nab the part of the Black Swan, Nina violently and suddenly resists a romantic advance, and is awarded the role. She finds it difficult to manifest the passion and spontaneity needed to play the Black Swan effectively, however, until a fellow (and much less restrained) dancer named Lily strikes up a friendship with Nina.
Buckling under the pressure of her nagging, domineering mother, a capsule of ecstasy unknowingly given to her by Lily at a club triggers hallucinations of a lesbian hook-up. Nina’s hallucinations and departures from reality increase as her anxieties about her own shortcomings as the Black Swan and Lily usurping her role gradually consume her. She sees the previous Swan Queen mutilate herself, Lily and the director having sex, and become increasingly paranoid about her mother’s restrictions on her behavior, which ends up almost preventing her from making the opening performance. When she does arrive, she messes up the first half of her performance, and in the intermission stabs and kills Lily for threatening to take her role. Her performance in the second half of Black Swan is flawless, though, and as the staging ends, it is revealed to the viewer that Nina hallucinated her fight with Lily, and has in fact (presumably fatally) stabbed herself.
Farewell My Concubine opens with both the main characters in a gymnasium type setting in 1977, dressed in traditional opera gear and beginning to re-enact an opera they had clearly both starred in long ago. The film then flashes back, and proceeds chronologically with a young child (referred to in his youth as Douzi) being brought by his mother to an opera school. After she dramatically severs his extra finger, Douzi is accepted into the school, and subjected to the rigid, almost sadistic discipline of the opera master. He is befriended by another child, Shitou, and together the two pass through physical and emotional rigors of opera school. During this process, however, Douzi is made to play a series of female roles, and in the process (theatrically) proclaim his essential femininity. He fails repeatedly to do this, only breaking in the face of physical abuse from Shitou.
Years pass, and Douzi and Shitou (now known professionally as Dieyi and Xiaolou) are popular opera stars. Their relationship is strained by enormous psychosexual tension, however, since Dieyi is quite obviously pining for Xiaolou, who gives little indication of returning the feeling. His engagement to a prostitute throws a further wrench into this situation, enraging Dieyi and compromising their working relationship, which is only rescued by the intervention of their old opera master later in the film. The Japanese invasion and occupation of Beijing occurs shortly thereafter, forcing Dieyi and Xiaolou into an uncomfortable position that results in what could be construed as collaboration from Dieyi, who performs for the Japanese occupiers. After liberation, Dieyi is tried for occupation, and despite his impassioned confession, acquitted in court.
The next major travail to hit the pair is the Communist takeover and Cultural Revolution, which throw the old society into chaos and jeopardize the status and seeming inviolability of the opera. When the Cultural Revolution breaks out, Xiaolou and Dieyi are both denounced for their participation in the opera and other actions. Xiaolou is under fire for having previously flippantly denounced the soldiers of the Communist Party and marrying a prostitute, whom he is compelled to disown. Hearing this, she commits suicide. About a decade later, Dieyi and Xiaolou are once again united in the same location as the film’s opening scene. Dieyi makes a mistake in an opera recitation, proclaiming that he is a boy (when he is supposed to be playing a girl). The duo continue to recite old opera parts, until Dieyi dramatically kills himself in the same manner as the concubine in the titular opera, and the film ends.
In both films, then, art becomes a means by which reality is distorted, interpreted, and ultimately understood by the protagonists. For Nina, the role of the Swan Queen serves as a locus for her identity, allowing a singular goal to become the defining facet of her entire existence. She strives to achieve the role, and perform it perfectly, to the exclusion of almost every other aspect of her life. Her seeming isolation (no significant close friends, a strained maternal relationship, romantic difficulties) can be understood as the price of success, and those needs fulfilled partially by the nature of the characters she portrays. The Black Swan is particularly important in satisfying her most sensuous, earthy, and human needs, embodying and engendering (primarily through hallucination) intense fear, longing, and passion.
Likewise, Dieyi’s tortured and isolated existence is powerfully framed by his role as the concubine in the opera “Farewell My Concubine”. His psychosexual urges are both caused and understood through his role as a man portraying exclusively female characters on the stage. They are caused by this, because his early sense of gender and romantic identity is forcibly channeled into the roles of young nubile women, and then framed by the ensuing persona this creates. His attachment to Xiaolou is understood by his character as analogous to the relationship his concubine stage-role has to Xiaolou’s king stage role, and his resultant, immense frustration is the consequence of an inability to realize this relationship offstage. His whole life can thus be understood as a kind of dissonance between imagined and possible (within the context of mid-twentieth century China) roles.
Ultimately, the power of the artistic endeavors Nina and Dieyi are involved are embraced as ways to escape a forbidding reality, and end up reshaping that reality in an untenable fashion. Nina’s solitude and warped idea of the importance of professional life cause her to channel her entire inner life into the characters she portrays. This leads to the achievement of technical perfection, but at the cost of alienation and ultimately grievous physical harm. Similarly, Dieyi casts away his repressed and brutal childhood in order to embrace the role of the Concubine, only to have this very role sweep him to a tragic and inevitable suicide.


“Relationships, Isolation, and Repression”

Both Nina, the protagonist of Black Swan, and Dieyi, one of the protagonists of Farewell My Concubine, experience intense difficulties in their doomed attempts at building relationships with others. Nina is intensely isolated because of her professional ambitions, as well as her seeming inability to relax and indulge her more spontaneous, human side. This isolation has a psychosexual element in the absence of true romantic partners for a character who gives many indications of desiring one, and in the attempt engages in meaningless sex and fantasizes about lesbian sex with one of her co-dancers.
Dieyi seems similarly unable to connect with people over things not relating to the opera, and like Nina’s dilemma there is a similar psychosexual element to Dieyi’s. In this case it is more pronounced, being the result of profound gender confusion and a sometimes brutally repressed homosexuality. His one confirmed relationship is also deeply unsatisfying, and becomes a source of shame before the film is over. See, for an illustration, this clip, which shows his former lover Yuan Shiqing being denounced and tried by a kind of Communist kangaroo court. The impermanence and weirdly unequal nature of his relationship with Yuan Shiqing make this an especially dislocating event for Dieyi.

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Nina and Dieyi’s repression is largely the result of their artistic professions. For Nina, the intense workload and pressure (which often results in physical and emotional injuries) often causes her to repress every urge that seems to run counter to her goals, while Dieyi is forced by beatings and social pressure into an extremely constricting set of all female roles. Additionally, his homosexuality is intensely circumscribed in China of that era, denying him the openness and opportunities that might have tethered him to reality and other people.

The differences in the nature of Nina’s and Dieyi’s repression are instructive as to the differences in the societies depicted. Nina’s problem, as a contemporary American in an enormous urban center, is essentially that of an individual. Through her own priorities, shortcomings, and actions, she has created problems of connection and isolation that can find outlet only in action that is simultaneously collective (in its conception and presentation) and individual (in her solipsistic experience preparing, meditating, and rehearsing). The social alienation she faces is that of a society turned inward, focused on personal advancement and gain and thus blinded to other essential aspects of human existence. The immense demands that art in general and ballet in particular make of an aspiring participant prove too much to allow for healthy relationships and connectivity with society. The doppelganger that Nina constantly sees, on display in this scene, is emblematic of her introspective response to these pressures. These issues are essentially internal, which accounts for their internal manifestation to the viewer.

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Dieyi’s isolation is much more collectively determined and also politically significant. Homosexuality being mainly taboo, and opera singers being tantamount to prostitutes in the eyes of many, his options in life are extremely constrained. The debate about causation in regard to his sexual orientation is of course completely valid (had he not been forced into this occupation, what might have happened, etc.), but the fact of the matter is that Dieyi was limited by central aspects of his characters to marginal and ill-defined roles in society – except in his professional life. Until the Communist rejection of ‘feudal’ opera, his role as concubine is secure, admired, and clear-cut. As mentioned in the title post, it causes immense complications for his personal life, but the professional clarity is hugely attractive as a kind of counter to the isolation and repression that necessarily pervades other aspects of his existence.
Thus, we see in the kinds of repression faced by Nina and Dieyi an examination of the worlds they inhabit. For Nina, the individualistic, artistically obsessed mindset of her character reflects a society in which the most significant events may well be artistic. Performance gives meaning, rather than distracts from it, and is all-encompassing inasmuch as it relieves the need for more mundane and human pursuits. Thus, her isolation and repression are, if not self-caused, at least self-sourced. Dieyi, on the other hand, faces a hostile society, adhering to brittle but rigid norms (Confucianism, nationalism, communism) that break rather than bend. Each social philosophy is extreme and leaves little place for someone like Dieyi, and the rapidity and comprehensive nature of their shifts intensifies Dieyi’s dislocation.

“Performance as a Channel and Catalyst for Destruction”

As explored below, the protagonists of both films use performance as a channel for evading or harnessing dislocation, and in the process assign to it catalytic powers. The ultimate expression is in the final, suicide scenes of both movies, when art serves as the language by which self-destruction is achieved. Importantly, this is presented as entirely contained within the existing performance scripts for both Nina and Dieyi. There is no radical departure from the actions prescribed for both the Black Swan and the Concubine – if anything, there is a literal and “perfect” (as Nina claims) realization of the scenes depicted. Where the Black Swan and the Concubine die in the productions, Nina and Dieyi kill themselves, for reasons that can be understood both through the art and reality of their lives. Included below are clips of both films final scenes to allow for a side by side comparison.

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“Cross-Cultural Experiences”

Watching these films with a Chinese partner proved immensely instructive. It was my partner Nancy’s idea, in fact, to watch both of these together. Their central themes meshed incredibly well, and we had a number of fruitful discussions on the subject. We talked a lot about the respective directors’ previous films – I explained Aronofsky’s other work, and Nancy told me about Chen Kaige. She also contextualized Farewell My Concubine for me, expaining the Pacific War, the Communist takeover, and the Cultural Revolution from a Chinese perspective.

In the process of working on this project we also got to know each other a bit. Nancy’s English is impeccable, and put the modicum of Chinese I know to shame. I told her about my experiences in Beijing last summer, when I studied abroad at Peking University. She knew a lot of the areas I had visited, and we talked about that for a while. She also expressed her desire to   visit the United States or Britain, so as to gain more experience in English.

Looked at through the lens of cross-cultural collaboration, Black Swan and Farewell My Concubine have enormous amounts to say about both cultures. Nancy pointed out how Farewell My Concubine’s art is more political, reflecting a greater degree of politicization in China as well as more collective influences and ramifications for creative action. In Black Swan, by contrast, the focus was all on the individual, which reflects a more individualistic focus.

The choice of performance medium is also important. Ballet is a classical Western mode of performance, just as Beijing opera is in China. Both create an immersive, traditional experience by music, costume, and atmosphere, but in both films actors distort and subvert these conventions to their own ends. Ultimately, a comparison of Black Swan and Farewell My Concubine speaks to the universal power, necessity, and danger of art.