Two boys meet as students in a punishing Peking Opera school in the 1920s and remain partners, friends and enemies for 50 years. It’s The Sunshine Boys with screechy singing, and one of the boldest, most beautiful Chinese films in a decade dominated by them. In the “Concubine” opera that becomes their trademark, stolid Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) plays the emperor, luscious Cheng Dieyi (the late, great Leslie Cheung) the concubine. Yin and yang are the roles they assume offstage as well, as Xiaolou has an affair with a courtesan (Gong Li, the imperious queen of Chinese cinema) and Dieyi flirts with the satrap of the occupying Japanese government. Sexual politics gives way to political horror during the Cultural Revolution, when personal betrayal may be the one way to stay alive. Chen Kaige’s stately, volcanic epic was one of the first Mainland films to acknowledge that damage wrought by Maoism. Beyond that, it is a rich dramatization of the venial and mortal betrayals that are the secret, somber melodies of our lives.
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