Robert Tanitch reviews the latest DVDs
FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (BFI), initially banned by the Chinese for political and sexual reasons, describes the life and times of two famous Peking Opera stars. It is a story of love, treachery and death, told with tremendous emotional power against the highly dramatic backdrop of China’s modern history, beginning in 1925 and ending in 1977, covering the Warlord era, the Japanese invasion, the communist era and the Cultural Revolution. At the Peking Opera Academy the boys are trained (brutally) from childhood to specialize in one type of role for all their lives.
The more star actor (Leslie Cheung) acts the concubine on-stage the more he becomes the concubine off-stage. He becomes insanely jealous when his fellow actor (Zhang Fenghyi), who plays king to his concubine, falls in love with a high-class prostitute (Gong Li). The screenplay traces Peking Opera’ survival under oppressive regimes and the terrible compromises it involves and the horrors they endure. The film, superbly directed by Chen Kaige, was the joint winner at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. The acting is outstanding. The brief scenes from the opera, with their stylised movement, colourful movement, elaborate make-up, acrobatics, fights and falsetto singing, offer a tantalising glimpse of Chinese theatre.
TRUMBO (Bleecker Street). Are you now or where you ever a member of the Communist party? Jay Roach directs this movie about a shameful 20th century witch-hunt in US history. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, the highest paid writer in Hollywood, appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Charged with contempt of Congress he spent 11 months in prison. Blacklisted, he wrote in secret under pseudonyms. His award-winning scripts (though he didn’t get the award at the time) were Roman Holiday and Spartacus. Bryan Cranston as Trumbo, who talked like a radical, lived like a rich man and wrote in his bath, has a good scene when he lambasts John Wayne. Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper (the vicious gossip columnist with the hats) blackmailing Louis B Mayer, and John Goodman as a Hollywood B producer, producing rubbishy films, have the most fun.
THE DRUM (Network) is imperialist propaganda. Zoltan Korda’s 1938 epic beats the drum and waves the British flag. This colourful kilts & turbans Boys Own adventure is set in the Northwest Frontier in the days of the Raj. A E Mason was commissioned to write the script as a vehicle for Sabu, a sweet cute innocent 13-year-old Indian boy who couldn’t act but was extremely popular with the public after his success in Rudyard Kipling’s The Elephant Boy. Roger Livesey is the understated, stiff-upper-lip hero. Raymond Massey is the overstated baddie, an Indian scoundrel who machineguns the Brits whilst entertaining them.
WELCOME TO LEITH (Metrodome). Leith, a very small town in North Dakota, covers three square miles and has only 23 residents. A notorious white supremacist, Craig Cobb, moves in and intends to invite other hate groups to join him and take over the town. What can the harassed residents do to get rid of him? What can the Law do about white nationalist organisations and their obnoxious ideology? Leith arms itself against its invaders. It sounds like a SF horror film. It’s nothing of the kind. Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K Walker have directed an unsettling and open-ended documentary, interviewing residents and racist.
FORBIDDEN (Network) is a mini-British thriller from 1949. An unpleasant wife (Patricia Burke) refuses to divorce her husband (Douglass Montgomery) so he decides to murder her so he can marry a nice working class girl (Hazel Court). You can imagine the tension Alfred Hitchcock would have got out of a finale inside the Blackpool Tower. But the lead actors are dull and director George King is no Hitchcock. Ronald Shiner gives a “look-at-me-I’m-acting-I-am” performance. The young Kenneth Griffith in a cameo role makes the most impression.