Few movies have merged the exotic with the reassuringly conventional the way that Farewell My Concubine does. With its story draped over much of the 20th century, this grand, history-hopping Chinese epic (which shared the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival) plunges us into a world as eerie and consuming as a religious cult -- the Beijing Opera, where two performers, the delicate, homosexual Cheng (Leslie Cheung) and the hearty, burly Duan (Zhang Fengyi), form an uneasy partnership in art and life. The two first meet as youngsters at opera school, an institution of Dickensian cruelty where the students are ritually spanked with swords. (They get spanked even when they do something right.) The disciplinary fervor seems almost psychotic until we glimpse the fantastically controlled stage performance it's all a preparation for: the hyper-stylized opera, in which Cheng, inhabiting the female role of a devoted concubine, sings in a voice so high and seductive he's like a siren from Neptune.
For American audiences, it's a shock to witness a culture in which androgyny is woven into the very fabric of tradition. And the casually off-center eroticism is reflected in the film's central triangle. Cheng, it turns out, is in love with Duan -- he wants to be his concubine for real -- and so his jealousy is provoked when Duan marries a beautiful prostitute (Gong Li). From that point on, the director, Chen Kaige, tries for a Hollywood mixture of romance and history -- an aestheticized, gender-bending ''Reds.'' Yet as the characters are buffeted by the violent upheavals of modern China, Farewell My Concubine loses in intimacy what it gains in spectacle. As the country grows more depersonalized, so does the film's soap-operatic emotionalism.
Still, it's haunting to see how the vital, eccentric art of performers like Cheng and Duan could have become a gorgeous anachronism. In the most powerful sequence, the two, clad in their opera costumes, are subjected to a brutal public confession at the hands of Mao's Red Guard. Dramatizing totalitarian oppression is hardly novel, but Farewell My Concubine may be the first film to capture the unique spiritual cruelty of a regime in which beauty itself had become a crime.