This film is one of the great films made in the 1990's it won the Palm D'or at Cannes and many other awards and took 5 million at the Box Office and then seems to have died without trace. It follows an unrequited love affair which mirrors and is impacted by the turbulent changes in China throughout the mid-20th Century. The characters grew up together bonded by the arduous training of Peking Opera stars. It is epic in both its historical scope and exploration of what it means to be human. Leslie Cheung's performance is exceptional and extremely poignant given his own early death.
The film tells the story of a frustrated desire (that often inform friendship) - so not one to watch with a friend you've secretly been in love with since childhood. The cinematography, sets and script are all meticulous so if you take one small detail - the application of the stage make-up worn by the Peking Opera stars - how it is done changes throughout the film depending on the friends' relationship and political events. There is a further parallel that the plot of the Opera they preform informs the characters' lives - in one scene one actor says "I am just a man playing King Hui but you are Concubine Yui".
There are any number of events that challenge and strain their friendship. However even at moments of betrayal and self-destruction the acts' context and history make sense of it. This is a film without heroes or villains just characters caught in difficult circumstances. It is this realism combined with it's multiple layers of mirroring that makes the film engrossing. There is no endearing personal sense of 'rightness' that wins through this is the anti-dote to Hollywood. It is a quintessentially Chinese film that eloquently shows an alternative view of humanity.
The cost of the depth and texture is the films length but if it grips you, you won't notice the time or at least not mind. On this version of the DVD made for the Asian market a couple of the English subtitles are off-beam and some of the Chinese screen titles aren't translated. Also the biographies of the stars are only in Korean. The quality of the print isn't so great so if you're watching it on a huge plasma screen you might be frustrated. 5* is for the film. 3* for this particular DVD.