The Beijing Film Studio was created in 1949 as one of the primary state-run film production facilities. The studio was responsible for classic films such as New Year’s Sacrifice (1956) and Song of Youth (1959). Later, the studio constructed a traditional Chinese streetscape on a backlot near the university district in Beijing, reportedly used for 1982 films Rickshaw Boy and Teahouse. It also became the first studio to open up to international co-productions with Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor in 1987, which also received permission to film within the Forbidden City.
In the early 1980s, former Taiwanese film star Feng Hsu, known from King Hu’s A Touch of Zen and Dragon Gate Inn, opened her own production company, Tomson Films. She obtained the film rights to the Lilian Lee novel Farewell My Concubine and approached Chen Kaige to direct it. Kaige initially turned her down. He had been making austere art films and was not inspired by the idea of adapting a popular novel. However, he eventually agreed with some substantial changes: adding a section about the Cultural Revolution, expanding the role of the female character, and having one of the male characters commit suicide in the end. With a generous budget of over $4 million, far more than the average budget of $100k for China at the time, Kaige made a sumptuous, epic film. He brought in name stars Gong Li, by then internationally famous from Yellow Earth and Red Sorghum, and Hong Kong pop idol Leslie Cheung. It would go on to win the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Farewell made use of the back lot at the Beijing Film Studio. It is particularly recognizable in the denunciation scene towards the end, where Douzi and Shitou are marched through the streets during the Cultural Revolution (Image Above). In 2002, Quentin Tarantino filmed parts of Kill Bill at the studio and around Beijing. The infamous deleted fight scene between Bill (David Carradine) and Michael Jai White (with fake New Zealand accent) was shot on the same back lot. It was to be one of the last large scale productions made there before the site closed.
The studio lot is now abandoned and the remaining warehouses and set decorations are slated for demolition. Operations of the Beijing Film Studio, now part of the China Film Group, have moved outside the city to Huairou. During the site’s last days in 2009, photographer Gilles Sabrié made a fascinating documentary about the hopeful actors who would show up every day at the studio gates looking for work.
The building seen in the background in the screenshot from Farewell (image above) is still recognizable on the lot today (image below).