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Chen Kaige - Music and Revolution

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

The Fifth Generation of Chinese directors have been largely responsible for the popularity of the country's cinema around the world. Their struggles with breaking from tradition and incorporating political commentary into their films can to an extent be seen as both national and deeply personal journeys. This is particularly true of Chen Kaige, one of the key figures of the movement, whose career has seen him progress from telling stories of the past and trying to make sense of history, to making wuxia epics and even trying his hand at Hollywood.


Like the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, Chen is a deeply humanistic filmmaker, his films influenced by his interest in traditional Chinese painting and poetry, and perhaps more importantly, by his love for Eastern and Western classical music. His works, such as Farewell My Concubine and Temptress Moon address both wide reaching and intimate issues, and have seen him winning praise, prizes and political disapproval at home and abroad. Although some of his recent efforts have not been quite up to standard, arguably due to his straying from his true calling, his latest film Forever Enthralled sees a return to form, following the life Peking Opera legend Mei Lanfang against a fascinating historical backdrop.


The Shadow of the Revolution

Chen Kaige was born in 1952 in Beijing, his father the filmmaker Chen Huai'ai. Interestingly, he grew up with Tian Zhuangzhuang, who would himself go on to become a noted and often controversial member of the Fifth Generation, directing a number of acclaimed films including Springtime in a Small Town and The Go Master. With the coming of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Chen joined the Red Guards, the movement of young people inspired and mobilized by Mao Zedong. As with many other youths at the time, he denounced his own father, reporting him as a creator of subversive art, a decision which was to later haunt him and to echo through his films. Indeed, it is not so much the Cultural Revolution itself which Chen would tackle (perhaps unsurprisingly, since this is something which would have almost certainly landed him in hot water with the Chinese censors), but rather the behavior of people during this turbulent time, something he has frequently sought to explore and explain.


In 1978 after the end of the Cultural Revolution, he attended the Beijing Film Academy, graduating in 1982 along with others of the emerging Fifth Generation of directors. Following the upheaval which the country had undergone, their style was unsurprisingly different from filmmakers of the past, choosing to focus upon the visual potential of cinema and shaking off the bonds of traditional dramatic and literary influences. Inevitably, Chen and his contemporaries drew upon their often traumatic experiences in their films, initially in subtle, and later in increasingly confrontational fashion.


Life in the Countryside

Having finished his studies, Chen and his classmate Zhang Yimou were assigned to a small production studio at Guangxi in Southern China. Here, in 1983 he made his first film, Yellow Earth, which follows the tale of a communist soldier (played by Wang Xueqi, who worked many times with Chen, and who also starred in the likes of Warriors of Heaven and Earth) who travels to a remote village during 1939 to collect folk songs for the revolution, and inspires a young girl to escape from her arranged marriage to a much older man. In narrative terms, the film marked a major change in Chinese Cinema, with a searching examination of the repressive nature of feudalist ideology that at the same time extolled the virtues of the simple yet honest life of its rural characters. However, in visual terms the film was an even bigger leap forward, with stunningly powerful imagery, thanks in part to the excellent cinematography provided by Zhang Yimou. With clever use of color and composition, Chen was able to evoke a real sense of place through spectacular vistas and scenes of local customs, which not only provided a feast for the eyes, but also served a thematic purpose. The film was a great critical success, and was hailed as a landmark of the Fifth Generation. Perhaps even more importantly, it was one of the first Chinese films to enjoy a wide international release, which saw it garner a number of awards at festivals in Hong Kong, Hawaii, Nantes, and Locarno, blazing the trail for others to follow.


Chen's next film, The Big Parade in 1985, saw him broach the subject of the Cultural Revolution for the first time, following the intense preparations of a unit of military cadets for the National Day parade. Although overtly dealing with issues of mass conformity and national duty, Chen also included more intimate scenes of the young soldiers in less formal settings, often expressing their doubts about the meaning of their actions. As such, the film was a good example of the approach being taken by Fifth Generation directors to address politically sensitive issues and to explore ideas of national identity. As with Yellow Earth, it was released internationally, and brought home prizes from Montreal and Torino.


Chen followed it in 1987 with an even more intimate outing, King of Children, which was inspired by the years he spent during 1966 and 1976 as a "sent down" youth ordered by the regime to live in the countryside and work side by side with the farmers. The tale focuses on a young man who is assigned the job of teaching Maoist ideology to the locals of a poverty stricken village, and who comes to realize the ultimate futility of his task. Gently humorous, and with a subtle undercurrent of irony, the film was a careful balancing act of political and personal themes which played the grand objectives of the state against the reality of the lives of everyday people. Another success, thanks again to some gorgeous cinematography depicting the rural region, the film played at Cannes, where Chen was nominated for the prestigious Golden Palm award.

From Western Pop to Chinese Lute

Now established as a major voice in Chinese cinema, Chen began to broaden his interests, and after acting in Bertolucci's luscious epic The Last Emperor, he moved to New York as a scholar in the late 1980s. Here, he furthered his love for music in a somewhat more experimental manner, directing the music video for pop group Duran Duran's single "Do You Believe in Shame". In 1989, the international recognition of Chen's talents was confirmed when he was invited to serve as a member of the jury at the Berlin International Film Festival.


Following this, he returned to China to make his fourth film, Life on a String. Based upon a novel by Tiesheng Shi, it tells the story of a blind old sanxian (traditional Chinese lute) musician who wanders the mountains of Inner Mongolia, clinging to a promise made to him by his master as a boy that when the 1000th string on his instrument is broken, his sight will be restored. With his days nearly done and having gone through 995 strings, the almost saintly man, who has eschewed material goods and values, feels that enlightenment cannot be far away. Unfortunately, trouble strikes when his young, similarly blind disciple falls in love with a village girl, threatening to disrupt their harmonious existence. Whilst it boasted his trademark visuals, the film was somewhat of a departure for Chen, delving into more philosophical territory at the expense of traditional narrative, and making use of suggestion and symbolism to express meaning. However, although obtuse at times, the film was driven by a familiar theme, namely the tension between modern political change and spirituality, and by a complex father-son dynamic which touched upon his own internal conflict. Although it mystified many critics, the film won Chen further acclaim and screened in competition at Cannes in 1991, where it was nominated for the Golden Palm.


Farewell My Concubine

Chen's next film was to be his best yet, and indeed one of the most significant works of the Fifth Generation. Farewell My Concubine was from the start a departure for the director and a move away from his more artistically inclined roots, thanks to the casting of major stars, with Hong Kong pop idol Leslie Cheung and top Chinese actress Gong Li taking two of the lead roles. Adapted from a novel by Lilian Lee, the film is an epic affair which follows the lives of Beijing opera players Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi, recently in John Woo's Red Cliff) through the tumultuous Chinese history of the twentieth century. Whilst it charts political and social change and depicts the carnage of the Second World War and the Cultural Revolution, the film remains determinedly intimate throughout, with the homosexual Dieyi's unrequited love for Xiaolou making for passionate and tender viewing. Psychologically complex and deeply sympathetic, it engages throughout, and saw the director fully realizing his promise as a truly humanistic filmmaker.


Unsurprisingly, Chen made the very most of the film's opera theme, including plenty of colorful costumes and musical scenes, and showing a genuine appreciation for the form. More interestingly, he used the historical backdrop for an examination of the Chinese nation and character during such momentous times, in particular during the madness of the Cultural Revolution, inevitably touching upon his own feelings towards his father. As a result of his brutally honest depiction of insecurities and questionable behavior, the film was initially banned in China, before being released in a censored version. However, in the West it was met with critical adoration, being nominated for two Academy Awards and finally winning Chen a Golden Palm at Cannes. Even more importantly, it was one of the first Chinese films to also see genuine commercial success abroad, especially in the US, where it pulled in millions at the box office.


Unfortunately, though perhaps inevitably, his next film Temptress Moon, despite featuring the reunion of Leslie Cheung and Gong Li, did not prove as popular either with audiences or critics, in part due to its complex narrative. This is a shame, as the film, which chronicles the downfall of a wealthy family in the early twentieth century thanks to opium addiction and political upheaval, although less epic in scope than Farewell My Concubine, still manages to successfully convey some of the same themes. Visually, the film is absolutely gorgeous, with the cinematography of regular Wong Kai War collaborator Christopher Doyle lending the proceedings a sensuous, languid beauty that gives a wonderful sense of decadent decay. Of course, the opium use was enough to earn the film a ban in China, though it did receive a modestly popular run overseas, again being nominated at Cannes.


Chen returned in 1999 with The Emperor and the Assassin, which was another change of pace for the director, being a historical epic with plenty of battle scenes. Set in 221 BC, the film revolves around the King of Qin's (Li Xuejian) attempts to unite the seven warring kingdoms, and his complex scheme involving his mistress Lady Zhao (Gong Li) and a legendary assassin called Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi) designed to show his strength. The most expensive Asian production at the time, the film was a grand affair, with massive sets and hundred of costume clad extras. Balancing epic, violent spectacle with a desire for historical accuracy, it was a bold and ambitious move for Chen, not least due to a labyrinth plot packed with intrigue and Shakespearean deception. Indeed, for some viewers the early stages of the film are likely to bewilder, with the narrative leaping around through its many characters and their multiple motives. However, it is a testament to his skill as a storyteller that the film remains coherent and entirely gripping, and it compares favorably with many of the rather hollow recent big budget Chinese epics.


From Killing Me Softly to The Promise

No director, no matter how great, is above the occasional misstep or error of judgement, and Chen's first came with his 2002 English language debut Killing Me Softly. Shot in London and starring Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes, the would-be thriller was a massive disappointment, with dreadful performances, and dull, leaden handling from the director, whose usual craftsmanship and confidence seemed to have deserted him entirely. Floundering amongst daft graphic sex scenes and contrived plotting, it was mocked by critics and ignored by audiences. In Chen's defense, it seems to have been a very different and indeed more stressful process than he was used to, with much of the control over the production, schedule and casting being out of his hands. Wherever the blame may lie, the director himself was reportedly not particularly impressed by the resulting film, though did at least claim to have learned a great deal from the experience.


After directing the segment 100 Flowers Hidden Deep for the anthology Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet, Chen returned to more familiar ground with Together in 2002. The film follows a young violin prodigy (real life player Tang Yun) whose father takes him from their rural home to Beijing to audition for a prestigious music school. Initially tutored by the reclusive Professor Jiang (popular Mainland actor Wang Zhiwen, recently in Battle of Wits), who teaches him to play with his heart, the boy is later faced with a choice as the more formal Professor Yu (played by the director himself) urges him to adopt a more commercially viable style. Although it does explore cultural and social change in modern China, primarily the rise of capitalism, the film is at heart an intimate drama which focuses on the boy's several father figures and his complex relationships with them. Given Chen's role in the film and its use of music (some of which he composed himself), it is unsurprisingly a very personal and pleasingly small-scale piece, with overtly autobiographical aspects, and is quietly moving without ever slipping into sentimentalism.


In 2005, he tried something entirely different with The Promise, a wuxia epic which boasted a massive budget of over 300 million yuan and an impressive pan-Asian cast including Sanada Hiroyuki, Jang Dong Gun, Nicholas Tse, Cecilia Cheung, and Liu Ye. After a troubled production, which saw the filmmaker accused of causing irreparable environmental damage in Yunnan Province, the results were sadly frowned upon by most critics, who were not impressed by Chen's obvious attempt to produce a commercial epic in the vein of Zhang Yimou hits such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers. The rather foolish and convoluted story, which revolved around Cheung's cursed princess and her various suitors, certainly did not help matters, nor did the film's over-reliance on special effects, which though bright and colorful were not up to the Hollywood standard that audiences were used to. Despite its critical mauling, The Promise did perform well at the Chinese box office, and when viewed now, away from all of the hype and media bashing, while an awkward addition to Chen's CV, it does make for reasonable, if inadvertently amusing entertainment.


Forever Enthralled - Another Night at the Opera

After this disappointment, Chen unsurprisingly decided to return to Chinese opera for his latest film, Forever Enthralled, based upon the life of legendary singer Mei Lanfang, who had provided the inspiration for Leslie Cheung's role in Farewell My Concubine. Starring Leon Lai in the lead role, and with support from Zhang Ziyi, Chen Hong (Chen's wife, who also featured in Together), and Sun Honglei (Blood Brothers), the film traces Mei's rise to fame, his experiences in the US and during the war with the Japanese, and his troubled relationships with the women in his life. The film saw Chen obviously back on far more comfortable and familiar ground, and although neither as epic nor as moving as Farewell My Concubine, it stands as a worthy follow-up, with the director again showing his skill at combing personal and national journeys. Immaculately composed and directed, the film's main attraction is arguably its impressive visuals, with some wonderful sets and evocative sense of time and place. Nominated at Berlin for the Golden Bear and for Best Film at the 3rd Asian Film Awards, the film certainly helped restore Chen's reputation and proved that he had not lost his humanistic touch. As such, Forever Enthralled to an extent represents Chen being presented with a clean slate, and a free choice of where to go next. Now working on One 2008th, a short in aid of the Sichuan earthquake tragedy, once finished, he seems equally likely to turn his attention to a production on either the large or small end of the scale, though whichever he opts for will undoubtedly be marked by the same sense of complex humanity that has returned again and again throughout his career.


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Published April 17, 2009


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