October 19, 2002|Stentorian in voice and a little dreamy in mien, Chen Kaige ("Tzen KI-guh"), one of the primary members of China's Fifth Generation of filmmakers, is a tribute guest at the 25th Denver International Film Festival. A group that included Zhang Yimou (a cameraman on Kaige's Yellow Earth prior to becoming a director), the Fifth Generation introduced more intimate stories told on a larger scale than the Chinese cinema that came before. It is a movement also marked by remarkably vivid colour schemes, interest in period pieces, and epic tableaux.
From the first, Kaige's films demonstrate a preoccupation with how music influences and shapes lives: 1984's Yellow Earth (the literal translation is "yellow dirt") begins as a mission undertaken by the Red Army to collect "happy" folk songs; Life on a String (Bian zou bian chang) promises the meaning of life for a banjo player after he's broken his one-thousandth string; and Kaige's best known picture, Farewell My Concubine, details the struggle of young students in the Peking Opera Company. Set in his hometown of Beijing, Kaige's latest film Together is his first contemporary drama since 1987's King of the Children (Hai zi wang); following the relationship of a father to his violin prodigy son, it again reflects Kaige's interest in music and painterly compositions, and, unfortunately, it exhibits a penchant for a certain laggard narrative thrust that threatens in most of his work to slacken attention and sympathy.
Still, it was my pleasure to sit down with Mr. Chen in the hospitality suite set up in Denver's old Tivoli Brewery to talk about his films, his philosophy of filmmaking, and the recurrent throughline of music in his lauded and influential career.
CHEN KAIGE: (laughs) That's a coincidence. I never realized that about the music. I think that this time in Together, music is really important. It occurs to me though that there's something that might explain it: as I grew up in Beijing, classical music was forbidden. I remember during the Cultural Revolution...
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: You had to denounce your own parents...
Yes. We were forced to leave the school and hang out in the streets, that sort of thing, but we would find places, this small group of friends and I--these dark little rooms where we would gather and lock ourselves up and listen to classical music, and I think that the music really made us more psychologically comfortable. There were a lot of things we needed comforting about--most of us had fallen out with or were in big trouble with our parents. We were young and scared. Now there's a lot of social change taking place in China, but for the longest time we forgot how important a thing culture and music were to us as a people.
Music as rebellion and individual expression?
I think that music is a language for the young boy in Together to speak--it's like the sunshine. I learned things from this character in terms of how to love and his music, sure, is his expression and his rebellion.
Is it easier to make films in China now?
Not at all. We have extremely strong, pervasive censorship that is frustrating and senseless. They don't want to see any underground films being made. And I'm not saying that we should try to break their hold, but I think that freedom of expression should be a right and protected.
Why was Temptress Moon banned?
I have no idea. I think the reasoning was very simple: they don't like the film. Here you have a chance to have a hearing or at least have a reason explained to you--but there, they do what they do and they don't have to explain a thing to you.
You've stated Akira Kurosawa as a source.
Yeah, I was very sad when Kurosawa passed away. I learned so much from his films and I learned so much more, I think, from his personality and approach to life and filmmaking...
The warrior poet.
That's exactly right.
What sort of access did you have to films as a child?
Not very much at all. I had some small degree of privilege because my father was a director and sometimes we would get to go to the film archive and see some films. That's how I got to see Charlie Chaplin for the first time.
Why so many period dramas and all this interest in the past?
I prefer to do period pieces because the sad thing is that the Chinese culture has been cut-off, truncated. We've lost our national identity--we have no idea why we call ourselves "Chinese," and I'm not pointing the finger at any one culprit, but someone needs to be responsible now for a reclamation of our society. So I concentrate in my films to focus on a period in our past where Chinese culture was still alive. In my mind, I wonder now if my feelings about this have changed a little. We still don't have a solid identity, but I recognize now that there are good stories to be told and conflicts to be resolved in a contemporary setting--it's a maturation on my part.
When you make a period piece, however, you begin to reclaim China's past for a contemporary audience, do you not? The Emperor and the Assassin for instance, about the first emperor of China, is an astonishing work and my favourite of your films.
You're right, you're right--that happens I think. I strongly believe there's a value that still exists in traditional culture that because of what happened in the beginning of the 20th century--the forced belief that our culture was useless--that it's all the more important now to enforce a cultural pride. But the result hasn't been very good. Kids in China want to see the newest Hollywood movie rather than something from their own culture and their own past.
Can you trace sources for your visual compositions?
I can't tell you for certain--I think I have that kind of instinct. I understand images more than language. Obviously I spent a lot of time in museums, watching filmmakers I admire, learning a lot from Chinese classical poetry forms that merge image and word. I traveled, and suffered--I loved and was loved, hated and have been hated. Life things, emotional things. Not doing things as an expert, but approaching new experiences with a childlike manner. But I see the images in my mind--I don't block out or storyboard. I'm afraid that if I ask the crew to rehearse too many times that nothing will be fresh. My way to do rehearsals is to do it in front of the camera.
So many of your films are adaptations of other source materials.
The fact is I would like to create original stories--I don't really believe in adaptation. I think some interesting things are out there that I can fit into my vision, but I would like to develop more original work.
Tell me about working with Gong Li on three films.
I did a lot of talking to her, finding out what she wants. She's an outstanding actress, for sure, and very smart, but I never really developed a relationship with her. She's been very fortunate to collaborate with Zhang Yimou on so many wonderful movies.
What was your experience working in Hollywood on Killing Me Softly?
I loved the crew and shooting in London, but I'm not used to this kind of system. There's always a producer with a worried face looking over your shoulder. There's a whole different list of stresses--the budget, and the shooting schedule. It's a completely foreign process. I wasn't involved in the casting process either--Heather [Graham] was decided on by the producer, I only got to cast Joseph [Fiennes].
What's your next project?
I don't know. I'm developing a lot of projects--some in English, some in Chinese.
Any plans to follow Yimou into the martial arts arena?
Not now, not now, too soon for me.
Can you make any broad statements about your body of work?
There are two things that I'm trying to do in my films: I'm trying to be sensitive about human nature. I'm curious to discover what it is to be human--it's our job as artists that we know ourselves more and so, through our art, we can make the world better. The other thing I want to do with my films is to create and develop new elements of cinema language. You can see that change already taking place with new mediums and influences. I'm not very comfortable talking about my films, in reality, I believe in the act of working and the eloquent power of the visual. It's your job to make sense of it all.