Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Chen Kaige

Lax and Violins

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Chen Kaige no longer feels the need to change the world.

Married for seven years with two kids (ages six and three), he has finally settled down with a gentle new film that does not feature a cast of thousands and does not rage against the injustices of the world. Together opens Friday in Bay Area theaters.

Together spins the tale of a talented 13 year-old violinist, Xiaochun (Tang Yun), who lives in the country with his father, Lui Cheng (Liu Peiqi). Together they travel to Beijing to find a teacher -- a nearly impossible task because they were not born into privilege.

At first a ragtag, shopworn professor Professor Jiang (Wang Zhiwen) gives the young prodigy a chance, and they wind up helping each other. And then Xiaochun's talent allows him to move onto a big-time teacher (played by Chen himself) and his first possible path to success.

The film has generally pleased audiences all over the world, and it finished as first runner-up for the Audience Award at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival, but Chen's longtime fans will notice the radical departure.

Chen, 50, experienced what he calls a "perfect childhood," living under the rule of Chairman Mao Zedong. "I didn't even notice that Chairman Mao was a fat man," Chen says during a recent visit to San Francisco. "To us he was just perfect."

During those years, Chinese films were mostly colorful costumers designed for entertainment and little else; Chen's father even made a few of them. After Mao's reign ended and his successor Deng Xiaopeng re-opened many of Beijing's schools and academies, Chen joined the Beijing Film Academy.

"The good news about the BFA that year is that the professors and teachers didn't teach anyone for almost ten years, so they were pretty open to different kinds of work," Chen says. Chen and his colleagues took the bus to the film archive and studied the great works from Japan, Russia, Europe and the U.S.

When Chen came to make his first film, he thought about all he had seen and lived through. "We had to focus on certain movies that reflected what happened in the past, because the history of the last 200 years of china was a very dark and life was miserable. And if you want to be really honest with yourself you cannot really ignore that by saying 'everything's perfect.'"

And so Chen's first film was Yellow Earth (1984), with its frank political talk and realistic staging, and despite poor local distribution, it succeeded wildly at international film festivals and became a landmark in Chinese cinema. The film's cinematographer, Zhang Yimou, went on to become an equally admired director, and together, with the rest of their Beijing Film Academy class, became known as the "Fifth Generation."

Chen followed up his hit with more and bigger political epics: Farewell My Concubine, Temptress Moon, The Emperor and the Assassin, etc, and wound up with more acclaim and even an Oscar nomination for Concubine.

But Together shows something new in Chen's life, a kind of contentment, perhaps. "The situation is very different from 20 years ago. Now things are better," Chen says. "In the past, we didn't even know the real meaning of being happy. Now the Chinese have some idea."

Chen says that money also has something to do with it. "Now you have to survive in the market, no matter what. You can't make a movie that will never be shown."

The director has also made Together a family affair, casting his wife Chen Hong as the gold-digger Lili, whom Xiaochun develops a crush on, and also enlisted her services as producer.

"I'm a very demanding director," Chen says. "I can be very tough. I told her she could argue with me as an actress, but she couldn't argue with me as a producer -- because I'm the boss." He laughs. "We did very well on this project."

As for directing himself in the part of the big city violin professor, "that's no fun. I'm not really an actor. Because I couldn't find the right person for this part, I just sort of did it. I got some advice on how to do the part, but sometimes I wasn't very comfortable with myself. Every time I finished a take and I would come back in front of the monitor. I would ask for opinions and they would give me an unclear response."

Chen says he still gets together once in a while with his Fifth Generation friends. "We just had a party for 20 years passed," he says, shaking his head at how fast the years flew by. "We're still talking to each other. We see each other and have dinner. Now people are taking different directions."

And now a new, so-called Sixth Generation is beginning to rear its head, with filmmakers such as Lou Ye (Suzhou River) and Jia Zhang-ke (Unknown Pleasures). Chen has seen some of their films and admires their technique but says that they still have things to learn.

He remarks that both Lou and Jia have shown their films in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, something Chen has done five times. Chen also made the very first Chinese film to receive such an honor.

It's an achievement that makes Chen proud. "We are no longer considered the culture that's difficult to understand."

May 23, 2003

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