It was only a matter of time before Chen Kaige, the child of a film director and an actress, pissed off the authorities in China. His fascination with sex, opium, costumes, and the individual in society exposed him as a romantic... [more]
It was only a matter of time before Chen Kaige, the child of a film director and an actress, pissed off the authorities in China. His fascination with sex, opium, costumes, and the individual in society exposed him as a romantic and a maverick. Chen's characters burst at the seams with personality. Pitted against the conformity of either Communism or Confucian society, these characters can't help but meet a tragic end.
His first film, "Yellow Earth" (1984), features a young soldier sent off into the countryside to gather heroic folk songs from the farmers. Not surprisingly, the farmers are the same as workers everywhere and sing about lousy weather, lousy prices, and all the other things that bother them. Of course, the soldier gets in trouble when he returns to his superiors with the wrong material. It's not hard to figure out that Chen identifies with his protagonist: he's the artist bringing back conflicting news from the real world.
"Yellow Earth," whose cinematographer was well-known director Zhang Yimou, caught international attention. It marked a turning point in Chinese film, which had been suffering from stiff operatic theatricals and social-realist themes. Chen's next several films drew less attention, but "Farewell, My Concubine" (1993) righted his career. The over-the-top, beautifully costumed film recounts the story of two male Chinese opera stars who fall in love with the same woman. Featuring the renowned actresses Gong Li and Leslie Cheung, the film departed from Chen's earlier art-house aesthetic and instead aimed at commercial success.
Li also starred in "Temptress Moon" (1996), which draws parallels between the China of the '20s and the China of today. Li's character is an obvious symbol for the soul of China (as well as, again, for the soul of the artist) in a time of transition. She "is ultimately destroyed because she is too honest," Chen has said.
The more recent "The Emperor and the Assassin" is a huge, ornate production that tells the story of an Emperor's concubine against the backdrop of the mega-wars that created China. All of these films are at once personal studies and lush epics. They are also primers of Chinese history that don't really accord with the party line, especially since they contain coded messages about contemporary society. It's no wonder that Chen and his fellow Fifth Generation filmmakers are in disfavor with the government; it's equally apparent why the rest of the film world has adopted these intrepid artists. [show less]