Temptress Money

Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige meets the changing market halfway

In April 1998 China's most acclaimed filmmaker, Chen Kaige, received an unexpected visitor: U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. After an abbreviated screening of Chen's Farewell My Concubine, the director and the politico went for a stroll around the scale-model imperial palace that Chen had commissioned for his latest effort, The Emperor and the Assassin. They spoke of censorship and financing in China. Eventually the conversation turned to America's cultural exports, and Albright and Chen discovered their common ground: They both hated Titanic. While Albright's visit did not evince a shift in Sino-U.S. relations, it was a significant marker both of Chen's stature as a cultural figure--would Jiang Zemin pay Steven Spielberg a friendly visit on the set?--and of the ever-expanding range of the American blockbuster, the grossest of our domestic products.

Stranger still is the fact that, two years later, Chen has come to the U.S. to plug his own brand of Cameronesque excess: a sprawling historical epic, which, with its 200,000 aggregate extras, stuntmen, and horses, is purportedly the most expensive film ever produced in Asia. At the same time, the champion of the "Fifth Generation" of Chinese filmmakers (a group that also includes Raise the Red Lantern's Zhang Yimou and The Blue Kite's Tian Zhuangzhuang) is subtly deflecting rumors that he is defecting to the greener pastures--and paychecks--of Hollywood. "As a director, I don't believe in personal style," Chen explains, skeptically eyeing a lunch menu at the Nicollet Island Inn. "Maybe some people will think that Chen Kaige was influenced by Hollywood movies. In China today, filmmaking is different with the market economy. I have to consider both artistic and commercial value. Otherwise you do a pure art-house movie, and maybe you can't raise any money for your next project."

Raising currency is a relatively novel concern for Chinese filmmakers, who have contended in the past mostly with government censors and foreign imports. In the bad old days, directors were divided between the many, who conformed to party dogma and made unwatchable propaganda films, and the few, who defied conformity to make unwatched dissident films. In 1985, it was Chen who, as a recent graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, introduced the world to Chinese cinema with Yellow Earth, a searing rural tragedy played out in the desolate foothills of Shaanxi Province. As much as Yellow Earth announced the arrival of a new film industry, however, it also marked ground zero for Chen's career. "I wish I could go back to where I was when I was doing Yellow Earth," he says thoughtfully. "But time runs on. Things change. I'm different, too. I really hope that I can do that kind of movie in the future, but I really doubt it. I don't think I can just become who I was a long time ago."

Yellow earth and greener pastures: Chen Kaige filming The Emperor and the Assassin
Yellow earth and greener pastures: Chen Kaige filming The Emperor and the Assassin

Which raises the question: Who is Chen today? At 48, he cuts a patrician figure (he cast himself to type as a stoic prime minister in The Emperor and the Assassin). On the evidence of his latest film, which scrutinizes China's founding myth through a political yet dispassionate lens, he is a director reconciled to the myriad challenges of making art in a closed society. He is philosophical about the controversy surrounding his films, almost all of which remain banned in his homeland. "This is like a silent agreement with the censors," he explains. "Like what the English say about the elephant in the living room. You never ask why. There's no reason. I don't even bother to ask anymore, because you don't even think you can get an answer.

"This is a very special moment in my career, because I finally told people what I think about the system: where it comes from, how it works in society, [and] what we can do about it in the future," he continues. "I think the Fifth Generation used to be an artistic movement. Where we came from is the Cultural Revolution. [Chen was himself "sent down" for reeducation on a rural plantation.] We share the same life experience, but we have different views of art. Some people are very successful commercially and believe in the market economy, while others continue to ignore the market to do something artistic." He pauses for a moment. "But I feel a little confused, because I'm not a money-maker. I still believe you must consider movies as art. You must relate to the project and have a passion for it."

The director's confusion seems, at some level, to mirror that of a China shifting uneasily between the stasis of a command economy and the capriciousness of the free market. Chen, however, has always managed to maintain something of a dissident spirit, working just off to the side of--and strangely in step with--the cultural moment. After the scorched Yellow Earth, he turned to muted, semiobscurantist allegories such as The Big Parade. Then, anticipating China's emergence onto the world stage, he made two lush period dramas, both of which track the tumultuous sweep of 20th-century Chinese history. With its literary allusiveness, its decidedly exotic evocation of Chinese culture, and its broad operatics, Farewell My Concubine announced Chen as a director with international sensibilities. Even more, the narcotized haze of last year's Temptress Moon seemed an overture to overseas audiences hungry for something foreign, yet not too political. (Surprisingly, the latter was banned in the PRC and heavily edited by Miramax for U.S. release on account of being "too abstract"; the market, too, has its censors.) After a decade of producing films about China that Chinese people would never see, Chen appeared ready to resign himself to foreign audiences and international acclaim.

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