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."
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.
For those who saw Chen's coalescing style as that of a maker of opulent soap operas--a mainland Wayne Wang--The Emperor and the Assassin will prove a frustrating surprise. This is a cold, vast film that makes even the most remote scene in Yellow Earth--a lone soldier dwarfed by the bleached dunes of western China--seem as intimate as a vacation postcard by comparison. While evincing a tonal departure, though, Chen's latest maintains the director's signature iconoclasm; he is an artist, after all, for whom defying conformity is tantamount to defying authority. "I don't think people are really interested in politics," he muses. "But I was one who really witnessed a lot of terrible things, [so] there's almost an obligation to do this kind of movie."
On the surface, at least, The Emperor and the Assassin is Chen's most political film. Set in the Third Century B.C.E., and mounted with immaculate period detail, the story recounts the rise of China's first emperor, the mercurial Yin Zheng (Li Xuejian). The emperor Qin, as he is commonly known, united the seven kingdoms by hostile takeover and now holds a place in Chinese history analogous to that of Julius Caesar in the Occident. Chen makes no excuses for the emperor's Machiavellianism; indeed, his Third Century makes the Twentieth, with its Great Leaps Forward and Tiananmen Squares, look like a glass of lemonade on a lazy summer afternoon. And although the emperor also makes the Gang of Four seem like a centrist tea party, Chen draws none-too-subtle parallels between the founder of China's dictatorship and the founder of the dictatorship of the proletariat (who, coincidentally, bragged about outdoing the emperor in the number of scholars buried during his reign).
Amid the slaughters, sieges, and DeMillean cavalry maneuvers, Chen also delves into the intricacies of court life, which turns out to be something like Shakespeare filtered through Kurosawa. Along with the emperor and a scheming marquis (Wang Zhiwen), there is a loyal concubine, played by Gong Li, who hires an assassin named Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi) to kill her king. The plot, which is as familiar to Chinese as the ides of March is to Westerners, does not carry the same dramatic weight as the domestic intrigues of Temptress Moon or Farewell My Concubine, yet, like the former film, the court scenes benefit immeasurably from the presence of Gong Li. She is a paralyzingly beautiful actress--as in, Don't operate heavy machinery within two hours of viewing--and has, for good reason, become something of a muse for modern Chinese directors. She is the mainland's first proper matinee goddess.
According to Chen, the retelling of China's founding mythology as a tale of corrupted power and heedless violence is a corrective to the patriotism of previous films about the emperor. "I must say there are a lot of assassinations in Chinese history, but very few of them have anything to do with justice. He [Jing Ke] didn't do this for money. He realized he would die. It didn't matter whether he would succeed. So we should regard him as a hero who would stand up to an emperor and a strong military force, stand up to the most powerful person in the world and say, 'No.'"
Oddly, however, Chen's politicized epic has thus far failed to stir much controversy in China. The Emperor and the Assassin is, in fact, the first of his films to slip by the censors unedited and unbanned. This, too, presents a new problem for the director, who, having acted for years in opposition to the system, must now compete within the market long denied him. Public indifference and splashier American films filtering into China, in other words, now threaten to mute him where government censors could not. "I think the review is mixed," he says with a shrug. "[The film] is doing quite well in Japan and some European countries. Money-wise, it's not so great in China. Some people really like it. To me, it's not a big deal because I grew up with this curse. Some people always criticize me. I'm happy to hear that."
In a perverse way, to go uncensored in China may ultimately force Chen and his fellow Fifth Generation agitators to conform to the new demands of the market--to compete with the foreign blockbusters they despise. It seems significant and somehow not particularly promising that The Emperor and the Assassin became the first film in history to have its premiere in the Great Hall of the People, the cavernous seat of China's politburo. It seems significant as well that the Great Hall is almost perfectly equidistant from the Heavenly Gate of the Forbidden City--eternal symbol of China's history--and the spot in Tiananmen Square where, ten years ago, students tried to shout down PLA tanks. Like China itself, Chen now stands at a historical crossroads, balanced between honoring the ghosts of the past and plunging toward an uncertain future.
The Emperor and the Assassin is playing at the Uptown Theatre, and starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.
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