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[whitespace] Now and Chen: Fifth-generation Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige jaws about his whopping third century BC saga.


The Journalist and the Director

Director Chen Kaige discusses cinematic compromise and epics

By T.I. Miami

Chen Kaige's latest movie, The Emperor and the Assassin, is both the most expensive movie ever made in Asia and one of the most gorgeous made anywhere. It tells the tale of Ying Zheng, first emperor of China, whose efforts to unite all seven kingdoms led to several counterplots, including fake assassinations, two failed coups and some not-so-distant atrocities. Divided, in this version (see below), into five chapters, it is sumptuous, enameled and elliptically violent. Rarely are epics ever this lean.

Did you find that this tale of intrigue more or less adapted itself to epic format?

There's the historical story. I worked with another writer to knock out the script. There are two versions of this film. The one shown in Japan is probably five or eight minutes longer than this one. There are no "chapters" [in that version].

So this is a concession to Western modes?

We showed the Japanese version to European distributors; they think that more changes were needed. They ask me to do them--but you can't always please to each country's distributors. I received faxes from every country, even the former Soviet Union.

I remember feeling that Temptress Moon was overcut and oversubtitled.

Well, Temptress Moon was released here by Miramax. Their reputation precedes them. [The cutting] was rough, and in the process one of the important shots of the movie was lost: a steadicam shot of the Gong Li character holding a map, walking through her entire house.

How did you meet Christopher Doyle [cinematographer on Temptress Moon and Gus Van Sant's Psycho]?

My DP [Changwei Gu] was not available at the time, having just moved to L.A. I told Chris that it was his turn and he'd always wanted to work with me anyway.

Did he generally work faster?

He's good, but he's not really faster. I think the reason [I] wanted to work with him [is] because he is a foreigner, seeing light differently. He did pretty well--a real artist, very anti-Hollywood at the time. That's why I'm surprised that he's here, making films in the States. But he is good. His only problem is that he drinks too much.

How much has changed for mainland Chinese film since the 1997 Hong Kong turnover?

I don't see a lot of change. The fact is that quite a long time ago, Hong Kong movies used to saturate the [mainland] Chinese market. But now, the industry there isn't doing very well. You probably hardly see any HK films stateside. They were considered foreign films, too, in China.

How have the subtitling regulations changed?

Well, because most people in China don't understand Cantonese, they dub films now.

Will you continue to work with Gong Li?

Depends on the story. She is without a doubt a very good actress. I just want to make sure that I have enough control the next time we work together. I am generally opposed to the idea of living a very comfortable life, as she does. She lives in a huge apartment in Hong Kong, married to one of the big tobacco men. I don't like it because as an artist or actress, one has to suffer a little bit, whether materially or spiritually. She has a unique set of problems. She doesn't speak any other languages. She's one of the more expensive actresses in Asia, so fewer people are able to work with her anymore for that reason.

In what regard do you hold Kurosawa?

Of course, I admire him as a film master. In doing The Emperor and the Assassin, I had to forget everything I thought I'd learned from him. We have a very different approach, for instance, to battle sequences. I was a soldier and I knew war firsthand. But each scene demands a rethinking of the space, so I have to usually lock myself in a very small room and visualize everything that way. Less violent, and more emotional and even operatic.

How did you come to appear in your own film [as scholar Lu Buwei]?

I had already cast two actors as that character. Both were presenting me with their own style, neither of which was totally right. Then, I told myself finally that I wanted to do this part. But directing yourself is probably one of the hardest things in the world. And while I was dressed on the set, I couldn't help thinking of my father. The scene was one of the most emotional in the movie. The actor who plays the Emperor walks up to me during it, when the camera was off. I saw the tears appear in his eyes. And he looks at me and asks me if I am thinking of my own father. And I was shocked and asked how he knew. He said that he was thinking of the same thing. So everything was very quiet on the set and we sat that way for awhile.

How do you address Stanley Kwan's criticism [in the BFI documentary Yang/Yin: Gender In Chinese Cinema] of your Farewell, My Concubine adaptation? Specifically the implication that it was homophobic. ...

I saw the film and liked it. That documentary was the forum for me to tell the truth, to tell how I feel about sexuality in the movies. I really respect Stanley's work and his approach. But at the same time, I have to tell the truth. It's not really easy for me to be a director. I still want to make films that can be seen in the West. After Farewell, My Concubine, the Western critics kind of turn on me in time for Temptress Moon.

Why is that?

Everyone inside of them eventually faces the option of escaping, or escapism. That's what Temptress Moon addressed, especially the last part in the opium den. People are always asking me, "Why don't you do a film about contemporary China?" The pressure that I am under from Chinese authorities forces me into staying in period movies. I don't want to cause trouble, especially since money isn't a problem.

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From the January 24, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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