denounced my father, it was a terrible thing;
it was a terrible time.”
is a gravitas in director Chen Kaige’s voice as he relates
how as a teenage boy, he was pressured by school authorities to condemn
his father - a noted filmmaker - as a creator of subversive art. It
was the height of China’s Cultural Revolution and the wholesale house
cleaning of the arts by Madame Mao was relentless and unsparing.
read about the incident and hadn’t planned to probe that sore, but
Chen, a tall, composed figure with the air of someone who has traveled
far both literally and figuratively, cannot stop himself from reliving
that part of his past.
I remember most is coming home afterwards. I waited until very late
when everyone would be asleep. I crept in and went through the three
rooms in the apartment to my bed. I was too ashamed to speak to anyone.”
next morning he saw his father but they did not speak and scarcely
made eye contact. His father finished his breakfast and went back
to a confinement camp and re-education program. For years, he would
be allowed to come home to his family once a week, but even after
the policies of the period evaporated, he was never to make another
took a long time for us to become close,” says Chen. “He was very
helpful with advice when I began to make movies but certain things
never healed and I will live with that all my life.”
self-trained as a filmmaker, had received modest international acclaim
for such films as Yellow Earth and The Big Parade in
the 1980s. However, he professes emptiness that his father died just
prior to his winning the Palme d’or in Cannes for Farewell, My
Concubine in 1993.
his latest film, Together, he explores two things that border
on personal obsessions: music and the relation between fathers and
sons. In this instance he focus on a violin prodigy from the provinces
whose father recognizes that his talent can only be realized in the
big city with professional supervision. Though great sacrifice is
required, the single parent will go to extremes to provide his boy
with the opportunity for a better life.
story, which Chen co-wrote, is, he freely admits, part autobiographical
and hopefully cathartic. Though he briefly studied the violin and
is credited with some of the film’s music compositions, he chuckles
at the notion of himself as a musician.
have, I think, a highly defined sense of music but I am not a good
musician,” he insists. “One can find solace in music … and healing.
You must understand that during the Cultural Revolution all but the
most patriotic of music was banned. It was a crime, certainly to have
music from the west, but also the classics.”
can still vividly recall a friend with a record player and a cache
of outlawed vinyl and how they would lock themselves up in a closet
and listen to the discs. Though almost 40 years have past, he describes
how he began to weep upon hearing Beethoven’s music for the first
time as if it were yesterday.
I ask him if he’d seen The Red Violin whose Chinese segment
set during the Cultural Revolution appears to mirror his experience,
he immediately bursts into a broad smile and talks of his admiration
and enjoyment of the film. Did the Canadian filmmakers get it right?
Chen simply responds with a demonstrative nod.
is also about modern China, a country dragging itself out of a feudal
past and a brutal legacy of physical and emotional scars into a position
of global prominence. Following several period pieces and a foray
into English filmmaking (Killing Me Softly with Heather
Graham and Joseph Fiennes which went directly to cable
and video in the U.S.), he says he needed to do a contemporary story
is a country that has no past,” he avers. “Political regimes systematically
robbed us of history and it’s only now that we are beginning to get
it back. My wife (who played Lili in Together and co-produced
the film) who is 20 years younger than me has no comprehension of
much of the repression that went on for decades.”
sees attitudes changing as the country opens its doors to the outside
world. On a promotional tour for the film’s release in Japan, he took
along its young lead Tang Yun who’s become a popular musical
figure since the release of the film.
interviewer asked how true the story was and the boy said he would
never give up his professional goals for the sake of family. I was
dumbstruck. There wasn’t even a trace of doubt or struggle.”
considers himself quite lucky to have sidestepped major trouble with
government censors. Though he wouldn’t call himself an overtly political
filmmaker, his views are strong and evident even if cloaked in period
allegory. Still, he’s seen his colleague Zhang Yimou acclaimed
internationally for films that are still banned in China.
mentions Blind Shaft - a tragic tale of a mining disaster caused
by government indifference to safe working conditions - awarded the
top prize at the most recent Berlin festival. He suspects it was financed
through foreign sales and that its filmmakers never bothered to submit
a script because they knew it would not be approved. There’s been
no recognition of the film’s achievement and it will not play in any
of the country’s movie theaters. He believes that almost half the
movies made in China are produced clandestinely.
me, the project I would most like to do someday would be about the
Cultural Revolution. I’ve never bothered to come up with a story because
no film on that subject would ever be sanctioned today. But tomorrow
things might be different.”