Frankie G
Eugene Levy
Christopher Guest
Dennie Gordon &
...Dawn Taubin

Steve James
Lisa Cholodenko

Gary Dretzka
..Leonard Klady
..David Poland
..Ray Pride
..Patricia Vidal





May 31, 2003

“I denounced my father, it was a terrible thing;
it was a terrible time.”

There 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.

I’d 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.

“What 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.”

The 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 film.

“It 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.”

Chen, 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.

In 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.

The 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.

“I 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.”

He 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.

When 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.

Together 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 in China.

“It 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.”

He 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.

“An 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.”

Chen 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.

He 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. 

“For 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.”

Together Review

- Email Leonard Klady

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