Nationality: Chinese. Born: Beijing, 12 August 1952; son of film director Chen Huai'ai. Education: Sent to work on a rubber plantation in Yunnan province to "learn from the people," as part of the Cultural Revolution, 1967; attended the Beijing Film Academy. Military Service: Served in Army. Career: Worked in film processing lab, Beijing, 1975–78, then studied at Beijing Film Academy, 1978–82; assigned to Beijing Film Studio, assistant to Huang Jianzhong; transferred (with Zhang Yimou and He Qun) to Guangxi Film Studios, and directed first feature, Huang Tudi', 1984. Awards: Berlin Film Festival Best Film and Locarno International Film Festival Silver Leopard, for Yellow Earth, 1984; Istanbul International Film Festival Golden Tulip, for Life on a String, 1991; Best Film (not in the English language) British Academy Award, Cannes Film Festival Golden Palm (tied with The Piano), and FIPRESCI Award, for Farewell My Concubine, 1993; Cannes Film Festival Technical Grand Prize, for The Emperor and the Assassin, 1999.
Films as Director:
Huang tu di (Yellow Earth) (+ co-sc); Qiang xing qi fei (Forced Take-Off) (for TV)
Da yue bing (The Big Parade) (released in 1987)
Hai zi wang (King of the Children)
Bian zou bian chang (Life on a String) (+ sc, song lyrics)
Ba wang bie ji (Farewell My Concubine)
Feng yue (Temptress Moon) (+ co-story)
Jing ke ci qin wang (The Assassin, The Emperor and the Assassin) (+ co-sc, exec pr, ro as Lu Buwei)
Killing Me Softly
The Last Emperor (Bertolucci) (ro as Captain of Imperial Guard)
Yang + Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema (Kwan) (doc) (ro as Interviewee)
By CHEN: articles—
Interview with Tony Rayns, in Time Out (London), 6 August 1986.
Interview in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1988.
Interview in Films and Filming (London), August 1988.
Interview with Don Ranvaud, in Guardian (London), 11 August 1988.
Interview in Time Out (London), 17 August 1988.
Interview with Jonathan Mirsky, in New Statesman and Society (London), 19 August 1988.
Interview in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), September 1988.
"La representation d'un reve," an interview with Hubert Noigret in Positif, March 1992.
Interview in Positif, November 1993.
"La longue marche," an interview with Laurent Tirard and Christophe d'Yvoire, in Studio Magazine (France), no. 80, 1993.
"It's All About Trust," interview with Tony Rayns, in CinemaPapers (Victoria, Australia), August 1996.
Interview with A. Pastor, in Filmcritica (Rome), September 1996.
"Shanghai Charade," an interview with Andrew O. Thompson, in American Cinematographer (Orange Drive), April 1997.
"Concubines and Temptresses," interview with K. Lally, in FilmJournal (New York), May 1997.
"Die Kunst ist wie der Wind und das Wasser," an interview with Stefan Kramer, in EPD Film (Frankfurt/Main), June 1997.
Interview with A. Lu., in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1997.
On CHEN: books—
Berry, Chris, editor, Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, New York, 1985.
Quiquemelle, Marie-Claire, and Jean-Loup Passek, Le Cinema chinois, Paris, 1985.
Armes, Roy, Third–World Filmmaking and the West, Berkeley, 1987.
Clark, Paul, Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics since 1949, Cambridge, 1987.
Semsel, George Stephen, editor, Chinese Film: The State of the Art inthe Chinese Republic, New York, 1987.
Berry, Chris, editor, Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, London, 1991.
On CHEN: articles—
Hitchcock, Peter, "The Question of the Relationship of the Intellectual to the State in post-Mao China and the Position of Women," in The Aesthetics of Alienation, or China's Fifth Generation, Cultural Studies, January 1992.
Richard, Fréderic, "L'amour, les mirages et l'histoire: Va vie sur un fil," Positif, March 1992.
Koch, Ulrike, "Le seul qui puisse voir: La vie sur un fil," in Positif, March 1992.
Rayns, Tony, "Nights at the Opera," in Sight and Sound, December 1992.
Noigret, Hubert, "Dossier sur Farewell My Concubine," in Positif, November 1993.
Zha Jianying, "Chen Kaige and the Shadows of the Revolution," in Sight and Sound (London), February 1994.
Chen, Pauline, "History Lessons," in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1994.
Kwok Wah Lau, Jenny, "Farewell My Concubine: History, Melodrama, and Ideology in Contemporary Pan-Chinese Cinema," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1995.
Rayns, Tony, "Motion and Emotion," in Sight and Sound (London), March 1996.
Xu, Ben, "Farewell My Concubine and Its Nativist Critics," in Quarterly Review of Film and Video (Reading), September 1997.
* * *
Chen Kaige is, with Zhang Yimou, the leading voice among the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, the first group of students to have graduated following the reopening of the Beijing Film Academy in 1978 after the depredations of the Cultural Revolution. As both a participant in (as a Red Guard he denounced his own father) and a victim of the Cultural Revolution (his secondary education was curtailed and, like the protagonist of King of the Children, he was sent to the country to "learn from the peasants"), Chen is particularly well-placed to voice concerns about history and identity.
The majority of his films constitute an intelligent and powerfully felt meditation on recent Chinese history, within which, for him, the Cultural Revolution remains a defining moment. "It made," he has said, "cultural hooligans of us." He has a reputation within China as a philosophical director, and his style is indeed marked by a laconic handling of narrative and a classical reticence. This is largely deceptive: underneath is an unyielding anger and unflinching integrity.
Chen in interviews has stressed the complementary nature of his first three films. Yellow Earth examines the relationship of "man and the land," The Big Parade looks at "the individual and the group," and King of the Children considers "man and culture." Yellow Earth seems to adopt the structure of the folk ballads that provide a focus for its narrative, with its long held shots and almost lapidary editing. The Big Parade alternates static parade ground shots with the chaos of barrack room life, while the third film mobilises a more rhetorical style of poetic realism. Together the films act as a triple rebuttal of any heroic reading of Maoism and the revolution, precisely by taking up subjects much used in propagandist art—the arrival of the People's Liberation Army in a village, the training of new recruits, the fate of the teacher sent to the country—and by refuting their simplifications and obfuscations, shot for shot, with quite trenchant deliberation. Attention in Yellow Earth is focused not on the Communist Army whose soldier arrives at the village collecting songs, but on the barren plateau from which the peasantry attempts to wring a meager existence. In the process the account of Yenan which sees it as the birthplace of Communism is marginalized. King of the Children banishes the bright-eyed pupils and spotless classrooms of propaganda in favour of a run-down schoolroom, graffitied and in disrepair, from which the social fabric seems to have fallen away. Likewise The Big Parade banishes heroics and exemplary characters in favour of a clear-eyed look at the cost of moulding the individual into the collective.
In Chen's films what is unsaid is as important as that which is said; indeed the act of silence becomes a potent force. The voiceless appear everywhere—the almost mute brother in Yellow Earth, the girl's unspoken fears for her marriage ("voiced" in song), the mute cowherd in King of the Children. In Yellow Earth the girl's voice is silenced by the force of nature as she drowns singing an anthem about the Communist Party. It is almost better, Chen implies, not to speak at all, than—as he suggests in King of the Children—to copy, to repeat, to "shout to make it right."
Life on a String, a leisurely allegory whose protagonists are an elderly blind musician and his young acolyte, has as tangible a sense of physical terrain as Yellow Earth. It also has an icy twist. Dedicatedly following his own master's instructions all his life, the old man finds himself, in the end, to have been duped. The film, fitting no fashionable niche, was largely ignored. With Farewell My Concubine Chen seems, superficially, to have taken a leaf from his rival Zhang Yimou's book. The film has lavish studio sets and costumes and features Zhang's favourite performer, Gong Li. Funded by Hong Kong actress Hsu Feng's Tomson Films and based on a melodramatic novel by Lilian Lee, the film traces the relationship between a young boy, sold by his prostitute mother into the brutal regime of the Peking Opera School in 1920s China, and an older, tougher boy. Deiyi is destined to play female roles, and before he is accepted he undergoes a symbolic castration. The title is taken from the title of the opera in which they make their names—set during the last days of the reign of King Chu. The film follows their fortunes up to 1977, the end of the Cultural Revolution, and closes on a note of betrayal and sacrifice. Scrupulously performed, finely filmed, the subject allows its director scope to investigate the tortuous intersection of performance, identity, self, gender, and history.
Farewell My Concubine is one of a number of Chen's films that depict the indoctrination and degradation of children by those who should be loving and responsible. Such also is the case in Temptress Moon, which tells the story of a brother and sister who are introduced to opium by their father. The film may be set during the precommunist 1920s, yet it clearly is allegorical in that the father's irresponsibility symbolizes a present-day political machine that has so often callously abused its citizenry. The Emperor and the Assassin is set even farther back in Chinese history—the third century B.C.—yet it too tells a story with contemporary reverberations. It is the based-on-fact account of Ying Zheng, a manipulative, increasingly ruthless ruler who is intent on taking over the country's other kingdoms, and becoming the initial Chinese emperor. Ying Zheng might be viewed as the counterpart of Mao. Furthermore, his story, as presented here, could be a camouflaged allegory mirroring the failure of the Cultural Revolution.
Unsurprisingly Chen's films have met with varying degrees of disapproval from the official regime. Yellow Earth was criticised in an anti-elitist policy. The Big Parade had its final sequence cut and ends with sounds of the eponymous parade in Tianenmen Square over an empty shot. Life on a String and Temptress Moon were banned. Farewell My Concubine was shown, withdrawn, then shown again. The Emperor and the Assassin initially was rejected by the censors; roughly 30 minutes of footage reportedly were excised to make it more "regime friendly." To young filmmakers in China Chen's work, and that of other Fifth Generation directors, can seem academic or irrelevant. To the rest of us, the care with which Chen Kaige observes his protagonists' struggles for integrity amid lethally shifting political tides makes for a perennially relevant body of work.
—Verina Glaessner, updated by Rob Edelman