The Revolutionary and the Artist: The Films of Chen Kaige on DVD

The Director
Chen Kaige was born August 12 1952 in Beijing, China, the son of veteran filmmaker Chen Huaikai. During the Cultural Revolution of 1965-68, he was sent down to be "re-educated", working with the peasants as a forest worker in a rubber plantation. At the age of fifteen, he became a member of Mao's Red Guard and publicly denounced his own father as a counter-revolutionary. He has written about this experience in an autobiography - My Life and Times As A Red Guard (1991). In 1978 he joined the Peking Film Academy.

Yellow Earth (1984)
The Big Parade (1985)
King Of The Children (1987)
Life On A String (1991)
Farewell My Concubine (1993)
Temptress Moon (1996)
The Emperor And The Assassin (1999)
Killing Me Softly (2002)
Together (2002)
Ten Minutes Later: The Trumpet (2002) (segment 100 Flowers Hidden Deep)
The Promise (2005)

Selected Awards
Yellow Earth – Best Director, London Film Festival (1984)
Big Parade – Special Jury Prize, Montreal Film Festival (1985)
Farewell My Concubine – Academy Award Nomination, Best Foreign Film (1993)
Farewell My Concubine – British Academy Award Nomination
Farewell My Concubine – Golden Globe Winner, Best Foreign Film (1993)
Farewell My Concubine – International Critics Prize and Golden Palm Winner, Cannes (1993)
Farewell My Concubine – New York Film Critics Circle (1993)

The Revolutionary and the Artist

Chen Kaige has been remarkably consistent with themes and in the purpose of his films. Music, for example, plays an important role in many of his films. His desire to bring the world's attention to the cultural richness of Chinese folk songs and opera is imbued throughout Yellow Earth (a Red Guard collects folk songs from the peasants in a remote Chinese village), Life On A String (a blind holy man seeking enlightenment plays a banjo and sings for the peasants of a remote Mongolian village) and Farewell My Concubine (the story of two Beijing opera singers set against the turmoil of Chinese history). It is in his 2002 film, Together, the story of a young violinist, that he most clearly explores the nature of musical expression and the liberating force it holds for him.

Politics and the defining of a national identity is another theme frequently explored, quite directly in his early films. The Big Parade is about a group Red Army training for the National Day parade in Tiananmen Square, while The King Of The Children and Yellow Earth examine how the Cultural Revolution affected the lives of ordinary people in China. The politics have a more epic dimension in Farewell My Concubine, sweeping the characters along on a tide of change and revolution. Even the powerful Pang household, in the family intrigue and power-play of Temptress Moon, are not immune to the far-reaching reforms of cultural revolution. Most directly, Chen turns to historical drama in The Emperor and the Assassin, the story of the first Emperor of China, the man whose vision lead to the creation of the Chinese nation.

What sets Chen's films above any other Chinese director's treatment of these subjects however, is the director's personal perspective and goals. Chen's personal experience of the political change in China has fuelled a desire to make a difference through his films - celebrating tradition, art, music and culture and using them to enrich people's lives. In a 1994 Empire interview he says, "It is difficult, but I believe that eventually our work will benefit the Chinese people". This theme of trying to reconcile the spirituality of artistic creativity with a need to make a concrete material difference to people's lives through political change is a constant source of conflict that the director has constantly addressed in his films. Chen described Life On A String as being made "in the hope of a better future, not only for the Chinese, but for the world". In Farewell My Concubine he manages to reconcile this political and humanitarian sensibility superbly. The uncompromising depiction and implicit criticism of the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution in this film unsurprisingly led to its banning in his home country. He knows it is not nearly enough, but he clearly wants to make a difference in the only way he knows how - as a film director.
"There is economic reform, but I worry about the cultural situation: we are poor people but we are going to be poor people with a lot of money in the future if we don't try to improve the quality of people culturally. That's why I want to continue. Besides, I realise I don't have any other choice – that's what makes my life, my work more significant". This is a theme the director confronts directly in his 10-minute segment of the portmanteau film, Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet, 100 Flowers Hidden Deep, where he agonises over the conflict between the necessity of China to be economically self-sufficient for the good of its people, and the loss to the country’s historical and cultural heritage that this will entail.

This struggle to reconcile the spiritual and the material often leads to conflict and betrayal in his films between master and disciple, father and son, between family, friends and lovers. This dualistic conflict is often portrayed in his films as the rebellion of youth, turning against one's father or master – abandoning the spiritual and cultural for the material needs of the individual and the betterment of people's lives through social and political change. In Life On A String, Shidou finds the love of a young girl more important than learning the craft of banjo playing from his Master. A similar situation occurs in Together where Chun is willing to give up his gifted musical talent against his fathers wishes, in order to make a gesture of love towards a beautiful neighbour. In Farewell My Concubine, echoing real-life events for the director, a young man publicly denounces his adopted parents as enemies of the people because of their dedication to the art of opera performance. This same conflict and striving for a balance is apparent in many of the director's films, never more clearly than in The Emperor and The Assassin, where King Ying Zhang's desire is to unite and rule the whole of China for the good of everyone. His mistress, Lady Zhao however, finds that this power has corrupted the king and hires an assassin to kill the man she loves. In another telling example of betrayal in the same film, Chen, in a rare acting role, plays the Prime Minister who is betrayed by his son, King Ying Zhang – as if by taking on such a role, he remarks in the DVD commentary, he can understand the betrayal of a father by his own son.

Aside from personal themes and underlying political commentary, there is much to admire in Chen Kaige's filmmaking style, which is strikingly different in style and technique from European or American filmmaking. Almost without exception, (I've still to come to Killing Me Softly though), every element of the filmmaking process is craftsmanship at its highest level. It is to Chen's credit that he is able to harness all these different elements of production, filming, editing, acting and storytelling in service of a genuine artistic and humanitarian purpose - putting across a personal as well as a universal message for audiences world-wide.

Of late, his step appears to have faltered, as he tries to expand his range, making his first English language film in 2002, the disastrously received erotic murder-mystery thriller, Killing Me Softly. This desire to expand and experiment with other types of film and other genres is admirable, but obviously involves a loss of personal control and different working methods that, until the making of The Promise, the director clearly has had difficulties coming to terms with. Also made in 2002, Together was seen by many as an attempt to apply Hollywood sensibilities to Chinese cinema in order to make it more appealing to a western audience, yet is remains a moving film, as personal as any of his other films, if not as elaborate and enigmatic. Perhaps this latest challenge, the conflict between personal filmmaking and commercial concerns, the problems with applying an Asian sensibility to western-style filmmaking, will take Chen Kaige into new directions and greater achievements. In a recent interview he says:
"There are two things that I'm trying to do in my films: I'm trying to be sensitive about human nature. I'm curious to discover what it is to be human--it's our job as artists that we know ourselves more and so, through our art, we can make the world better. The other thing I want to do with my films is to create and develop new elements of cinema language."
That philosophy may be what drove the director to make his latest film The Promise, a CGI-laden epic fantasy, that has little in common with the themes of Chen Kaige’s previous films, but certainly takes filmmaking to new levels and new audiences. With a constant desire to develop, evolve and expand the capabilities of filmmaking, while keeping it entertaining and anchored in matters of human interest, there is little doubt that – regardless of a few stumbles along the way – the cinema of Chen Kaige will continue to find and challenge a growing international audience.

Chen Kaige: Films on DVD
Yellow Earth (1984)

Chen Kaige's first full feature film is an undoubted masterpiece. Set in 1939, a Red Army soldier visits a remote village to collect traditional folk songs that will be used as Maoist propaganda marching songs. His appearance inspires a young girl, Cuiqiao to seek a life outside the role that her gender and class have mapped out for her. Zhang Yimou worked as cinematographer on this film and The Big Parade before going on to an equally high profile international career as the director of Raise The Red Lantern (1991), The Road Home (1999) and most recently, Hero (2002).
Yellow Earth doesn't appear on DVD anywhere at present, but it is available on VCD. The VCD is of average quality, has fixed English and Chinese subtitles and is not really any better than VHS, with quite a bit of blocking and artefacting. It is certainly watchable though and will do in the absence (and unlikelihood) of a forthcoming US or UK DVD release.

Life On A String (1991)

A blind holyman plays his banjo for the people of a remote Mongolian village. He believes that once he has broken his 1000th string, his sight will be restored, but he is an old man and the ways of the world place too many stresses on him.
The non-anamorphic Kino Region 0 DVD release isn't great quality, but is the only version of the film available on DVD. It has been reviewed for DVDTimes here -> Life On A String.

Farewell My Concubine (1993)

Chen Kaige's most successful and best-known film was nominated for the Best Foreign film at the 1993 Oscars. The recently deceased Leslie Cheung stars in one of his most iconic and challenging roles, performing the role of Concubine Yu in the Beijing opera of the film's title. Covering six decades of Chinese history, the film is an epic piece of cinema.
There are three very different releases of Farewell My Concubine. The Hong Kong Ocean Shores Region 0 release is non-anamorphic and of lesser quality to the Korean Region 3 or the US Region 1 releases.
The Korean Infinity R3 DVD release has been reviewed for DVDTimes with a full comparison to the Miramax Region 1 release here -> Farewell My Concubine.

Temptress Moon (1996)

On initial viewing, Temptress Moon may seem a little disappointing and of a lesser scale to the two epics it comes between, but in reality this story of the downfall of the Pang household is a complex web of political intrigue, conflict, betrayal and tragedy. Featuring strong acting performances from Gong Li and Leslie Cheung and beautiful cinematography from Christopher Doyle, the film weaves a rich tapestry of emotions, again demonstrating themes consistent with the director's other films.
I haven't seen the Mei Ah Hong Kong Region 0 release, but I think I can safely say that it is unlikely to match the excellent transfer the US Region 1 release. The Region 1 DVD release has been reviewed for DVDTimes here -> Temptress Moon.

The Emperor And The Assassin (1999)

A far more serious treatment of the legend of the First Emperor of China than Zhang Yimou's martial arts version in Hero, The Emperor and the Assassin can be heavy going at times, but is another remarkable treatment of political and family intrigue with spectacular cinematography.
There are various versions of the film available world-wide on DVD, mostly distributed by Columbia Tristar, so they are all fairly alike. The Hong Kong Region 0 is a flipper and non-anamorphic, but the picture quality is reasonable and it has 5.1 sound. The Region 2 DVD release contains a marvellous director's commentary and has been reviewed on DVDTimes with a Region 1 comparison here -> The Emperor and the Assassin.

Killing Me Softly (2002)

Chen Kaige's first English language film features Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes in a ludicrous murder-mystery thriller of sexual obsession.
The US Region 1 comes in 'R'-rated and Unrated versions. The Region 2 DVD release contains the full cut of the film and has been reviewed on DVDTimes here -> Killing Me Softly.

Together (2002)

Together is based on a true story of a talented young violinist from the provinces brought to the big city by his father to develop his musical skills. On the way he has to make some tough decisions and learns some lessons about life. Chen adopts a softer, more accessible approach here, closer to Zhang Yimou’s stories of ordinary peasant folk, yet the director’s personal concerns and themes are clearly evident, particularly through the invigorating and moving musical performances in the film
There are quite a few international versions of the film available on DVD. A Chinese Region 0 version of the film presents a good picture with English subtitles and is quite inexpensive, but is non-anamorphic. The Korean release does not include English subtitles. The Canadian Lion Gate Region 1 release has some serious problems with subtitles and sound. The Momentum UK Region 2 release has fixed subtitles and only a DD 2.0 soundtrack. The best overall release at present must be the MGM United States Region 1. A full review of the MGM Region 1 DVD release with more detailed comparisons can be read here -> Together.

100 Flowers Hidden Deep (2002)

A short ten-minute segment for the portmanteau film Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet (alongside works by Aki Kaurismäki, Victor Erice, Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee), Chen Kaige’s contribution is a simple parable of a man who hires removal men to clear a house that has long ago vanished. Like most of the pieces in the film, with the exception of the masterpiece that is Victor Erice’s Lifeline, this is a minor work from Chen Kaige, yet it adheres to many of his familiar themes – an interest in the loss of Chinese culture, heritage and history that is being literally bulldozed by the country’s haste to be competitive in the modern worldwide economy.
Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet is released in the UK, alongside its sister work, Ten Minutes Older: The Cello by Blue Dolphin. The transfers of the films are non-anamorphic, but the picture quality is certainly more than adequate. A full review of the UK Blue Dolphin Region 2 DVD release can be read here -> Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet/Ten Minutes Older: The Cello.

The Promise (2005)

Totally confounding expectations of what could be expected from Chen Kaige as a director, The Promise is an elaborately designed and flamboyantly filmed epic fantasy that makes extensive use of modern CGI effects. Despite the overwhelming grandeur of the visuals however, the director’s interest is in the emotional love-story at the film’s heart.
The Promise, at the time of writing, currently has Asian DVD editions in mainland China, Hong Kong and Korea. The 2-disc edition from Deltamac suffers from the usual mediocre Hong Kong transfer, but the film’s visual spectacle and a second disc of English subtitled extra features, all packed in a stunning set, make this an impressive release nonetheless. A full review of the Hong Kong Deltamac Region 0 DVD release can be read here -> The Promise.

Chen Kaige interviewed by Phillipa Bloom – Empire, Feb 1994
Chen Kaige interviewed by Walter Chaw, Oct 2002 - Film Freak Central

Did you enjoy the article above? If so please help us by sharing it to your social networks with the buttons below...

Category Feature

Latest Articles