|Interview: Chen Kaige makes us a "Promise"
|by Peter Sobczynski
The acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige ("Farewell, My Concubine," "Temptress Moon") sits down to discuss his latest work--the eye-popping fantasy epic "The Promise."
After a career that has seen him veering between large-scale historical dramas (such as the Cannes favorite “Farewell, My Concubine” and “The Emperor and the Assassin”) and smaller, character-driven pieces (like his recent family drama “Together”) on his way to become one of the more well-known Chinese filmmakers on the world cinema scene, Chen Kaige has finally decided to swing for the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”/ “House of Flying Daggers” fences with his first stab at a wildly elaborate fantasy epic with “The Promise.” In the film, the largest-scale production in the history of the Chinese film industry, Cecilia Cheung stars as Qingcheng, a lovely young woman who, as a child, was granted the gifts of beauty, power and wealth by a goddess–the hitch is that she will never be allowed to fall in love and anyone that she does develop feelings for will suffer a terrible fate. After she is rescued by the powerful General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada), she finds herself inevitably falling for the man. However, what she doesn’t know is that the rescuer that she is really in love with is actually Kunlun (Dong-Kun Jang), Guangming’s personal slave who was actually sent to perform the rescue because of his bravery and his ability to literally run like the wind.<
Although “The Promise” has been lambasted by a lot of critics for being too silly for words (one audience member in China posted a spoof of the film online and was sued by the director as a result–something he would not comment on further), it is so weird and wild that you can’t help but be somewhat charmed by its goofy good nature–it is nonsense but awfully entertaining nonsense nevertheless. In its home country, enough people seemed to agree and the film quickly became the second highest-grossing movie in China’s history (just behind “Titanic”). On the eve of its international debut, Chen sat down to discuss the film, the challenges of working with elaborate visual effects for the first time and how political censorship in China is slowly being replaced by economic censorship.
How do you see your evolution as a filmmaker in the 20-odd years since you made your debut with “Yellow Earth”–are the concerns that drove you back then still important to you or have they been replaced by other ones?
I can tell you that I wasn’t sure that I could be a film director then because the situation was quite complicated at the time. I almost took my father’s advice not to become a film director. When I made my decision, my father said one thing to me–never give up. That is why, over the last couple of decades, I am still here. I think that as a human being and as a film director, I was always influenced by what was around me. We are undergoing a big change in China and now, I would not be able to make a film like “Yellow Earth.” Back then, there was no market and the whole thing was financed by a government-run studio but now, we are in a market economy. While people didn’t have to pay in the past, now they have to pay and this is a huge and essential change. For me, I still believe in what I wanted to do from the beginning when I was a student in the Beijing Film Academy but since the general situation has changed, we have to look at other stuff.
How did “The Promise” come about? You have done large-scale epics in the past, most obviously “The Emperor and the Assassin,” but not one with such an overtly fantastical premise as this one–has it been a dream of yours to make a spectacle like this film?
Not really. Like I said, the Chinese audience now has big expectations from Chinese directors because we now have 20 or more major American films playing each year in the Chinese market. This is a large part of the market and that means a smaller part of it for us. That is one of the reasons that I wanted to do a big film like this but the other thing is that I hope that this film is still meaningful. I think I put what I think about real life into this film–particularly how the general and the princess represent current Chinese values and how people are confused about what they want. The princess becomes a cursed woman because she made the wrong choice but I would guess that a lot of people would give the same answer that she does in the film about preferring money to love. I didn’t know what to write in the beginning but I was inspired by some interesting Chinese myths
from old times in order to help structure the film. This was the most difficult film for me to make because I was pretty much too ambitious with the visual effects and the martial arts–things that I wasn’t familiar with.
Well, in terms of the martial arts, for example, what did you do to get yourself up to speed?
I finally got a stunt coordinator that I could trust and we began to discuss what we were going to do and how to design those shots. I hope that the martial arts is only a part of the film that shows who the characters are by how they fight. It was really miserable to do the martial arts parts–sometimes I would stay at the studio and it would take 14-15 hours to do a single shot and that was torture.
Beyond that, how difficult was it to adjust from the relatively small scales of your two previous films–your American debut “Killing Me Softly” and “Together”–to creating one of the largest-scale films in the history of China?
We spent more than six months on pre-production–I worked with designers from Japan and Hong Kong to design the costumes and sets. I went to Japan three times just for that. Then we started principal photography and we shot for six months. We started in Beijing and moved to the east coast of China and then to a pretty remote province with a beautiful landscape. From there, we went back to Beijing and then to Mongolia. It was really tiring and we would lose a lot of time along the way. What really bothered me was how the visual effects would look at the end of the day. We would design shots but I didn’t really have any control of that. I would have to ask them what they could show us and they would tell me to be patient because it was going to take a long time.
One of the things I liked about the film is the weird, dream-like look to many of the effects–instead of trying to be as photo-realistic as possible, most of them (especially the scene in which Kunlun outruns the bulls) go for an overtly fantastical look. Since this was pretty much your first time working with elaborate visual effects, can you talk about the approach you chose for them?
I worked with the special-effects supervisors closely. The reason why I did a lot of shots in front of green screens is because I couldn’t find real locations like that to shoot at. At the beginning of the film, when we see the young girl talking to the goddess, the background is very beautiful–pretty much like traditional Chinese paintings–but it was all green screen shots because there was no location like that. I’m happy to hear that you liked that. If I knew more about visual effects, I think that I could have done better but it was sort of a learning process.
What was your concept for the character of Kunlun the slave? Unlike the characters of the princess and the general, who do what they do for essentially self-serving reasons, all of his actions seem to have a more pure motivation behind them.
He is the opposite of them. He is a real human being and far more ideal than the others. It is hard to find this kind of person in real life anymore but I used to live in the countryside when I was young and I knew some peasants like that. They did what they were asked to do and people looked down upon them and never really believed that they were real human beings but they were more human than the others. He is the kind of person with a golden heart and through him, everybody is changed in the film. At first, he is just a prisoner but eventually he realizes that he is a human being and that he can love and be loved and is equal to his master. I really liked the character a lot and when I went to meet with the actor, his eyes convinced me that he was the one for this part.
Film censorship in China for political reasons has obviously been going on for a long time and while “The Promise” is essentially a big and outlandish fantasy, it does have its moments of social commentary as well–such as the remark that a character will be able to recognize the king amongst his soldiers because he will be the only one without a weapon. Does a film like this still face censorship problems because of that content or is it able to slip through amongst all the more fantastical elements? Or is censorship today more economic in nature that political–a film like “Yellow Earth” would have trouble getting made today less because of its political content than the fact that it wouldn’t stand much of a chance in the international marketplace?
It is a very complicated situation, obviously. There is a normal process that we have to go through in submitting the script to the authorities first. No matter whether there is something to censor or not–this is something you have to do. The major thing that we are facing now is how to get to market and how to get distribution. For many younger directors, they have trouble finding distribution–many films are made in China but are never shown in theaters. I am not a politician so I cannot explain why some movies cannot be made. I don’t think that a film can harm anything but from a current perspective, some people see them as a danger. We are also now under the pressure of economic issues. Money is there in China–the question is how can you get the money back after the film is made. We are not very experienced in that–we don’t have a studio system or an independent filmmaking system as there is in the U.S. We are still in a learning process.
Well, even though “The Promise” was an enormous success in China when it debuted, how important, from an economic perspective, is it that the film find an audience in foreign countries like America?
Of course, I always want to have that kind of balance where my films can be liked by Chinese audiences and international audiences. We’ve been facing this question for a long time–if you just want to make the different audiences happy and please them, you can’t succeed at that. If you design a part specifically that Western audiences will love, Chinese audiences won’t be happy. All of a sudden, I feel like a tailor trying to make a beautiful garment for my buyers and that is the wrong way to do that. I think the only thing I want to do now is base my work on the one reality that we are all human beings. I have trust that if I can take something out of my heart, people can understand it and like it. I think it is important to consider the reaction of the Western audience but honestly, I haven’t been living here in the West and I still have a problem understanding the Western perspective and what they want to see in a Chinese film. I think I will continue to learn things from the West and from China to make sure that the films can be liked by different audiences.
When you have seen “The Promise” in the United States, do you find audiences reacting differently to it here than in China or are the reactions pretty much universal? I know that the version playing in here is 18 minutes shorter than the Chinese cut and I presume most of the cuts were of elements that would be alien to audiences here.
I think that Asian audiences, particularly in China, want to see a traditional story with strong characters. However, American action films are the exception because they think that we don’t need to know the people because the action is beautiful. I think that here, Western audiences can understand more and get that this is both a fantasy film and something that deals with Chinese culture.
Do you ever see yourself trying to work within the American film industry again as you did a few years ago with “Killing Me Softly?”
I think that what I need to do first is find a good script–that is the key issue. If I could have a good script that I really wanted to do, then I would do that. You can see even before a film is made whether it is going to be successful or not if you are not blind. Most of the time, though, most people can be very blind. I would like to try to do that.
Finally, what kind of message, if any, are you hoping to convey to viewers who go to see “The Promise”?
I really think that the freedom is the key for the film–the characters are all prisoners of their hearts and they don’t know how to liberate themselves until it is too late. It sounds abstract but it is true–most people are sort of confused by many things–but from the Buddhist point of view, only you can save yourself and destiny is changeable.
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originally posted: 05/08/06 09:42:03
last updated: 05/26/06 16:57:32