Haunted by the past
The last time I met Chen Kaige - in December 2008 - he was in town to promote Forever Enthralled, his biopic of Peking opera legend Mei Lanfang. Chen reflected on the 'persistence' that drove him to continue making films in a long career undermined first by governmental censure (in the 1980s and early 90s) and then critical disapproval (which culminated in the all-round disparagement of his 2005 fantastical period drama, The Promise).
At the time Chen said he wanted to 'tell stories that probe the way China has become what it is now. There are a lot of stories about the Cultural Revolution that I have yet to tell,' he said. 'I won't back down until they see the light of day.'
More than two years later, Chen seems to have reneged on that pledge. Rather than delivering a piece of contemporary drama set amid the social unrest in China in the 1960s and 70s, the 58-year-old director's latest film is based on The Orphan of Zhao, a play by Yuan dynasty author Ji Junxiang set in the state of Jin towards the end of the 7th century BC.
The play begins with the rise to power of evil general Tu Angu and his massacre of the clan of his political rival Zhao Dun. One of Zhao's aides, Cheng Ying, saves the royal bloodline by hiding his mentor's newborn grandson, Zhao Wu, giving his own infant son up to be killed instead. Cheng then raises Wu as his own son and allows the unknowing boy to become Tu's godson. The story ends with Cheng revealing the truth to his 'son' as he reaches adulthood. The young man eventually exacts revenge - both for his real and foster fathers - by killing Tu and rehabilitating his biological family's pedigree.
But Chen's version is not merely a simple screen adaptation of a historical morality tale. In fact, the director himself says he envisions Sacrifice more as a 'modern story' than period drama, and the film has somehow introduced a wealth of moral ambiguity into a story long cherished as a showcase of the Chinese tradition of filial piety.
While the basic premise remains intact, Chen says he made his characters 'more human' by shaping them into flawed individuals. Cynicism abounds in the relationship between Zhao Wu and his two 'fathers', and the boy's bond with Cheng - the father who saved him and nurtured him - is repeatedly shown as flimsy; Wu is unabashed in denigrating Cheng to please Tu.
Meanwhile, Cheng's way of keeping the boy onside is equally pragmatic - when asked by a co-conspirator how he can ensure Wu will not reveal their clandestine meetings, Cheng says the trick lies in stuffing the boy with 'a big meal in the morning'.
Chen is in town to attend the Hong Kong premiere of Sacrifice. He says the heroism in Ji's original story totally contradicts human instinct. Sacrifice is not about great characters but real ones, he says. And it's this cynicism that transforms Sacrifice from a story about a historical dispute from 2,700 years ago into an allegory of China's traumatic Cultural Revolution, when young men and women readily denounced their own parents in public trials so as to profess their loyalty to a political leader.
'I think people like Tu could easily gain the adulation of kids. He's the kind of person who has power, strength and charisma,' Chen says.
It's a sentiment Chen knows well, as Wu's attachment to Tu mirrors Chen's own teenage fascination with Mao Zedong at the onset of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-60s. It's still a painful memory for the director, however. When asked about how the story echoes his own experience during that catastrophic period his loquacity dissipates.
'As you can see, this story is driven by this father-son dynamic,' he says, his voice trailing away.
After some hesitation, he tries to engage the question on another level, referring to his memoirs, which addressed his actions as a Red Guard during the purges.
'I wrote that as my confession,' he says of the book, which was first published in Japan as My Life and Times as a Red Guard and then re-released in Taiwan as The Young Kaige two years later.
'If only more people could have this spirit of confessing what they did wrong. People should stop placing blame on others and always saying, 'It's not my mistake.' I think the more developed a society is, the more you need people who can reflect on what's gone wrong in the past.'
The most harrowing episode in Chen's book lies in the third chapter, in which he writes of how, as a 14-year-old boy, he succumbed to the hysteria and denounced and shoved his father, the director Chen Huaiai, in a 'struggle session' in August 1966.
'I felt very strange,' he writes. 'A child was tearing what he had with his father apart bit by bit, [but all I] heard was laughter. What kind of people were they?'
Today Chen says: 'I think the poison of the Cultural Revolution has remained with us and has never been properly dealt with.'
Apart from the complete collapse of interpersonal trust for a generation, the extremist movement undermined how people on the mainland look at traditional culture, which was pilloried under Mao.
'After so many political movements, acknowledgment of [the importance of] culture is increasingly weak,' Chen says.
'People in almost every society look up and aspire to improve themselves and become more cultured. In China, it was the opposite: people actually wanted to descend the cultural ladder. But culture is what drives a society to move upwards - and the biggest challenge [mainland] China faces today is for the now comparatively rich people to go up a level.'
While Chen says he respects directors who deliver mass entertainment, he insists cinema can serve as a yardstick that measures where a country stands and how tolerant the people are towards diversity.
'Films can be used to advocate social progress if filmmakers raise new questions with their work - it's only in this that a society can advance,' he says.
Chen's questions have left many in power uncomfortable since 1984, when his directorial debut, Yellow Earth, premiered at the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
Although based on a novel, the film - set in the rural backwaters near the communist stronghold of Yanan in the 1930s - is definitely Chen's own invention, as he and his cinematographer, Zhang Yimou, steered clear of prevailing social-realist norms to bring to the screen the irreconcilable differences between the Communist Party's grand ideals and the harsh realities in the impoverished countryside. The film was banned, despite (or maybe because of) the acclaim it reaped on the film-festival circuit.
The next film that drew the ire of the censors was King of the Children (1987), which drew on Chen's own experience of being sent from the city to work as a labourer in a village in Yunnan province. An indictment of Cultural Revolution dogmatism, the film again pictures rural China as hardly a peasants' paradise. A young teacher's attempts to free his pupils from learning doctrine only results in his removal from the school.
Chen left for the US in 1987 and lived in New York for three years, during which he made, among other things, the music video for Duran Duran's Do You Believe in Shame? He made Life on a String (1991) on his return to the mainland, but his career really took off in 1993 with Farewell My Concubine.
Adapted from Lilian Lee Bik-wah's novel about the travails of two Peking opera artists in China from the 1920s to the 70s, the film boasts an inventive mise-en-scene, stunning imagery (from Gu Changwei, who was nominated for an Oscar for his cinematography) and powerful performances (from Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing and Zhang Fengyi). It presents Chen's recollections of the Cultural Revolution at their most vivid, as the film's protagonists spew damning revelations about each other while under duress from Red Guards.
The film also addresses the beginning of the decline of traditional arts on the mainland - a thread continued in Forever Enthralled, with Mei Lanfang's tribulations in life reflecting the challenges an artist like Chen probably confronts.
That's why Chen chose The Orphan of Zhao, a tale that has been adapted into various operatic forms.
'Peking opera is an important cultural barometer of Chinese culture,' he says. 'After 1949 the official discourse mostly approved of the story's original moral - that it's natural for a person to sacrifice for another or for righteousness.
'But I think this would have become part of party propaganda. I think in a comparatively open period like today we can re-evaluate beliefs we've held for millennia, to see whether they are actually right.'
Sacrifice opens today