In the films of Chinese director Chen Kaige, upheaval is common: the world changes around characters uncertain of how to respond, or characters change against the backdrop of a world that refuses to accept their transformation. If great emotion – whether longing, regret or anger – grows from these turning points, then it’s fair to say that Chen himself knows what can transpire when all that is known falls away. He was 13-years-old when Chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1996, and like so many of his dedicated teenage compatriots, Chen was caught up in the martial hysteria – he denounced his own father, filmmaker Chen Huai’ai, and was eventually exiled to a rural rubber plantation.
In 1978, following the ascent of Deng Xiaoping, China’s academies were reopened, including the Beijing Film School. Chen was part of the first class admitted to the institution, which graduated into the state-run system in 1982. That group, which includes Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang as well as Chen, is now revered as the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, and their works have been hugely influential at home – when they escaped official disapproval – and abroad. Chen’s early features, beginning with 1984’s Yellow Earth, were visually assured, full of gorgeous compositions that flowed from one shot to the next as the story unfolded without hurry.
The next phase of his career began with 1992’s Farewell My Concubine, which starred Gong Li and Lesley Cheung and shared the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with Jane Campion’s The Piano, and Chen would go on to notably make 2002’s Together, the tale of a widowed cook from the provinces who brings his son, a violin prodigy, to Beijing even though it means letting go of him. It was handsome and sentimental, and like many of his colleagues Chen’s later film have delved into China’s history, framing martial arts sequences with a virtuosic eye to make for what has become a distinctly Chinese take on the action film. The filmmaker, like his country, has changed over the last three decades, but what remains is Chen’s belief in documenting one world passing to the next.
For a double dose of Chen Kaige from SBS’s On Demand service, try the following pairing:
The follow-up to Together, Chen Kaige’s fantasy epic brings children before a goddess, depicts mass battles and silken confrontations that are impeccably choreographed, condemns aristocratic disloyalty, and turns on a mistaken act of regicide; it does not lack for scope, vigour or ambition. The most expensive film that Chen had ever made – perhaps the most expensive made in China to that point, according to speculation – The Promise was the director’s take on a genre recently defined by Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers. The swordplay and the digital effects are equally otherworldly.
Fittingly, given Chen’s exacting control of the film, time itself is malleable in this story, where past actions have ramifications in the present again and again, notably for a slave, Kunlun (Dong-gun Jang), who is saved by a general defending his nation, Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada), and must then venture forth in his place when the soldier is wounded. Loyalty and love are contradictory forces in The Promise, and it’s an elegant, fast-paced journey – the images, complete with moments of fantasy excess, wash over you.
A more recent work, Sacrifice is a further elucidation to Chen Kaige’s crucial theme of the frayed but ultimately unbreakable bond between father and son. If Together emphasised that idea in a sharply contemporary Beijing, this labyrinthine period drama inserts paternal responsibility and the burdensome strength of bloodlines into the ancient and illustrious Kingdom of Jun, where in 583 B.C. a monstrously Machiavellian plot by a manipulative general, Tu Angu (Wang Xueqi), culminates in the destruction of a court rival’s clan. The only survivor is the political adversary’s baby grandson, who is secretly adopted by the doomed family’s physician, Cheng Ying (Ge You), after his own baby son is killed by Tu’s bloody machinations.
Chen emphasises not the complex plotting, which is nonetheless smoothly outlined, but the moral burden of culpability confounded by the passing of time. The film is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, where the martial arts set-pieces are secondary to the moral misgivings of those who survived on either side of the wrongdoing. Cheng enters Tu’s household, and both men come to love the boy, renamed Bo (Zhao Wenhao), who learns the truth about his heritage from Cheng as a teenager. There is, in often suspenseful circumstances, no room for forgiveness – love’s embrace falls to vengeance’s fury.