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The Goddess Manshen (Chen Hong), offers riches and power in exchange for true love.
Tempting fate in Chinese cinema
Filmmaker Chen Kaige defies his country's conventional wisdom
CHEN KAIGE believes in second chances.
Much like the character of Princess Qingcheng in his latest film, "The Promise," Chen has shown that a person's so-called destiny can be changed through thoughtful choices. Throughout much of his 24-year career in feature filmmaking, Chen has adeptly used allegory and metaphor to illustrate the battle between political and social doctrine and self-expression.
In his latest movie, a goddess of fortune named Manshen plays a pivotal role in telling the main characters what direction their lives will take.
"Traditionally, Chinese people have a tendency to believe in destiny and fate," Chen said Friday in a telephone interview. "They're under their control, it was so written, so there's nothing they can do about it.
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Cecelia Chueng (shown with Jang Dong-gun as Kunlun, a slave), plays a princess who makes a pact with the Goddess Manshen (Chen Hong), in which the princess chooses to forsake true love in exchange for riches and power.
"But I say that destiny is changeable. If you look at our history, I don't understand why people think that way. Even though there have been so many bad things, revolutions and chaos, there still was change. It's so very clear. I'm convinced of the message that, yes, we can allow and gain power to challenge destiny on the way to a better life.
"Manshen, while a messenger of destiny, tries to make deals with the different characters. Destiny will win, but if you're strong enough, with the kind of love and freedom the princess gains at the end, you can challenge destiny successfully."
THE CHINESE filmmaker, whose groundbreaking debut, "Yellow Earth,"was championed by the Hawaii International Film Festival in 1985, is back with his most commercial endeavor to date. "The Promise" opens Friday in local theaters and in major U.S. markets such as New York and Los Angeles.
In some ways, Chen has Hawaii to thank for introducing him to a worldwide audience as he became one of the forerunners of revitalizing filmmaking in mainland China.
The 53-year-old is among filmmakers dubbed the "Fifth Generation" that graduated in 1982 from the Beijing Film Academy. Also part of the group is Zhang Yimou, who was honored at last year's film fest. Zhang's own profile has increased greatly of late, thanks to the international success of his last two films, "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers."
Zhang, coincidentally, was the cinematographer for Chen's breakout hit, 1984's "Yellow Earth." Chen's reputation solidified with "Farewell My Concubine," a winner of the prestigious Palme d'Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and a Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee the following year. His filmography also includes "Temptress Moon" (1997), with Gong Li and Leslie Cheung, and "The Emperor and the Assassin" (1999, and a memorable entry in the Hawaii film fest that year).
His lone foray into Hollywood filmmaking was the disappointing 2002 "Killing Me Softly," starring Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes. The following year saw him make "Together," a small, partly autobiographical film set in contemporary Beijing.
"The Promise" (a k a "Wu ji") hopes to build on the international success of compatriot Zhang's recent films. Asked if the $35 million film was meant for a mass Chinese audience, as compared with the art-house nature of his previous work, Chen answered with a short laugh.
"You're probably 60 percent right. But we need to develop our own market in China with this big movie. Over the last 10 years, the domestic market has been dominated by the American action film. We see so much Hollywood movies, there's so much expectation for Chinese-made movies.
"But I don't think my movie was made mainly for a Chinese audience. The budget was fairly big, compared to my previous work, but I think the movie has a universal soul. People really relate to the film on an emotional level, seeing the reactions of the many preview screenings it's had with American and Canadian audiences."
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Director Chen Kaige on the set of "The Promise."
TO ATTRACT the widest audience possible, Chen said he took a pan-Asian approach to "The Promise." So much so, he needed translators who could speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Japanese and English.
"I even chose the actors from three countries in Asia," he said. "I wanted to make an Asian film -- in other words, using stories that are timeless and not necessarily limited to one specific area. I like to say that this movie takes place 3,000 years ago in the future. While history is important, I wanted to create a dreamlike world, something that the audience could watch with a baby's perspective.
"It's a beautiful, fresh world, but the characters are also very brutal in their relationships. ... When I looked around for actors, I found the Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada, who's been in several samurai films, as well as 'The Last Samurai' with Tom Cruise. The Korean guy who plays the slave, Jang Dong-gun, he has very charming eyes and is a very big star back in his home country. Looking at the way of his acting, I'm convinced he did a very good job. He has to make people believe he is innocent, that he has a golden heart, that even though he is so treated as an animal, he can stand up to show his love for the princess (played by Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung)."
"The Promise" features much martial arts and stunt wire work, and copious CGI effects. "I knew it would be a difficult process going into this film, but I didn't know it was going to be SO difficult. That's because I was very ambitious, and I wanted to put so much stuff in it. ... Shooting was for six months, and it took a year and a half more to finish it with the additional effects."
A KEY ELEMENT in Chen's films has been destiny -- how our lives seem fated, starting from childhood.
Chen is the son of a renowned Chinese filmmaker, Chen Huai'ai, but during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, he was caught up in the party line. As an impressionable teenager, while a member of Mao Tse-tung's Red Guard, he once publicly denounced his father as a counterrevolutionary.
Chen later took back that damning remark, and his father has come to accept his son's following in his footsteps. But the unfiltered force of young people's emotions continues to inform Chen's cinematic vision.
"I can't help but put children in my films," Chen said. "It's my understanding that children can be innocent and naive, and always say what they think. It's a big difference when they grow up. ... I always say that children take to life naturally, while adults can be devious, treating life itself as a game. That's why some of my movies, like 'Farewell My Concubine' and 'The Promise,' I start with my main characters as children."
For a review of "The Promise," see the upcoming Weekend section.