When Chen Kaige was 14, his schooling ground to a screeching halt. Like some 20 million other urban teenagers during the Cultural Revolution, he was herded off into China’s vast outback to learn from its peasantry. For the most important director of China’s cinematic new wave, it was a turbulent time, to say the least, but one that he looks back on without malice. Those years he spent as a Red Guard denouncing his own father, clearing trees on a rubber plantation in China’s deep south, and later as a soldier assisting the Viet Cong on the Vietnamese border, would form the nucleus of a brash new vision in world cinema. His first film, Yellow Earth, announced the arrival of a director who was capable of turning a bromide like “Chairman Mao wants to give all poor people a chance to eat rice without chafe” into a provocative lyric, resonating against the jaundiced hills. His later films, King of Children, The Big Parade, and Life on a String, were optically stunning even as they probed the blind depths of political belief. This has not endeared him to some of the country’s more conservative political forces, who would rather just forget about the fact that, in spite (or because) of their embrace of a “freemarket” economy, people are still eating their rice with chafe. His latest film, Farewell My Concubine, is an epic love story between two male Peking Opera singers and a prostitute. It swept the Palme D’Or (with Jane Campion’s Piano) at Cannes and set box office records when it opened in China. Predictably, the Chinese government banned it soon after. Then, just as predictably, they lifted the ban. Peggy Chiao and I spoke to the director before all this, between takes on the set of Farewell in Beijing and at the world premiere of the film in Hong Kong.
Peggy Chiao When did you first hear the story of Farewell My Concubine?
Chen Kaige At the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, Hsu Feng gave me a copy of Lillian Lee’s book. I can’t say that I fully grasped what it was about at that time. I only became serious about it after meeting Lillian Lee on a trip to Hong Kong in April 1990. I thought the novel was a bit thin, though. Lillian didn’t have a very clear grasp of the situation in China or the world of the Peking Opera. She didn’t have any real emotional understanding of the Cultural Revolution, either. She didn’t live through it. Her language was another problem. You could tell right off that she wasn’t a Beijing person. Moreover, to suit the Hong Kong readership, she had to limit the number of pages, so the story wasn’t fully developed. But Lillian struck me as very clever. I suggested that we recruit a mainland screenwriter to work with us on the script. Lu Wei, from the Van Film Studio, Lillian, and I finished the first draft in January 1991.
PC Why do you say the novel was a bit “thin”?
CK The characters’ relationships were never really established. More importantly, the story didn’t move me. Only after thinking about it did I come up with a fundamental concept to build on. That is, people are often defeated by circumstances. I thought the relations between the characters had to be taken to a deeper level. Take, for example, the character Juxian. Before she marries the actor Duan Xiaolou, she’s a prostitute. In the original novel, she’s quite feeble. But the film wouldn’t work without a strong female character. The whole plot revolves around Juxian and the actors Duan Xiaolou and Cheng Dieyi. Any of them can be the central focus. It can be the story of a man standing between a man and a woman, or a woman standing between two men, or a man standing between a real woman and a “pseudo-woman.” The whole structure is like a boat, it can go in every direction. But the character I was most focused on was Cheng. He blurs the distinction between theater and life, male and female. He’s addicted to his art. He’s a tragic man who only wants to pursue an ideal of beauty, to become Yu Ji, the concubine in the opera.
PC What did you want to express in the new version of the story?
CK It’s hard to sum up, but I certainly didn’t want to make a simple film about Peking Opera or Peking Opera actors. I’m not saying that the opera isn’t fascinating in its own right. For the first hundred years of its existence, it was suppressed by the Qing dynasty. They thought it was vulgar and even obscene entertainment. This changed later on because the Qing Empress Dowager was a big fan of Peking Opera. Imperial patronage, in turn, affected popular taste. The journey of Peking Opera, from the streets to the palace and then back to the streets was very much a reflection of the changing times. Wealthy men acted as patrons for famous opera actors like Cheng Yanqin and (the renowned player of female roles) Mei Lanfang. In my film, society and politics occupy a secondary role. The blurred distinction between life and stage and the confusion of identity is most important.
PC In 1991, you completed Farewell My Concubine. Tian Zhuangzhuang finished The Blue Kite and Zhang Yimou completed The Story of Qiu Ju. I feel that all three of you are at some kind of turning point, either in terms of themes or form. You all seem to be unburdening yourselves of some kind of intellectual baggage.
CK I haven’t had a chance to see these other films yet. I heard that Yimou used hidden cameras on his and had Gong Li speaking with a Shaanxi accent. Zhuangzhuang has also grown older and is reviewing the past. I’m sure we’ve all given some thought to the question of where we go from here. It’s not an easy one to answer. But it seems that we’re all leaning towards “realism,” even if the road we each choose, the subject matter and so on, is going to be quite different. I’m something of a loner. I try to express myself in my own way. I don’t agree with your statement that intellect is a burden. Personally, I don’t think I’ve changed in any essential way. I’ve always been able to tell a story. It’s just that I never wanted to in the past. When I was in the army, I used to entertain my buddies with a story a week. I drew my material from [the Chinese classic] The Water Margin and The Count of Monte Cristo. They wanted to listen to my stories so much that they would fry me eggs and buy me wine. I would experiment with ways of storytelling to see what attracted them, what they expected. What I’m trying to say is that even when I’m working with new subject matter, I’m still my old self.
PC Farewell My Concubine was funded by a Taiwanese producer who is based in Hong Kong. Chinese cinema is made in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. For a long time, Hong Kong cinema was the dominant force in Chinese filmmaking. But Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien recently said that the future of the Chinese cinema was in China. The cultural and economic exchanges between Taiwan and mainland China are very clear cut now. Taiwanese are very interested in investing in China. What role do you think Hong Kong is going to play in future Chinese cinema?
CK Both Taiwan and mainland China are heading towards a similar capitalism. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s work in Taiwan highlights tradition and the conflicts and conscience that arise from economic development. My work also goes against the current of the mainstream. But Hong Kong is not quite the same. It is a society that has undergone a decade of different changes. Commercial cinema is well integrated into that society. It, like Coca-Cola, is a part of life. Hong Kong cinema, as I understand it, emphasizes two things: efficiency and control. It’s not like the early work of the Fifth Generation. Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark has developed an entire visual system that everyone in Hong Kong knows. His production of Swordsman II is almost like a comic strip. Every single image highlights the murderous atmosphere of the film. It’s very pop, but there’s no sensuality to it. Obviously, film is an art and needs to incorporate that sensuality. But, we have to look at the role of Hong Kong objectively. I believe Hong Kong cinema will have an absolute impact on Taiwanese and mainland Chinese productions. It’s going to be the leader of commercial cinema in all the Chinese film industries.
PC In the past, you said that there is always a character you identify with in your films.
CK In Farewell, it’s Cheng Dieyi. Cheng is very different and unlikable. Although he is also pure, innocent, and stubbornly honest, he is a misfit. He is marked by his difference with the world. His perseverance is the soul of the film. He also represents our circumstance as filmmakers, as artists, where the stage is integrated with life. In Cheng’s view, life and art are indistinguishable. The opera he performs, Farewell My Concubine, will always end in suicide. But, no one expects that the actor playing the suicide will actually die at the end. When he really dies, art unites with life. Great masters like Cheng are often oblivious to what’s going on around them in society. Edward Yang’s film, A Brighter Summer Day, struck a similar chord with me. The teenage protagonist is frustrated. When he stabs his girlfriend, it’s a reaction to frustrated ideals. It’s like Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A Time To Live, A Time To Die, where the protagonists are teenage hoods with intellectual, even somewhat idealistic, souls.
My father told me that there are two kinds of tragedies. One is the tragedy of fate and the other is the tragedy of the personality. The tragedy of the personality is more sublime. Cheng Dieyi’s tragedy belongs to the first group—a tragedy of fate. His life is a beautiful mistake stemming from identity. While he is learning Peking Opera, he could never sing the line, “I am a girl.” Only when Duan shoves a pipe down his throat does Cheng begin to identify as a woman. From his sexual assault by the old eunuch to his adopting an orphan baby in the street, he becomes a woman, a mother. At the end of the film, Cheng messes up his line and Duan says, “You are mistaken again.” At that point, Cheng begins to realize his own confusion about gender. But, it’s too late. The female role has made an impression on him for life. Cheng thinks, when I perform the concubine’s role, I become a woman. This beautiful dream of mixing stage and life as one is realized only when Cheng commits suicide in front of Duan. Cheng spent his early life changing from male to female. In his old age, he reverts back to a man, but by then, it is too late for him not to play the part of the suicidal concubine.
PC There’s a sword that drifts in and out of the characters’ lives in the film. It’s used on stage when the opera, Farewell My Concubine, is being performed. What is its significance in the film?
CK The sword is an object that links people together. There’s a saying in Chinese. “A precious sword is always used to thank one’s best friend and the gentleman ready to die for his friendship.” The sword comes from the eunuch’s house to the hands of Mr. Yuan who gives it to Chen, who gives it to Duan, who in turn gives it to Juxian. She uses it to save Cheng’s life and then passes it back to Mr. Yuan. At the end, the sword returns to Cheng who uses it to commit suicide. The sword is linked to death. It is also both a symbol of friendship and a phallic symbol.
PC Can you talk about Cheng’s relationship to “real” women?
CK Cheng is the son of a prostitute. Juxian, the woman who marries Cheng’s lover, is a prostitute. They have a very ambiguous relationship. There is a shot in the film in which Juxian nurses Cheng in a maternal way when he is trying to kick his opium habit. But Cheng has a love-hate relationship with his mother. During the Cultural Revolution scenes, he exposes Juxian’s past. It’s an extension of his hatred for his own mother, the woman who abandoned him. He has decided that all women in life are prostitutes except for the concubine he plays in the opera.
PC You’ve created an unusual family dynamic. Cheng, Juxian, and Duan form a surrogate family, and the family is the backbone of Chinese melodrama.
CK The Peking Opera troupe is the real surrogate family. In the Peking Opera, each generation of actors shares the same character in their name, just like each generation of children in a real family. The father characters in the film are the teachers. In Peking Opera, there are brothers and uncles, but no women. The dan or female role is like the woman in the world of Peking Opera. This explains Cheng’s almost misogynistic dislike for women. With the arrival of Juxian, the structure of Duan’s surrogate family is broken. There is more than one surrogate family in the film. Cheng and Mr. Yuan also form a family. In the scene where they put on make-up, I have used comical Peking Opera music to highlight their wedding banquet. As Mr. Yuan covers his face with white paint, he is playing the part of the warrior. On that night, Cheng becomes his wife.
Lawrence Chua It really struck me the way Cheng develops at the demands of everyone and everything around him. His mother cuts off his sixth finger. His teachers force him to learn female mannerisms. His lover, Duan, tries to change his voice. Then, the political forces shaping the country force him to become other things.
CK It’s really difficult for anyone in this world to keep themselves as they want to be, that’s the point. When they are under any kind of pressure, like political pressure, or pressure from groups, they always find very good excuses to defend themselves, to say, “I don’t have any choice.”
LC What exactly are you saying? Is there really a choice involved for any of these characters? Cheng doesn’t choose his desire or his identity, it’s foisted on him.
CK I don’t want to tell people how I really think about these characters. I want them to speak for themselves, do things for themselves. Before, I sometimes forced those characters to be whom I like. But this time, I wanted to let them be whoever they are.
LC You’ve described Cheng as “lonely.”
CK Look, this film is being made in China. If you’re talking about gay relationships, it’s very sensitive. It’s forbidden. That’s why I say it’s lonely. It’s not like the U.S. and Europe, where people can talk about it freely. For Cheng Dieyi, you can imagine how painful it is. He doesn’t know what to do. There is no way for him to survive.
LC Even if this story is a touchy issue, lesbian and gay relationships have always existed in China.
CK I didn’t do any research about that. I just know that in the Ming dynasty, homosexuality was very popular. If you were an intellectual, you had to have this relationship with other men. A lot of people really look down on those Peking opera singers. Of course they enjoy their performance, but they don’t respect them as human beings. Chinese intellectuals came from official families. Those intellectuals could talk to each other about sexuality. But for Peking Opera singers like Cheng, it wasn’t up for public discussion.
LC Farewell My Concubine is a fairly mainstream film.
PC It’s a complete break from what you were doing before. Yellow Earth, The Big Parade, and Life on a String were all quite metaphysical. Would you say you’re breaking new ground with Farewell My Concubine?
CK I don’t want to make anyone happy through my films. This is the situation. I have to make popular films, otherwise, in terms of my career, I’m going to die. On the other hand, if there’s something that people don’t understand, but they are interested in this story and they want to see this film, that’s enough for me. I don’t think everybody can relate to this story and understand and love the characters. I don’t expect that. But I’m sure it’s not that difficult. We are using big stars and it’s a more traditional dramatic structure. But the soul of the film is the same as before. To me, there are two kinds of movies. One is highly managed, in which the ambiance, the environment, and the lighting are all carefully plotted. The other kind is more spontaneous. With Farewell My Concubine, I am trying to recreate what you could call “dreams of glory.” To do so, I felt I had to take a calculated approach. I’ve also been using a lot of Steadicam on this, and that’s different from the many long shots that I used in The Big Parade. Steadicam allows you to focus on the person and gives an entirely different feel than tracking. Now, I find long shots terribly uncomfortable, and I pay more attention to what is going on around the actors. The Steadicam has a very human aspect to it.
PC What do you mean by “dreams of glory”?
CK I think of the 1930s as the most interesting decade in recent Chinese history. It was a jubilant decade, in spite of the terrible things the country was going through. I’m not speaking from a political standpoint, but from that of society.
PC The look of Farewell is also very different from your previous films.
CK To me, this story is like a dream and the world of the opera troupe is even more dreamy. We use a lot of filters in the film to create this ambiance. Only after the death of Mr. Yuan does the color suddenly change to a bluish tone. In the Cultural Revolution scenes, I use a lot of color to emphasize the cruelty of the period, particularly the red in the fire and the flag. Zhang Fengyi told me this scene looks like the Cultural Revolution he remembers from his youth. The Cultural Revolution was like a stage. Everyone’s roles changed. But, in the film, Cheng is the only one who doesn’t realize that those who occupy the margins of the stage are now at the center. As a director, I see myself playing the role of someone who is putting various viruses into different tubes just to observe the result. Life is a process of changing stages. No matter what circumstance we are in, we always have a choice. “Who are you?” “Who do you want to be?” There is very little difference between these two questions. When we are small, though, the distance between them is huge.
—Peggy Chiao is a film critic based in Taiwan. She teaches at the Naitonal Institute of the Arts and Chengchi University.
—Lawrence Chua is the managing editor of BOMB and co-producer of Radio Bandung, an award-winning weekly radio newsmagazine.