Chen Kaige: Cultural resolution

The personal is political in the director Chen Kaige's new film. He tells Matthew Sweet how his traumatic life underlies all he does
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When Chen Kaige became the first Chinese director to win the Palme d'Or, he batted off literal interpretations of his winning film. Farewell My Concubine described an anguished bisexual love triangle in the wings of the Peking Opera, and depicted its characters pursuing personal revenge by denouncing each other to the authorities. It concluded with Leslie Cheung's cross-dressed diva taking a final bow and performing his stage suicide for real. To everyone's surprise, Chen insisted the picture was autobiographical: despite the wigs, the make-up and the atonal arias, it was really a film about the director's relationship with his father.

Chen's new film, Together with You (see Anthony Quinn's review), is another father-and-son story. Once again, he has not been able to insulate the work from the life. "My secret story is always there," he says. "It's always trying to find a way out. Sometimes I'm not even aware of it. The scene at the end of the film in which the boy comes back to apologise to his father - I didn't know that was me. But, oh my God, it was."

When Chen Kaige was fourteen, the Cultural Revolution destroyed his family life. Encouraged by schoolteachers, he denounced his father, the film director Chen Huai'ai, as an enemy of the state; a maker of subversive art. The man was sentenced to hard labour. The boy was dispatched to "learn from the people" on a rubber plantation in Yunnan province and then recruited into the Red Guard. The guilty son says that he can still recall how, on the evening after the denunciation, he crept back home after dark, unable to face his parents. One day, he says, he's going to make a film about it. "I'm willing to tell the true story of my father. But the Cultural Revolution is still a very sensitive subject in China. I'm afraid that if I make it right now I could be in trouble again. But I'm sure there'll be an opportunity for me to do that before I end my career."

He describes a moment from his life which already seems half-transformed into a scene from a movie. "Before the Cultural Revolution was over, I asked my father's forgiveness for the horrible things I did to him. I was being shipped off to the countryside to do labour for the army. My father took me to the train station to see me off. It was very awkward. We shook hands and he said something like, 'take care of yourself'. I was very casual, but I had arrogance in my eyes. I got on the train, feeling very depressed. I lit a cigarette as the train moved off. Then I looked out the window, and there was my father, running after the train. And at that moment I realised how much he was in love with me."

In Together With You, Xioachun (Yun Tang), a young violinist, travels with his father (Peiqi Lui) from the provinces to Beijing to find a professional teacher willing to develop his talents. A penniless music professor (Zhiwen Wang) tutors the boy in an idealistic, eccentric manner familiar from films about musical prodigies - but the boy's talent soon attracts the attention of Professor Yu Shifeng, a chilly impresario who persuades the father to return home and leave Xioachun in his care. "In China, the question of which professor the audiences preferred became the subject of debate, almost a social issue," says Chen. "Most of the children voted for the first professor, but their parents liked the second one. 'What are you talking about?', the parents said. 'We pay the money. We're eager to make you guys somebody.'" It put Chen in an interesting position - he had cast himself as the glacial Yu Shifeng.

"I'm almost in the same situation as him," he confesses. "He's very successful. He represents the new values of China. He's the cold-hearted professor who never really gave love to his students, but asks a lot from them all the same. He believes that success is the first consideration. He's an unlikeable character, but he doesn't know that. He doesn't know that he's doing the wrong things. Perhaps I'm a little like that."

I wonder what the cast of his last film would have to say on the matter. Killing Me Softly was a notable failure on his CV of art-house crowd-pleasers. An S&M thriller starring Heather Graham as a website designer who marries a psychopathic mountaineer (Joe Fiennes) whom she meets at a pelican crossing, it unleashed the most sadistic impulses of British film hacks.

"Turkeys don't come plumper than this," whooped one review. "It's a jaw-dropping catastrophe of a movie, a gruesome multiple pile-up of reputations." The nearest the film came to receiving a compliment was when one magazine wag saluted it as "the best comedy of the year." Chen, however, professes to have remained unbruised by the criticisms. "They didn't hurt me. I went through the Cultural Revolution. I don't think that anything can hurt me that much. Killing Me Softly was misunderstood, but what can I do about it? I think it's alright."

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement. And pressed to account for its shortcomings, Chen apportions blame to everybody but himself. "I didn't have the final cut. I didn't really have a big control over how the film was made. I had a very short time to finish everything. Some of the actors were pre-cast before I got involved. What can I do?" Heather Graham, he confesses, was the producer's choice.

"The lesson I've learned from this experience," he says, "is that you must make sure that the story is yours and that you can see the film as if it was your own child who grew up in front of you." It seems he agrees it was a bastard of a picture.

Darker forces than Hollywood producers have denied him the cast he wanted for his next picture - a martial arts epic he hopes will achieve the same success as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Earlier this year, Chen recalls, he was in Hong Kong to see Leslie Cheung, the lucent star of Farewell My Concubine, and was puzzled to find that his calls were not being returned. Mutual friends told him Cheung was lying low after a professional disappointment. "He wanted to direct a movie, and failed. That was a serious blow."

On April Fool's Day 2003, Cheung arranged to have tea with his friend and former agent, Chan Suk-fan, at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong. When the actor failed to show, she rang him on his mobile. He picked up the call on the terrace of the hotel's 24th-floor gym, told her that he'd meet her outside, and kept his word by throwing himself over the railings. "I was having dinner with some friends when I heard of his death," recalls Chen. "But I wasn't shocked. I knew that he was looking for something that doesn't exist in this world. He was too sensitive. He wanted everything to be perfect. His body was completely destroyed in the fall, but the face was still good. He deserves to act in heaven."

A memory of Cheung occurs to Chen: "I remember a dream that I had after I'd wrapped the production of Farewell My Concubine. I was so deeply involved in that story and those characters that I dreamed I saw him walking into my bedroom saying, 'farewell, my job is done'." A wistful smile passes over his face. "I told him the story not so long ago, and he said to me: 'We are all controlled by our destinies.'" Or by our pasts, perhaps.

'Together with You' is released today