Family & Companions
The son of a filmmaker from the earlier generation of Chinese socialist realism, Chen Kaige represents the Fifth Generation, filmmakers who attended Beijing Film Institute after the Cultural Revolution. After graduating in 1982, Chen and his classmates began a new wave in Chinese cinema by emphasizing the visual and aural qualities of film rather than traditional dramatic and literary elements. Their films have also been characterized by a strong political commitment which has led to objections from censors and has limited their domestic audience to students and intellectuals. Outside China, however, Chen Kaige and the other Fifth Generation filmmakers have drawn attention from an increasingly wide circle of film sophisticates who have hailed their efforts as the next most important New Wave. Chen has been awarded top festival prizes in Tokyo, Cannes and Berlin.
Chen's first feature, "Huang Tudi/Yellow Earth," was completed in 1983 at a small production unit in southern China. The deceptively simple plot concerns a soldier who comes to a remote village in the spring of 1939 to collect folk songs. Describing revolutionary change and extolling the virtues of communism, the soldier convinces the young bride of an arranged marriage to run away. The girl, however, disappears while crossing a river. Photographed by the famous cinematographer, Zhang Yimou, who later turned director himself with "Red Sorghum" (1987), the film is notable for its exquisite visual imagery and expressive compositions as well as its challenging reexamination of Chinese culture, in this case the repressive ideology of feudalism.
Chen's second film, "Da Yuebing/The Big Parade" (1985), reflects the Fifth Generation filmmakers' sense of history and their political attitude toward the Cultural Revolution. The film relates the experience of an army unit which is compelled to perform arduous exercises in preparation for a brief appearance in a meaningless parade. Chen has called the Cultural Revolution "China's biggest parade."
"King of Children" (1988), his next film, draws heavily on his own life during the years between 1966 and 1976. The hero of the film is sent to work with the peasants (as were Chen and his classmates). Though unprepared for his assignment, the young man is nevertheless directed to teach Maoist ideology to the poor. The film concludes by showing the futility of rote learning whatever the context, be it during the Cultural Revolution or in the contemporary Chinese educational system.
Chen's fourth film, "Life on a String," an official selection in competition at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, concerns a blind storyteller and his young apprentice who travel from village to village accompanying themselves on the sanxian, a traditional three-stringed instrument.
Chen and the other Fifth Generation filmmakers have brought a new vitality to Chinese cinema that is recognized by film critics around the world. What effect this mounting international attention will have on the official government's assessment of China's new cinema artists remains to be seen. However, if the government's reaction to Chen's fifth feature is any indication, this new generation of film artists will have a long struggle to gain freedom of expression in their native land.
"Farewell My Concubine" (1993) presents an epic portrait of Chinese life that spans from the 1920s to the 70s tracing the homoerotic relationship between two Beijing opera actors. The film's colorful canvas unflinchingly depicts China in the throes of war and peace, military occupation, and the Cultural Revolution. Fearful of political embarrassment, the authorities banned the film in China for a time before finally releasing it in a censored version. "Farewell My Concubine" created a sensation in Western film circles; it shared the Palme d'Or with Jane Campion's "The Piano" at Cannes and screened at the New York Film Festival before opening to enthusiastic reviews. It's critical success has finally prompted recognition of what Chen and other Fifth Generation filmmakers said they set out to do in the early 80s: make Chinese film a recognized, world-class cinema.
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
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Producer (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
After the Cultural Revolution, enrolled in the Peking Film Academy
Film "Farewell My Concubine" banned in his native China
Helmed "Temptress Moon"
Directed the sweeping historical epic "The Emperor and the Assassin"
English-language dirctorial debut "Killing Me Softly", starring Heather Graham
Helmed the film "Master of the Crimson Armor/The Promise"; film earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film