Has Chen Kaige Sold Out?

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NISID HAJARINotably absent from the ranks of cognoscenti assembled for this year's Tokyo filmfest were heavyweight Asian filmmakers like mainland Chinese director Chen Kaige. Approaching the district where most of the films were being screened, however, festival-goers could not miss Chen's presence--splashed across a massive billboard advertising his latest glossy feature, The First Emperor (known in China as Assassin), which opens in Japan on Nov. 14.While Chen has made his name with lush, highbrow epics like Farewell My Concubine, Emperor carries the director into new, unusually mainstream territory. The $20 million picture, co-financed by backers from Japan, France and the United States, stands as the most expensive production ever mounted in China. The budget shows in the vast and rousing battle scenes that punctuate the three-hour tale of the emperor Qinshihuang--the first to unify China's warring states. Predictably, critics have complained that the money also manifests itself in a limp, commercialized script and the soft-pedaling of Chen's normally rebellious instincts. The onetime art-film director, they say, has gone Hollywood.PAGE 1  |  
In scope at least, they may be right. Chen claims he first began planning the film 11 years ago; the actual shooting took six-and-a-half months. The production, too, adopted all the painstaking extravagance of a typical U.S. blockbuster. Costume designer Mo Xiaomin spent four years preparing historically accurate clothing (even the black flag of the Qin kingdom was woven and dyed using methods employed by Tibetans 2,000 years ago). A life-size replica of the emperor's elaborate Xianyang palace--which extended over an area three times that of Beijing's Forbidden City--was built in eastern Zhejiang province; it has since been transformed into a theme park. Thousands of People's Liberation Army soldiers were deployed as extras for Chen's elaborately staged battle sequences.The story would seem to demand such grand dimensions. Qinshihuang, also known as Ying Zheng, developed a reputation for epic brutality after he united the country--forcing his mother into exile and his father to commit suicide when he discovered he was born out of wedlock. Several assassins attempted to unseat him; Chen's script centers on one, Jing Ke (played by Zhang Fengyi), who does so out of love for a historically fictional concubine (Gong Li). Critics in China have complained that the characterization of the king is too thin. A believable portrait, they say, would have rendered him a strong, charismatic hero.Others have speculated that Chen, who ran afoul of Beijing's censors with every one of his earlier scripts, sought to pacify authorities with an unapologetically patriotic film. (Indeed, the movie received the unprecedented privilege of a world premiere in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, although Chen reportedly had to rent the space.) More likely the director had his eyes set on a wider audience than his critically acclaimed features have traditionally enjoyed. Chinese authorities hope to bolster the country's struggling domestic film industry, and have invested $3 million since last year to upgrade outmoded studio technology. But lavish productions will increasingly have to rely like Chen on foreign financing (and foreign audiences). Chen himself plans to head soon for the U.S., where he will shoot his next film in English. That, at least, will be a language even his festival-going fans can understand.Reported by Mia Turner/Beijing  |  2