(SCMP) At film festivals during the 1990s it was impossible not to be bowled over by the grandeur of Chen Kaige’s vision. With Farewell My Concubine (1993), Temptress Moon (1996) and The Emperor and The Assassin (1998) the Beijing-born director’s colour-saturated period dramas presented a China that was full of life, and Western audiences revelled in his gorgeous images and film stars.
Both Chinese society and the nature of filmmaking have vastly changed since, but whether it’s for the better, Chen himself is not about to change.
“Sometimes I get confused in terms of how much I can continue to do in the future. I think some important stories haven’t been told yet so I cannot give up,” Chen tells the Post in an interview at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where he led the Platform jury and hosted a “sneak peek” presentation of his upcoming period action film, Legend of the Demon Cat.
Chen, 65, is currently putting the final touches to the film, his first in six years. It’s astounding the lengths he has gone to in constructing almost everything for real, including what he terms “an entire city” that took five years to create at a cost of US$200 million – separate to the film’s budget – and will later serve as an amusement park.
The director’s passion for telling the story of the forward-thinking Tang dynasty is understandable at a time when the world has run amok. “I’ve felt very bad that traditional culture, including Confucianism, has completely been abandoned in China,” says Chen, a self-proclaimed Buddhist. “The lifestyle of the old cities has gone, unfortunately.”
The filmmaker hopes that the younger generation can relate to his new film and to the old city he has created. In its heyday Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) was a cosmopolitan city and a high point of civilisation.
“More than 10,000 poets lived in that city and even foreigners – Koreans, Japanese and people from central Asia living there – could be government officials. There is a kind of parallel today as young people are looking for something called freedom. So I’m trying to tell them that once upon a time China was just like that.”
Chen apologises for only being able to show six minutes of footage in Toronto, though he hopes the viewers can appreciate the size and scope of the China-Japan co-production, which will open in China in late December and in Hong Kong soon after. It will then likely receive its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2018, Chen reveals.
Based on the novel Samana Kukai by Yoneyama Mineo and set in AD850, the film follows a demon cat that breaks the peace in Chang’an city. A Chinese poet and a Japanese monk investigating the death of Yang Guifei, the most beautiful concubine in Chinese history, discover the trail left by the fierce feline.
Chen notes that five or six black cats were used in the film. “Sometimes we wanted the cat to be angry or very, very nice, or for it to be soft. All the cats were very well protected every day, including by my son!,” he says.
Filmed over five months, Legend of the Demon Cat was shot the old-fashioned way, employing thousands of extras, even if some 1,200 visual effects shots were employed – including for the cat. In some way Chen’s concession to using special effects is meant to appeal to the increasingly youth-driven audience in China.
He notes the average age has gone from 40 when he started out to 21½ today and that number is still dropping. “I remember 30 years ago when Bernardo Bertolucci was in Beijing,” he says of the time when the Italian director filmed The Last Emperor, in which Chen played the captain of the Imperial Guard.
“We had a long talk and agreed we would never ever put a single visual effects shot in our films. How wrong we were!” he chuckles.
“I’m not familiar with that process but I still gave my opinion. I said making a visual effects shot doesn’t mean that you want to tell people it’s a fake. You must do whatever you can to make it feel real. This time I worked with a Japanese team and they fully understood what I wanted. The city is beautiful and it looks very real.”
Chen is part of the “fifth generation” of Chinese cinema, together with Zhang Yimou who started out as his cinematographer on his debut feature Yellow Earth. He speaks good English, thanks to his two-year stint as a visiting scholar at New York University in the late 1980s. “It was sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. They would only hire an interpreter for a year, then I was on my own.”
It was afterwards that his films did well internationally. In 1993 Farewell My Concubine won the Cannes Palme d’Or, and at the Oscars, the film was nominated for best cinematography and best foreign film; it won the latter prize at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs.
Does Chen feel a part of the international film community? “I do, thanks to the high-quality festivals like Cannes, Venice, Toronto and Berlin. These festivals provide hope for young filmmakers to make films. Otherwise how can they survive in the money-driven market where everything is about being commercially successful?”
Despite the surge in Chinese cinema attendance, recently exemplified by the record-breaking run of Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior 2 , Chen is somehow more concerned about the lack of art-house cinemas in the country. “We need those kinds of films to be shown for people who are interested in watching art films. But I’ve always believed that when there’s a big wave then you can see big fish! So there is hope.”