Before the release of his latest film Monk Comes Down the Mountain renowned director Chen Kaige talks to Time Out about his – seemingly odd – decision to make a martial arts comedy and why he thinks we still have much more to learn from the Cultural Revolution.
In a tent out the back of a vast studio on the outskirts of Beijing, Chen Kaige regards a monitor from his director's chair, cigar smoke curling overhead. It's early 2014 and a complicated scene from Chen's new film, A Monk Comes Down the Mountain, is being shot; the director – along with a tent full of assistants, producers, off-duty cast, crew and a journalist – are watching it unfurl on screen.
In typical Crouching Tiger style, Aaron Kwok's stunt double makes a sudden leap away from his assailant by way of a system of ropes and pulleys that will be edited out later. Chen looks on as the actor repeats the stunt again and again, never quite perfect, when the tent’s hush is disturbed by the entrance of a man with a face so deformed by prosthetics it appears to be melting: Jaycee Chan, son of Jackie, dressed like a Ming Dynasty Quasimodo.
A break is announced, and a few minutes later we're sitting with Chen in his trailer. He is dressed in khaki trousers, a white baseball cap and a big blue puffer jacket. Now aged 62, Chen has been making films for three decades. He remains one of the most commercially and critically successful Chinese filmmakers of all time, from the rural classic Yellow Earth (1984) to the Palme d'Or-winning Farewell My Concubine (1993), through to the moving Together with You (2002) and 2012's mould-breaking modern fable Caught in the Web. Chen is not a director to be constrained by genre, historical period or mode of storytelling; over the decades he has experimented with his craft as the film market and audience in China have also been through a transformation.
'When I was making Farewell My Concubine there was not a market in China; people paid less than one yuan to buy a ticket,' says Chen. 'But now you have to pay 60, probably, so that means that I have to do something that people want to pay to see. This is the reality. It would be silly to say I don't care about this. How can you tell something interesting and make a movie that the audience wants to come to see? That's a very big question mark and I'm still trying to understand it.'
It would be difficult to imagine a work more in contrast to Chen’s last film, Caught in the Web, about internet-based witch-hunting, than Monk. Based on the bestselling novel A Monk Comes Down the Mountain by Xu Haofeng (who also wrote The Grandmaster), the action-comedy sees famine and hardship force an unworldly young monk (played by Wang Baoqiang of box office hit Lost in Thailand) to leave his Taoist temple in the hills. With little to go on but his wits and extraordinary skill in martial arts, the monk meets a kung fu master in possession of the Book of Secrets. Unfortunately, since the book reveals the lost art of a deadly kung fu technique, it is much coveted by a menacing father and son, who will go to any length to attain it. The monk is unwittingly drawn into a deadly battle to protect both the text and his new master.
An ensemble A-list Chinese cast, a dependable genre and distribution in 3D and IMAX make Monk one of Chen's more commercially-minded films. With the liberal deployment of CGI and a smattering of slapstick gags of the sort Wang Baoqiang is lauded for, Monk is bound for mass appeal. But for all the narrative and stylistic distance between Monk and Chen's earliest arthouse films (Concubine, Yellow Earth), he says his essential values as a filmmaker remain: 'I never forget why I want to make films. I still want to tell people about myself and then tell people what I feel about society. Every film, whether it's a historical story or not, reflects what's happening in society.'
This is especially true of Chen’s earlier work. Farewell My Concubine, the only Chinese film to ever win the Palme d'Or, is one of the defining works of the crop of directors who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in the early 1980s, China's so-called Fifth Generation – a term Chen dislikes. Following the troubled relationship of two Peking opera stars, the film (which was voted top in Time Out's poll of the best Mainland China films of all time) examines the blurred distinction between life and stage, confused identity and the fluidity of gender. It is also a socio-political critique of the turbulence wrought by the Cultural Revolution on Chinese culture and people’s inner lives, a theme that Chen has returned to in almost all of his films.
'We haven't learnt enough lessons from the Cultural Revolution,' says Chen, who became a Red Guard in his youth and spent his later teenage years chopping down trees in Yunnan. 'In the West people know something about the Cultural Revolution but they don't really know what happened, how the Cultural Revolution changed a country called China. I think there's a lot of social problems that we can see today that came from the Cultural Revolution.' In Caught in the Web he depicts the recent 'human flesh search engine' phenomenon with its clear echoes of the strain of mob mentality the Red Guards embodied.
One thing lost during that troubled decade, says Chen, was a sense of community. 'Our leader called on us to have something called "class struggle", and then we had to learn to hate, not to love. But to love is everything,' he says. With Monk, Chen confronts what he sees as a pathological lack of empathy in contemporary society. '[In martial arts films] there is always a Superman character who is ready to help. I believe society should want to love each other and help each other. So I want to see someone want to help – at least in my movie, if not in real life.'
By Nicola Davison