Macau (MNA) – Chinese director Chen Kaige told Macau News Agency (MNA) during an interview that there are a still many turbulent, but also harmonious, periods of Chinese history that he would like explore in his movies in order to show modern Chinese audiences the “price” the country paid for its current modern development.
Speaking in an interview during the 2018 International Film Festival and Awards Macau (IFFAM) – where he is the main competition Jury President – Kaige considered his own life as an example of the astonishing changes the country faced.
Born in 1952 in Beijing, Kaige says he enjoyed a good childhood in a period when China was a very closed country, but the director ended up being sent to the countryside in Yunnan Province when he was barely 17, during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
“I feel like my life has been very dramatic in a way […]. I joined the [People’s Liberation Army] and stayed in a remote province for almost seven years, missing my family, which was in Beijing at that time,” he said.
During that time, Kaige joined the famed Red Guard, and ended up denouncing his father, also a renowned director, in a decision he later deeply regretted.
In 1978, ten years after economic reforms started, Kaige became a student at the Beijing Film Academy, shooting his debut film, Yellow Earth, in 1984 and winning the main award at Cannes in 1993 for Farewell my Concubine.
“I must say that in the last 40 years there was a magnificent change taking place in China, a change involving billions of people. I think that my own destiny has been changed as well. I never thought that I could be a film director,” he added.
The openness of the Tang dynasty
With many of his movies depicting difficult Chinese historical periods, Kaige said that there are still many unexplored stories and periods of time to be shown on the big screen, with depictions of those hardships able to better show contemporary audiences the “price” China paid for the stage of development it is currently in.
“One of the reasons why I want to look back to get something from history is that I think, for the economic reform, for the change of the country, we paid a very high price for that. Meaning that our country, our behavior, our relationship, the structure of the society completely changed,” the director stated.
However, for Kaige, showing also on film the elements of Chinese society lost with the passage of time can help modern China improve its society.
“We lost a lot of things that used to be very precious for us, and in the darkness of the history, you can always see the things we forgot, the things that we lost and that are still shining there,” he said
“So, I want to go back and pick it up and bring it to the current society today, to show what we had. Why don’t we just keep those things?”
When asked what historical period he was more interested in displaying to modern Chinese audiences, Kaige mentioned that he considered the Tang dynasty to be “the most beautiful dynasty in Chinese history,” due to its openness to the outside world.
The Tang dynasty spanned from 618 to 907. The director’s last movie, The Legend of the Demon Cat, took place in that period.
“So many people, not just Chinese, but from Korea, Iran, central Asia and maybe from Europe, they settled down in a city now called Xi’an. I looked at the historical record and maybe more 40,000 foreigners were living there and they could even become an official officer if they were able to pass the central examination. That’s incredible. Some Japanese even became very high ranking officials on China,” Kaige said.
“The openness, hospitality, and that confidence. That’s so very important and that’s a very good example to show who we were at that time.”
For Kaige, modern Chinese society lives in constant competition with the “relationships between people having changed,” as people now regard each other as enemies to beat.
Kaige’s 2012 movie on display at this year’s IFFAM, Caught in the Web, focuses on how social media impacts the lives of Chinese citizens in modern times, with the director reminiscing about simpler times.
“When I was, a young boy living in Beijing, I knew people were polite and nice. That’s what I liked. Personally, to me, I don’t really care how strong the society can be, how strong the nation can be. What I do care about, and also what I want to show in my movies, is how nice people can be. That’s why I miss the time when we loved each other,” he commented.
When asked about his future film project, Kaige only stated it will be set in modern times, and that he wants to bring “positive energy” to the audience.
“There is harmony and clash. The whole society is like a river. Water can flow and water can crash. I’m trying to find perspective. I’m not trying to make any judgement. In my mind, there are no good people or bad people. Only people,” he added.