Director Chen Kaige Discusses His New Opera Film

In his new film, "Forever Enthralled," Chinese director Chen Kaige returns to the subject of opera, which he tackled to stunning effect in his 1993 masterpiece "Farewell My Concubine." Starring Leon Lai and Zhang Ziyi, "Forever" is based on the life of legendary Chinese opera star Mei Lanfang. Already a big hit in China since it opened in December, the film starts screening around Asia this month and will show in competition at the Berlin Film Festival in February. Chen, 56, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Alexandra A. Seno in Hong Kong. Excerpts:

SENO: Why should modern Chinese audiences care about an early-20th-century opera star?
CHEN: This has been a very special year for China. We had a very successful Olympics, we received many glories, but at the same time there were natural disasters where many people lost their lives. China needs to decide which direction the country will take; that's probably why people want to look back and see what Mei Lanfang and others did for the country. Mei Lanfang was the first one to let Western audiences understand Chinese culture. He traveled to New York and did his show at the 49th Street Theatre, and he was very successful. He became a celebrity and he showed what it is to be Chinese.

Are you concerned about comparisons between " Forever Enthralled " and " Farewell My Concubine, " which is considered an international classic?
I am very interested in people who live in the Beijing opera world. If you can understand them, you can understand Chinese society better. This is why I wanted to do Beijing opera again. The difference is "Farewell My Concubine" is fiction. Mei Lanfang existed in history. With "Farewell," I had more freedom with the story. But with Mei Lanfang, I was very careful. I respect his son [who served as a consultant]. The extramarital affair between Mei Lanfang and Meng Xiaodong, the character played by Zhang Ziyi, was taboo. But Mei's son said, "Do whatever you want to do." So I had to make sure it would not hurt the public memory of Mei.

Mei Lanfang was friends with Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. Why did you exclude this aspect of his life in the film?
I was afraid that the movie would be like a documentary. I just wanted to show the important moments of his life—how he conquered fear and became strong. There is also symbolic stuff like the paper yoke. [The film opens with Mei's uncle risking execution if he breaks the paper yoke around his neck and hands.] As a famous person, he had a yoke his whole life. We can see in the entertainment business today so many people have the same thing. There is invisible pressure, the love from the fans, the suspicious eyes from the press. Celebrities live under very strong pressure.

Has success been a burden for you?
I started 25 years ago, in a different time. We didn't have pressure from the audience. We just did what we wanted to do. We were crazy about creating a new cinema language. Now you have to negotiate with your investors about how much money you put into your production, and of course, you care about the box office. But this is just the situation; it's nothing to complain about.

What was the filming like?
We laughed a lot on set, although we took a very long time to make this film, more than seven months. Obviously, there were a lot of difficulties. Where could we shoot 49th Street in New York City? Finally, we did it on a street in Shanghai, which we blocked for 10 days. We found a music hall in Shanghai. Then we had to find more than 1,000 white foreigners as extras. We had to send a bus [two and a half hours away] to Suzhou to get students.

Many did not like your last film, " The Promise, " a martial-arts fantasy. How do you deal with criticism?
This is a part of life. It is very natural to me. I have been criticized not only by critics but also by the authorities. With "Farewell" I was in very big trouble. I am used to that. Sometimes, a film takes a long time to be understood. In 1997 I did a film called "The Emperor and the Assassin," and we had a very bad premiere in Beijing, so people said they didn't like the film. But five years later, many people called me to say, "Now we understand the film; we really believe this is a masterpiece." Things happen like that. I am very patient.

What is the appeal of epic, period films?
We have some problems with doing a contemporary piece. You cannot see things very clearly when it is too close to you. You need to go a bit far away and look back to know why a project is so significant. For the time being I want to do period pieces.

Young filmmakers in China look up to you as a mentor. What do you tell them?
It is probably even more difficult for young directors to do things in China now. Where to raise money? But they have hope and they have more time than I do. The film industry in China will be well developed. We will have more money and audiences to do the things we want to do.