The Real Cutural Revolution

CHEN KAIGE'S RAVISHING EPIC Farewell My Concubine should be the movie that opens American eyes to the new wonders of Chinese cinema. The first Chinese film to win the Palme d'Or in Cannes, a smash at the recent New York Film Festival, Chen's big, beautiful movie has the lushness of Bertolucci and the sweeping narrative confidence of an old Hollywood epic. It is the latest, and perhaps most stunning, in a string of films from the People's Republic, Taiwan and Hong Kong that have swept all the grand prizes at festivals from Venice and Berlin to Locarno and Tokyo, a cinematic grand slam that confirms that the boom in China is not limited to economics.

Where much of Western film has reached the decadent phase of rehash, Chinese filmmakers are burning to tell their untold stories. Chen's remarkable movie uses an unusual love triangle to telescope more than 50 years of tumultuous Chinese history. Beginning in 1925. during the warlord era, and progressing through World War II, the Communist victory over Chiang Kai-shek and up through the Cultural Revolution, Chen's tale is told through the intimate focus of two Beijing Opera stars. They meet as children at the harshly disciplinarian opera academy. Cheng Dieyi, with his feminine features, is trained to play the Concubine who dies for her King in the traditional opera "Farewell My Concubine." Duan Xiaolou plays the King. For the fanatical aesthete Dieyi (the amazing Leslie Cheung), life and art, male and female, blur dangerously into one: in love with his friend, oblivious to politics, he lives only for the Opera and is devastated when Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi marries a real-life, concubine, the gorgeous and opportunistic prostitute Juxian (Gong Li).

In the timeless world of the Beijing Opera, the rules of performance never change: the Concubine is always faithful to her King. In the frenzied political world around them, everything is in flux, power shifts and betrayal is the only way to survive. This tortuous love triangle lulls us with its sumptuousness, but its message is unrelievedly tragic. In the climactic nightmare of the Cultural Revolution, when the opera stars are dragged through the streets by the Red Guards, the last remnants of personal loyalty are shredded in an orgy of recrimination. Yet the film leaves one with hope: out of China's bitter history comes this triumphant testament. In movies at least, art has the final word.

In China. "Farewell My Concubine" has met a different fate. The schizoid nature of the current regime, as it embarks on its new capitalist adventure. was evident in the official reaction to Chen's victory in Cannes. While trying to court the Olympics to Beijing, the government was touting "a more open China." But though Chen got a hero's welcome when he returned to Beijing after Cannes, no government officials came to greet him, and the 100 journalists at the airport were instructed not to report on the film. Because of its horrific depiction of the Cultural Revolution, and its frank look at homosexuality, the movie was banned. Only after crucial cuts could the film be shown. Officials were particularly upset by a character's suicide in 1977. at the brink of Deng Xiaoping's era of reform. Who would dream of killing himself at such a moment? "I was not angry," says Chen, "just very, very sad. It's a pity that art and politics still cannot be separated in China."

The explosive creative fever in Chinese film was inevitable: when liberalization began in the '80s, after years of turgid, socialist-realist filmmaking, a new generation of filmmakers leapt to make up for lost time. The Beijing Film Studio (where "Concubine" was shot) was reopened. The new economic reforms encouraged an infusion of film financing from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. Filmmakers still have to get their scripts approved by officials (the bolder ones submit sanitized versions and shoot from a real script). Though "Concubine's" script had passed muster, the power of the finished film obviously proved too much for the fickle bureaucrats.

"Whether or not your script is approved is often just a matter of luck," says Zhang Yimou, whose films have won two Oscar nominations ("Jo Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern") and the grand prize in Venice ("The Story of Qiu Ju"). "The same script that gets approved in June can be rejected in July." His colleague Tian Zhuangzhuang, whose "The Blue Kite" unflinchingly depicts the grim political realities of China in the '50s and '60s, has given up hope that his movie will ever be shown in his country. Last month the Chinese delegation stormed out of the Tokyo film festival to protest its showing; later it won the top prize.

Chen, Tian and Zhang are the best-known members of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, who all graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982. "What distinguishes my generation of filmmakers is that we grew up during the Cultural Revolution." says Chen. "We are still angry about it." The teenage Chen, who was sent to the countryside to work on a rubber plantation, denounced his own filmmaker father. "There was no human dignity at that time. Later I apologized to my father. Still, I cannot forgive myself"

Though encouraged by recent reforms, Chen wonders how deep the changes go. "A quarter of a century ago, we were crazy about politics. Now we are crazy about making money. Our thinking has not really changed. I am afraid one day we will become money hooligans, without culture."

The culture is there, resplendently, in these potent new movies. But not for Chinese eyes.