Walter Mencken 12:34 p.m., July 24
Interview: Chén Kǎigē on Sacrifice
Beijing-born Chén Kǎigē was the son of established Chinese film director, Chen Huai'ai. By all accounts it was a tumultuous relationship. In school he was forced to denounce his father. Mr. Chén later joined the People's Liberation Army while his dad scrubbed toilets.
The two were separated for a period of almost 8 year and eventually reunited at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Based on the play “Orphan of Zhao," Sacrifice is obviously a very personal film for Mr. Chén. Set in the 5th century B.C., the film tells the powerful tale of a Chinese general responsible for the ruthless slaughter of all but one member of a rival clan.
The sole survivor, an infant prince named Cheng Bo, is secretly raised by the doctor who delivers him, a man that sacrificed his own son to save the life of a child born into nobility. When the boy becomes a man, he is forced to choose between two fathers while the destiny of a nation rests with his decision.
Mr. Chén, who is well regarded for a series of sumptuous epic period dramas (Farewell My Concubine, The Emperor and the Assassin, and The Promise) spoke with The Big Screen from his office in Beijing about his latest saga.
Sacrifice opens this Friday exclusively at Reading Cinemas Gaslamp 15. Click for showtimes.
Scott Marks: Hello, Mr. Chen. I cannot tell you what an honor it is to speak with an artist of your magnitude.
Chen Kaige: Well, thank you!
SM: Your father was the recognized Chinese filmmaker, Chen Huai'ai. Please tell me a little something about the movies he made.
CK: After the Communist revolution he directed several feature films and also a film about Peking opera. He wasn’t very happy as a film director because of the reasons everybody knows. He died when he was 74. Farewll My Concubine was the last film he helped me to do. He was very experienced about how to do a Peking opera film.
SM: Do you recall watching your father at work on a set?
CK: I still remember clearly going to the soundstage to see my father making a film there. They took a long time to prepare. I would sit there for 4 hours while nothing happened. I remember telling my father that I felt filmmaking was a very boring job. I didn’t have any interest in it until I graduated from the Beijing Film Academy. It wasn’t until I stood behind the camera that I realized how much fun it is.
SM: You films contain a lot of memorable action sequences. Action films tend to do very well in America except when they have subtitles at the bottom of the screen. In your estimation, what are the fundamental differences between Eastern and Western action films?
CK: I think that the Western action film is very different than what we are doing here. In China, the action film is basically the kung fu film. In the West, the heroes only use their fists or their buddies to fight against enemies. Eastern culture action movies say that you have to be happy and comfortable with whatever you have inside of yourself.
Only then can you get the real power out of your heart. Then you become a real hero. You must become very comfortable and confident with yourself first before you can defeat your enemies. That’s the difference between the two. I could be wrong, but I feel like here in China when people are talking about a kung fu film, they have to turn around and face themselves first before they face the enemy.
I know that in the States Sacrifice is going to have a very small release. I hope that a lot of Americans will come and see the film. The most important thing for me about having my films shown in the West is to let American people know who we are.
SM: You action scenes have a tremendous amount of coverage. How many cameras do you use to film a typical action sequence?
CK: We design everything you saw ahead of time, so we didn’t really use a lot of cameras. Three cameras maximum, that’s it. We took a long time shooting. For example, the fighting sequences would take an average of five days to execute, but with never more than three cameras.
SM: The character of Tuan’ Gu is the most complex in the film and Wang Xue Qi's performance is one of the finest I’ve seen all year. In the beginning we actually feel sorry for him, particularly when we see how he’s mistreated by the King. You even allow him a brief moment to fantasize about marrying the King’s sister. Within a reel Tuan’ Gu throws an infant to its death. He’s a very powerful character and it’s fascinating to watch you play against audience expectations.
CK: At the end of the day the only reason he is Cheng Bo’s kin is because he raised the child. This is the child he wanted to carry in the beginning. Life is like this. You never know. We are frequently forced to choose between love and hate. This is my sixth time working with Wang Xue Qi and we understand each other very well. I told him that’s what you need to do and he did it for me. That’s the way we work.
SM: In the end, you once again turn everything around by bringing the audience back on his side. This is no small feat considering the unspeakable brutality we’ve witnessed in this character.
CK: By the time it’s over he has turned into a real human being. Before that he was only a villain. The ending is very sad to me. Whether what happens is a right decision or a wrong decision no one knows. It’s a dilemma.
SM: I quite enjoy the doctor character who saves the child’s life.
CK: I asked myself why he’d want to save this life. The kid deserved to have a childhood like other children have. The doctor did well to try and give a beautiful childhood to the kid and not raise him by hate. That is the point that I am trying to make in the film.
SM: The film imparts a very strong anti-war statement.
CK (Laughing): Right!
SM: Every character in The Sacrifice is forced to make a sacrifice. As a filmmaker, what sacrifices did you have to make in order to make The Sacrifice?
CK: This is always a big question for me. Do you want to keep whatever you believe and put it into your film? Do you want to make the film the way you want to make it? The answer is always yes, but in reality you cannot always do things the way you like. We have to make certain kinds of compromises. You sacrifice something while at the same time finding other ways to do the film you’d love to do. That’s the sacrifice, the thing that as a filmmaker I must face every single day.
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