Ready When You Are, C.K. : Chen Kaige, China’s most celebrated filmmaker, is an admitted dictator on the set. This time out, he’s forgoing the sweeping drama of ‘Farewell My Concubine’ to focus on complex emotions.
When dawn comes, the sun finally breaks through the leaden sheaf of clouds that has plagued the production for days. The drizzle has stopped too, so the mood is cheerful as the film crew scurries to load up equipment and supplies for the day’s outing. Cast and crew pile into a small caravan of rickety old vans and buses heading for picturesque Lake Tai, about an hour away, where a 1920s wharf has been reconstructed on a peninsula.
This is the location of Chen Kaige’s (pronounced Kai-GUH) latest film, “Temptress Moon.” Against a backdrop of tall-masted ships, a crowd dressed in period garb has gathered on the wooden pier. Well-to-do ladies in embroidered silk dresses stroll by, a gentleman is pulled on a two-wheeled sedan, stevedores in baggy smocks tote bales of hay and vendors sell fruits and sundries from baskets and carts.
In his Beijing-inflected Mandarin, Chen, director of “Farewell My Concubine,” is coaching principal actors Gong Li (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “To Live”), Leslie Cheung (“Farewell My Concubine”) and newcomer Kevin Lin. Chen, 43, is a tall, distinguished man with dark, brooding brows and a thick head of graying hair. Today he sports a fashionable leather jacket, a boater-striped T-shirt and signature black jeans. At nearly 6-foot-3, he cuts a commanding figure, towering over and above those around him, both in size and in personality.
Chen is, along with Zhang Yimou (who directed “To Live”), China’s most celebrated filmmaker, having won the 1993 Palme d’Or in Cannes for “Farewell My Concubine,” the highest international prize ever won by a Chinese filmmaker. The movie took a slew of other international honors too, including the best foreign film awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. and both the New York and Los Angeles film critics associations. The Academy Award eluded Chen, much to his chagrin.
But he quickly turned his attention to “Temptress Moon,” in which he wants to focus on people and their complex, often contradictory, emotions, after human characters were nearly lost to the dramatic arc of Chinese history in “Farewell My Concubine.”
With an original story by Chen himself, “Temptress Moon” spins a tragic tale of thwarted love and unattainable desire in which Ruyi (played by Gong Li), a spoiled heiress, is courted by a succession of very different men. “I want to tell a story about people’s inside world--because everyone has a mask on in real life,” Chen explains. “These young people at the early part of this century pay a high price for their love. You don’t see this kind of thing today.”
The film is planned for release in Asia early next year with an eye toward the Cannes International Film Festival in May. No U.S. distributor or release date has been determined.
O n the dock, Chen acts out an emotional scene for the gath ered audience. With almost feverish intensity, he gesticulates as he recites dialogue from the script and explains the underlying motives: Beneath his sweet schoolboy face, Zhongliang (Cheung) disguises sinister purposes--while purporting to take Ruyi to Beijing to study, he means to kidnap her to sin city Shanghai and hold her for ransom against her wealthy family. Duanwu (Lin), who has grown up with both of them and has long had a crush on Ruyi, has come to bid them one fond final farewell. As a send-off gesture, he offers them a sip of tea from a small teapot, then turns quickly away.
Finished with his instructions, Chen strides briskly down the pier, where he seats himself on a small wooden stool and prepares to watch the action on a monitor. The video operator stoops beside him, awaiting command; he’s a diminutive fellow with a shaven head and is ironically known as da hao , which means “big guy.”
“Yu-bei! [Ready!]” Chen shouts. “Kai-shih! [Action!]”
After several takes, he sits scowling. Something is not right. He gets up and pulls Lin aside.
“This is a very emotional scene,” Chen counsels, squarely facing the actor. “You can barely contain your emotions as you offer them tea. You’re thinking, ‘This is the last time I’ll ever see her! The last time!’ ” His hand is lifted to his face and beats the air to emphasize each point. “How can you bear it? You cannot bear it--you’re on the edge of bursting ! This is what I want to see!”
Everyone regains his or her position, the pier is sprayed with water to cut the glare, and they start again.
In front of the ship that will carry them away, Ruyi and Zhongliang are humbly offered a drink from a teapot by the agitated Duanwu. Suddenly, he pivots away. He rushes down the dock, the Steadicam following him as he dives through the teeming crowd. His heart is breaking, he’s visibly shaking.
The camera stops rolling, but Lin continues walking, walking clear to the other end of the pier, so overwrought that he has actually started sobbing. These tears are real and unstoppable. Everybody looks the other way; such open emotionalism, especially the sight of a man weeping, is not very Chinese.
But the director is pleased. He means to pack every scene with emotional impact. From his perch, Chen nods. “Hao!” he says finally. “Good, that will do.” The minions quickly swirl around him to pick up chairs, equipment and cables, and shift to the next setup.
Meanwhile, back at the Wuzhong Hotel in Suzhou, where cast and crew have taken up residence, cooks hired from the Shanghai Film Studio have been chopping and stir-frying away all morning. They pack the fare--generous portions of meat and vegetables--into white plastic foam cartons. Near noontime, they arrive on the set with the lunch boxes, a hundred pair of throwaway chopsticks and large, insulated metal vats containing rice and soup.
The boxes are passed out to cast and crew, with a careful eye kept on the extras who play the stevedores and coolies to be sure they don’t pinch more than one. These strapping young fellows are Peoples Liberation Army soldiers who have shed their split-pea green uniforms for the day for a little extra money for their regiment. And why not? It’s a welcome break from routine and a chance to brush with glamour.
People eat where they will--perched on a rock or on the grass. The food is surprisingly tasty. The director himself is not eating; he’s holding an impromptu press conference on the hillside steps, answering questions from a small coterie of Shanghai reporters who have come for the day and are now gathered around him, busily taking notes and photos.
Nearby, a canvas tent has been pitched for the principal actors, and Gong Li and Leslie Cheung abscond themselves within, away from the prying eyes of gawkers and reporters alike. As an exercise in stardom, both have assiduously refused interviews throughout the shooting. Gong Li, probably the most famous Chinese actress in the world today, doesn’t need to give a reason, but it’s clear that she finds interviews annoying and tends to answer questions with petulant one-liners like, “Yes, I guess so” or “I don’t remember.” Cheung believes that interviews distract him from the role he is playing.
While generally about 10 scenes are scheduled per day, today there are only four because these are re-shoots of scenes Chen had not been happy with last winter. This makes for a short day that wraps by early afternoon, and Chen is whisked by speedboat across the channel to a limo that will drive him to Shanghai, two hours away.
The next day he is to attend a special awards ceremony, sponsored by the Shanghai Film Critics Assn., which recently announced its list of “The Ten Best Chinese Films of All Time.” Along with older classics of Chinese cinema, such as “Street Angel” and “The Goddess,” Chen is to receive the award for his landmark “The Yellow Earth” (1984), the film that announced the arrival of the “Fifth Generation” filmmakers of China.
The “Fifth Generation,” a term coined by Chinese film critics, includes Chen and his schoolmates of the class of ’82 at the Beijing Film Institute--such as Zhang Yimou (cinematographer of “The Yellow Earth” and director of the upcoming “Shanghai Triad”), Tian Zhuangzhuang (“Blue Kite”) and Li Shaohong (“Bloody Morning”).
This is the group that has put Chinese films on the map, excited critics and has major independent distributors, such as Miramax and Sony Classics, vying madly for distribution rights.
“Temptress Moon” is a co-production between Hong Kong-based Tomson Films and the Shanghai Film Studios, one of the largest and most active in China. Some of the crew and the extras have been hired, and such hardware as vehicles and lighting rented, from the studio. But Chen, affiliated with the Beijing Film Studio, has brought along some of his chums from up north. His closest lieutenants are Beijing Film Studio cronies.
What complicates the dynamics further is that most of the hard cash is coming from Tomson Films, headed by Hsu Feng, a former Taiwanese actress and now a businesswoman in Hong Kong. Thus, the actual purse strings to the production are held in the hands of a Taiwanese staff, which makes for another set of tensions. But, after all, this is just a microcosm of how things work in China today--many enterprises are funded by overseas Chinese, employing local skills and resources.
“Temptress Moon” started shooting last fall but suffered a series of delays, mostly having to do with replacing the actress in the lead role twice when Chen found each unsatisfying. Finally, last December, the pivotal and much-coveted role of Ruyi fell to Gong Li.
The current film boasts some 20 locations, including Ming and Qing period gardens and pavilions around Suzhou and a 1920s Shanghai reconstruction on the suburban lot of the Shanghai Film Studio. Production expenses will eventually tally around $6 million--peanuts by Hollywood standards, but a staggering fortune in China, where most features are churned out for a fraction of that amount.
O liver Stone once remarked that being a movie director is one of the few places left on Earth where it’s acceptable to be a tyrant. And Chen makes no bones about exercising his tyranny when shooting. As a perfectionist, he demands take after take, even through the wee hours of the night, until he gets what he wants. He openly admits, “On the set, I’m a dictator.”
For some it proves a grueling endurance test.
“Chen Kaige is very demanding; working with him is mentally and physically exhausting,” Cheung acknowledges, but he genuinely admires Chen’s cultural and intellectual depth. “I would always want to work with him because whatever film he makes will be a very good one.”
Gong Li seems the most untouched, wafting about as she continues a long-distance romance with a Hong Kong-based Singaporean businessman after her much-publicized breakup with director Zhang Yimou. Although she rolls her eyes when another take is called for, she trots before the camera and delivers her emotions on cue.
Early that morning at Lake Tai, someone remarked on how miraculous it was that the bad weather had broken, just in time for the day’s shooting. Director Chen only glared. “What’s so surprising about that?” he said in his deep rumbly voice, half joking, half serious. “Didn’t I tell you who my father is? God himself!”
“Ohhh, so that’s it!” Da Hao, the video assistant, pipes up mischievously. “So God’s surname is Chen!”
The director isn’t insulted. In fact, he’s so tickled with the joke that he repeats the story over dinner one night, seated at a large banquet table with a dozen guests. After delivering the punchline, Chen Kaige drops his glowering demeanor for a moment and almost, nearly, laughs.*