Chinese director Chen Kaige is best known in this country for period epics like “Farewell My Concubine,” “Temptress Moon” and “The Emperor and the Assassin,” but his earliest films were quite small in scale, and he’s returned to those intimate roots with his newest picture, “Together.” It’s a contemporary story of the love between a peasant and his thirteen-year old son, a violin prodigy, whom the father takes to Beijing in hopes of securing him a teacher who can help the boy win fame and fortune.
In a recent Dallas interview, Kaige commented on the tale’s connection to his own life: as a young man during the Cultural Revolution, Kaige denounced his father to the authorities–something he now deeply regrets. “I didn’t know that there is something about my father and me in this movie until the movie was made,” he said. “I’m serious. What I’m saying is that the story between the father and the son in the movie is very different from my own story, because now they’re lucky–living in a peaceful period of time. We went through a horrible political storm in my time–very different. But then all of a sudden I realized there’s something really about me in the scenes in which the boy comes back to see the father and makes confession by saying, ‘I shouldn’t have made you angry–I shouldn’t have shown vanity.’ Those words are familiar–you know, that’s the words I want to say to my father, actually. It’s a very–sort of–famous story in China, because I was maybe the only one–I belong to a very small group of people–who want to take responsibility for the Cultural Revolution. You cannot really see this [event] as a political campaign started by Chairman Mao. It’s too simple. That involved a lot of psychological elements, including myself–what I did to my father. Yes, I think that obviously I did put some personal feeling into this movie to fill out the relationship between the father and the son.”
Kaige added: “I hope that one day I’m going to make a movie about the Cultural Revolution. It’s still secret, what happened then. I want to make a movie not only about the Revolution, but how people survived [it].”
But “Together” also has another personal aspect for Kaige: it expresses the writer-director’s love of western classical music, to which he listened surreptitiously when it was banned during the Cultural Revolution. “I think that music is very important in every movie that I make,” he said. “I don’t know why, I really don’t. It’s nothing to do with the Cultural Revolution. This is what we learn in film school: to want to make a movie that’s aurally and visually strong at the same time. The film is for people to see–to listen to–not listen to a lot of dialogue, but you create a lot of different sounds on many levels. But there is a particular reason for me to do this movie. I’m a big fan of classical music. I often play pieces to myself when I need to think.” In the case of this film, the selection of music also had a narrative function. “We hope that the music can help us fill out the relationship and also establish the characters,” Kaige explained. “As you [the interviewer] said, it speaks through music.”
When asked why he chose such a modestly-scaled project after gaining fame for his epics, Kaige smiled. “I allow myself to do different kinds of movies,” he said. “I think I’m still sort of young at heart, and I always believe that I can create different kinds of films. Some people said, ‘Why do you want to do a small film like this? You’re good for those epic movies.’ It’s not a matter of being tired or something, because it’s tough to work with several thousand extras and get up at two o’clock in the morning, ready to shoot at seven. But what I’m saying is, as long as I’m moved–as long as I’m convinced this is a story that needs to be told–then I go ahead and do it, no matter what.”
But the shoot of “Together” was, Kaige admitted, an unusually blissful one. “This time I was really more relaxed than in the past…I was a pretty happy man, not like when I was doing ‘Emperor and the Assassin,’ I was screaming all the time…I’m changed. With a sense of humor and true happiness you can do things better. It took only eleven weeks to shoot, which is very unusual for me.”
One aspect of making the film was not, however, so relaxing for Kaige–playing the part of one of the boy’s teachers. Asked whether he found himself easy to direct, Kaige laughed. “No, no,” he exclaimed. “It was not fun. I will not do that again, because they gave me a very strange look, the people around me. They make me feel so uneasy that I’m going to do another take….I didn’t have my own mirror that I can look into and find out whether it’s good or not. My job is to be a mirror for the actors.” But when you’re the actor yourself, he said, you can’t provide the needed reflection.
“Together” is a United Artists release.