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The Promise/Interview with Chen Kaige

When the cultural revolution ended thirty years ago, Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou found themselves with no jobs, little education and an uncomfortable awareness of the rural China to which they'd been sent. When they returned to Beijing, they enrolled in the film institute and now are successful film directors. In 1984, Chen made his first film,

Yellow Earth , an expressionistic portrait of peasant life.

CHEN KAIGE: We were the film students. At that time Zhang Yimou, another director, was my cameraman. We just try to tell people something like a poem. It's not really a film. It's poetry.


That's how Chen described Yellow Earth when I spoke with him in 1997. A similar sense of poetry now infuses his new film, The Promise .

CHEN KAIGE: Right I cannot agree more. Because the way the story is structured is pretty much like a poetry as well, with a very strong sort of visual element.

Chen redefined Chinese film language in Yellow Earth by emphasizing imagery over narrative and by breaking with the social realism of the past. With The Promise , he's trying to redefine that language again. But instead of spinning an allegory about harsh country life, Chen invents a fairy tale to dazzle our senses. The story begins with a tempting promise made by a goddess to a starving young girl.

CLIP Music as Goddess Manshen makes her promise

The goddess promises to give Qingcheng riches, adoration and power but the child will have to make one sacrifice: she will lose everyone she ever loves. Chen says he wanted to tackle something he'd never tried before: a magical fantasy involving complex visual effects.


CHEN KAIGE: I knew in the beginning that it could be very difficult because I wasn't very familiar with the process and how I was going to be able to make the visual effects shots real. How we're going to make it beautiful.

Beauty is key in Chen's cinematic poem. He creates a world of rapturous images where a goddess can float among humans, a slave can run fast enough to make time move backwards, and Qingcheng's beauty can literally make an army throw down its weapons. In this world three men become obsessed with Qingcheng'the General Guangming, his loyal slave Kunlun, and the duplicitious Wuhuan. Each man pursues Qingcheng in very different ways and with very different motives. Chen says he wanted the world they inhabited to feel very fresh and new.

CHEN KAIGE: I hope that our audience can see the film like babies with open eyes for the first time to see this new born world. I think the colors are very significant in this film, for example the color of red really represents the power and the passion of the main character the general.

Colors saturate the screen in bold defiance of reality, defining the characters and their environments. There's also breathtaking stunt and wirework as characters defy gravity in dizzying encounters. Chen integrates the elaborate action sequences into the drama and uses fight to reveal character. Take Wuhuan's fighting style.

SFX Fans used in battle

His weapons of choice are fans whose beauty conceals lethal blades just as his smiles conceal each of his betrayals. Some have criticized Chen's The Promise as well as Zhang Yimou's Hero and House of Flying Daggers for being too 'commercial' and trying to imitate Hollywood. But Chen feels his film is distinctly Chinese.

CHEN KAIGE: I'm sure that this kind of film cannot be done in Hollywood. This is my personal feeling.

And he's right. Hollywood's not interested in making cinematic poetry, which is what The Promise is. Chen may use Hollywood style computer effects, but he does so to create a martial arts actioner combined with a lyrical meditation on love, trust, betrayal and freedom. Chen's desire to employ state of the art technology reflects an interesting turning point for the Chinese film industry. Both Hollywood and Hong Kong, which returned to China in 1997, have helped awaken a commercial sensibility in the Mainland Chinese film industry, and a desire for big action pictures in Chinese. With the fall of government-run studios and government-funded productions, Chen says filmmakers now find themselves at the mercy of the marketplace.

CHEN KAIGE: We need to think where we're going to raise money and how are we going to get money back from the market place. Back to the two decades ago and people came to see the movie without pay but now that they have to pay to see a film and I think the taste of the audience is different from before. So I have to consider a certain kind of commercial value and there is nothing wrong with that. At the same time we can combine the artistic value with commercial value to make sure the film is enjoyable.

Chen's exquisite fantasy is not only a stunning work of art but it finds Chinese filmmaking at a fascinating crossroads as it tries to redefine itself in changing political and economic times.

Companion viewing: Yellow Earth, Hero, Demon Pond, A Chinese Ghost Story -----