Magazine article Newsweek International

Back for an Encore

Magazine article Newsweek International

Back for an Encore

Article excerpt

Filmmaker Chen Kaige uses opera again to help explain Chinese society.

In his new film, "Forever Enthralled," Chinese director Chen Kaige returns to the subject of opera, which he tackled to stunning effect in his 1993 masterpiece "Farewell My Concubine." Starring Leon Lai and Zhang Ziyi, "Forever" is based on the life of legendary Chinese opera star Mei Lanfang. Already a big hit in China since it opened in December, the film starts screening around Asia this month and will show in competition at the Berlin Film Festival in February. Chen, 56, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Alexandra A. Seno in Hong Kong. Excerpts:

SENO: Why should modern Chinese audiences care about an early-20th-century opera star?

CHEN: This has been a very special year for China. We had a very successful Olympics, we received many glories, but at the same time there were natural disasters where many people lost their lives. China needs to decide which direction the country will take; that's probably why people want to look back and see what Mei Lanfang and others did for the country. Mei Lanfang was the first one to let Western audiences understand Chinese culture. He traveled to New York and did his show at the 49th Street Theatre, and he was very successful. He became a celebrity and he showed what it is to be Chinese.

Are you concerned about comparisons between "Forever Enthralled" and "Farewell My Concubine," which is considered an international classic?

I am very interested in people who live in the Beijing opera world. If you can understand them, you can understand Chinese society better. This is why I wanted to do Beijing opera again. The difference is "Farewell My Concubine" is fiction. Mei Lanfang existed in history. With "Farewell," I had more freedom with the story. But with Mei Lanfang, I was very careful. I respect his son [who served as a consultant]. The extramarital affair between Mei Lanfang and Meng Xiaodong, the character played by Zhang Ziyi, was taboo. But Mei's son said, "Do whatever you want to do." So I had to make sure it would not hurt the public memory of Mei.

Mei Lanfang was friends with Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. Why did you exclude this aspect of his life in the film?

I was afraid that the movie would be like a documentary. I just wanted to show the important moments of his life--how he conquered fear and became strong. There is also symbolic stuff like the paper yoke. [The film opens with Mei's uncle risking execution if he breaks the paper yoke around his neck and hands. …

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