It's a long long trail from the Cultural Revolution China of Maoist movie-makers in pajama-style unisex garb and Red Star caps: Chen Kaige, the urbane cineaste of Farewell My Concubine and the new The Emperor and the Assassin, speaks American English, once having spent a year in the USA on a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation. Gong Li, The Emperor and the Assassin's superstar female lead, has skipped off and married a rich foreigner, a Singaporean businessman based in Hong Kong.
Chen joked about Gong at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival: "Sometimes I blame her for being a so-happy wife. I tell her she has to suffer a bit so that she doesn't lose her power as an actress." When the two met with a cluster of international movie press down by the beach at Cannes, she was decked out in toreador pants, shades, ankle bracelet, with a pearl necklace on her dainty neck. Though dutifully publicizing Chen Kaige's movie, Gong was also in Cannes for a distinctly Western purpose. She had been engaged for a five-woman "dream team" representing L'Oreal lotions and hair products.
"When China first opened to the West, we were attracted to L'Oreal because of Isabella Rossellini," Gong explained through an interpreter. "I am very happy that L'Oreal chose me." She smiled.
Chen was also exalted, that he'd managed to bring the wonderful actress of Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern into his 3rd century BC fold. She plays Lady Zhao, former lover of China's first emperor, Ying Zheng, who hires someone to try to kill him. Chen said: "I grew up with the image of the characters in my mind. I decided I wanted to work with Gong Li a long time before the principal shooting. She is really smart, really understands the character, and we both believed her role should be performed in a simple way. We worked seven days a week, never stopped, which meant she never stopped.
The other leads, Li Xuejian as the emperor, and Xhang Fengyi as the assassin?
"I knew both of them well. The assassin played the king in Farewell My Concubine. On the set, he was always talking to everyone, never calming down. Meanwhile, the emperor sat quietly in the corner. Gong Li was best about Take 6. Mr. Take 13, that was the emperor. The assassin was Mr. Take 8. He asked me, 'Nothing really works until the eighth take? So why do the first seven?'"
The Emperor and the Assassin is the most expensive film ever made by the Chinese, with ensembles of thousands and battles so impressive that they have been compared with Kurosawa's Ran. Chen said, "I looked at Ran a long time ago, but before shooting I didn't watch it. This must be my own film, though I believe that I am only a film student and Kurosawa is a master. I was very sad when he died.
"Half of my extras were soldiers, and we covered their expenses. The rest were civilians, who said, 'Oh, you're making a film about the First Emperor? Can we do it with you?' The biggest sequence: 5,000 extras. The opening battle: 10 days. The first cut: 5 hours.
"We shot some in one province, some in others, the biggest part in Beijing. But if the characters don't work, it doesn't matter how big the sets, how magnificent the troops. The reception we got in China for the film was really good, the red carpet thing, but we shouldn't take it too seriously."
What's the meaning of the emperor's story for today's Chinese?
"I'm not trying to teach people a Chinese historical lesson," Chen said. "But people will understand that if you have absolute power, you eventually will be corrupt. The First Emperor is admired by many. He's a very nice man at the beginning, nice and humble, and there is nothing wrong with his dream of the unification of China. But all politicians when elected say something good and it always ends tragically. It's very universal, the way Shakespeare is universal."
Chen Kaige's next film? "I want to do a contemporary piece at home, but (the project) can be a problem, turned down by authorities. What I can do there is limited, and I'm also very honest and faithful to myself, waiting for a call from my heart. Sometimes I'm still a very insecure young kid living in the Cultural Revolution. I have fear, and I don't know why. I'm like a very foolish peasant. I need to plant a tree, and wait for the tree to grow up."