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In Chen Kaige’s first feature film, 1984’s Yellow Earth, a Communist soldier collects folk songs in a remote Chinese village. The director went on to make 1991’s Life on a String, about a blind musician and his equally sightless apprentice, and 1993’s Farewell My Concubine, which chronicles the long relationship of two Beijing Opera performers. Chen’s new film, Together, follows a father and his teenage violinist son, who travel from the provinces to Beijing in search of musical success.

But the 50-year-old filmmaker says he never really thought about the prevalence of musical motifs in his work until he began answering questions about his latest project. “I didn’t notice that,” says Chen, holding court at a 16th Street NW hotel. “But it’s true. I always want to do movies about artists.”

Among Western audiences, Chen is currently the most popular of the “Fifth Generation” of Chinese directors, who attended the Beijing Film Academy after it reopened at the end of the Cultural Revolution. He and classmate Zhang Yimou, who shot Yellow Earth and another early Chen film, The Big Parade, became U.S. art-house stars in the late ’80s with their lushly appointed historical dramas. Whereas Zhang has switched to contemporary settings and grittier looks, Chen has continued to make lavish period pictures. Together, which won the audience award at this year’s Filmfest DC, is his first contemporary tale.

“In the past, I believed there is no high culture in Chinese society today,” Chen says. “So I didn’t want to do a contemporary piece. Now I’m changed. I’m convinced that we have to face the truth, the reality.”

The reality is the hollowness of China’s new materialism, explains the director, looking rather prosperous himself in a royal-blue Armani-logo shirt. “Everybody’s looking for fame and fortune. They want to be rich. But I ask them, ‘How can you call yourself a rich people without having genuine happiness in your life?’ I want to tell my people how important it is to be happy.”

In Together, happiness could result from being groomed for concert-hall success, or from rejecting that ambition for true love—of a woman, of a parent, or of music itself. The central character, rebellious and love-struck 13-year-old violinist Xiaochun (Tang Yun), “relates to my personal experience,” Chen says. “I tell many people that I’m the one who refused to grow up. I still live in the period of the Cultural Revolution spiritually.”

The director himself began violin lessons when he was 8, six years before the Cultural Revolution destroyed his upscale family life. (His father, Chen Huaikai, was also a prominent film director.) Learning to play “was my own idea, and I tried hard to convince my mother to buy a tiny violin. But I quit three years later because I didn’t know how to deal with my teacher, who was a very tough guy. He wasn’t nice to me. So I just quit.”

Ironically, Chen cast himself in Together as Professor Yu, a music teacher who is among Xiaochun’s principal adversaries. Yet he calls the film “my stand on the side of teenagers. I want to show the audience what teenagers can do. There’s no reason to blame them.”

In the movie, Xiaochun sells his violin to buy an expensive jacket for his beautiful upstairs neighbor, Lili, a freelance consort to a series of Beijing businessmen. “I think how romantic it is,” Chen says, “if you can sell your violin to buy a coat for a woman you like. I used to steal my father’s booze to buy flowers for a teenage girl.”

Although Lili can also be seen as a symptom of China’s increasing materialism, Chen doesn’t condemn her. “Many, many girls today make their living like that,” he says of Lili, a character played by his wife, Chen Hong, who’s also one of the film’s producers.

“I talked to some women like that. Literally, they’re prostitutes,” Chen says. “I said, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ They said they don’t want to work in a factory: ‘Are you kidding me? And make maybe one dollar a hour? No way.’ That reflects what’s going on in China. They just want to have fine clothes, a fancy place to live, nice cars. They’re doing fine. You can’t judge.

“I think this is real progress being made in Chinese society,” he adds. “In the past, you didn’t have the opportunity, you didn’t have the freedom to do that kind of thing. Inevitably, social progress is a sort of mixture.”

Farewell My Concubine is one of several ’90s films that depict Western instruments being thrown on bonfires by young zealots of the Cultural Revolution. “Many instruments were destroyed,” Chen says. “Records and everything. Those Red Guards were hooligans. They knew nothing about culture.”

Yet Chen was among those Red Guards—as a teenager in 1966, he was even told that he had to denounce his father as a counterrevolutionary, which he did. That might explain why he’s now so interested in Western music. “The thing about classical music is that the first piece of music was created in church,” he states. “People go to church, and make confession. We Chinese don’t have that. The biggest problem we have is that we need somewhere where people can go for confession. Classical music helps us to regain dignity. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this piece.”

To Chen, Chinese traditional music “has nothing to do with any idealism. You can listen to that kind of music when you have a nice dinner. It’s not good to listen to that in a music hall. It’s also very slow and intellectual. There’s no real passion. Because our culture prefers to be very subtle. It’s wrong to show your true feelings, real emotions.”

The director links European symphonic music to Western individualism. “In the history of China,” he says, “people were never allowed to be individuals. You were only a part of the collective. We always hear a statement from the government on behalf of the Chinese people. What do you mean, ‘Chinese people’?

“I believe that I’m quite a bit like a real individual,” he adds. “I’m proud of that. But many people from my generation, they don’t know. You have to change the mentality in order to have a better culture in the future.”

In today’s China, Chen notes, “the social pressure is still there. When there is chaos in the West, there are always some people, maybe a very small group of people, who stand up to say, ‘No.’ When the huge chaos of the Cultural Revolution happened in our country, no one stood up to say, ‘No, it’s not right.’ A few, one or two, but they all got killed immediately.”

Not surprisingly, Chen’s attitude has led to more than a few clashes with China’s censors. Now that he’s a seasoned, internationally respected figure, he says, “They have to respect me as a director. They speak to me in a very nice tone. But not necessarily to the younger directors.” He laughs.

“Seriously, I don’t think the censorship is needed. Yes, you can talk to the young directors. You can say, ‘Don’t make everything too personal. Think about what you are doing. Is it good for the audience?’ If they say that, I don’t mind listening. But you can’t say, ‘Let me cut your movie.’ They describe it as ‘a haircut.’ But I used to argue, ‘Do you want to give me a haircut or you want to cut my head off?’ It really depends on the size of scissors.” He laughs some more.

“We don’t really speak the same language,” Chen adds. “[Government officials] don’t understand what I’m saying politically. We’re filmmakers; we’re not politicians. We don’t understand what they’re saying.”

Making movies in the West has its perils as well, as Chen now knows. Before Together, he directed Killing Me Softly, an English-language erotic thriller filmed in Britain, starring Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes. The film was panned in the U.K., and there are no plans to release it in the United States.

“Nobody is allowed to have pure freedom of expression,” Chen says. “It’s very nice to know that there is another kind of censorship here. I think that the first preview audience were the censors. They said, ‘We don’t like this film. We don’t believe that this woman should go with the stranger to have sex.’ But it happens that way. Many times.”

The director says he’ll work in the West again if “I find a project I have a passion to do. Otherwise, I don’t see the need. I’m very comfortable being myself as a filmmaker. I know there are many projects waiting for me to do. I can get things done. Not necessarily here.”

Whatever his next project is, it will probably begin with music. “If I want to do another movie,” Chen says, “the first thing I may do is to sit alone in a very quiet room and listen to some piece of classical music. Waiting for something to happen, something to come to my mind.” —Mark Jenkins