Chen Kaige talks 'Sacrifice'

EXCLUSIVE: 'Concubine' director discusses new film

BEIJING – Chen Kaige says “Sacrifice,” his new movie about murder and revenge in ancient China, tries to answer the universal question: What would we do to protect our children?

In the story based on the classic tale “The Orphan of Zhao,” lead actor Ge You, China’s most visible screen veteran, plays a humble doctor who helps a princess save her infant boy from a villain determined to eliminate her clan. In the process, the doctor’s own infant son is caught in a hunt for the missing prince and he raises the orphan as his own.

“Ge You’s character is not special. He’s not a hero,” Chen, director of the 1993 Palme d’Or- and BAFTA-winning “Farewell my Concubine,” told The Hollywood Reporter. “Faced with the same situation, everybody would do the same thing. This is my point.”

While Chen, a 58-year-old father of two sons with actress and producer Chen Hong, won’t be at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, a taste of his “Sacrifice” will.

Sales company Easternlight Films will show buyers there a 103-second trailer filled with bloody sword and cannon battles and elaborate period sets and plenty of elaborately-costumed scenes of the princess played by actress Fan Bingbing (“Chongqing Blues”).

Chen said a final cut of “Sacrifice” will be finished in two weeks by “Founding of a Republic” editor Derek Hui -- just in time for Easternlight, a division of Arclight Films International, to promote it at the American Film Market in Los Angeles in Nov.

Drawn from an event that took place about 2,500 years ago in China, the orphan’s tale was popularized in translation in 19th century Europe by the French writer and philosopher Voltaire.

Chen said his big screen version for China’s increasingly sophisticated and wealthy 21st century moviegoers cost about $10 million to make. Production credit goes to The Shanghai Film Group and to TIK Films, 21st Century Shengkai Films, and to distributor Stellar Megamedia, all based in Beijing.

Stellar soon will begin to promote the film’s planned Dec. 18 release in China, where any campaign is likely to ride on the fame of Ge, winner of the Cannes best actor award for his role in Zhang Yimou’s 1994 film “To Live.”

Stellar CEO Qin Hong also gets an individual producer’s credit on “Sacrifice,” which Chen said got additional help from Hunan TV and the Zhejiang province city of Xiangshan, which built him an elaborate set its leaders later will turn into a tourist attraction.

Wang Xueqi (“Forever Enthralled”) plays the villain and actors Huang Xiaoming (“The Banquet”), Zhang Fengyi and Zhao Wenhao also star, as does actress Hai Qing.

"Sacrifice” also introduces eight-year-old actor William Wang, the child of a friend of Chen’s living in Tokyo, to whom the director taught enough Mandarin to say his lines.

“Every time Ge You shared the set with William he said, ‘I had better watch out.’ This boy’s performance was just what I wanted: fantastic,” Chen said.

Easternlight will handle all sales outside Japan and China, where the peak year-end moviegoing release date puts the film under considerable pressure.

China’s boxoffice has skyrocketed over the last six years as the upwardly mobile have flocked to scores of new multiplexes. Ticket sales rose more than 80% from Jan.-June this year alone.

“I hope that China’s film industry will not focus too much on the numbers,” said Chen, a core member of China’s Fifth Generation of filmmakers along with Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang.

Bemoaning the country’s increased focus on “thoughtless” commercial filmmaking and offering praise to the films of his Sixth Generation successors, Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai, Chen said:  “We make films to ask ourselves who we are.”

In 1982, at age 30, Chen was a graduate of the first class to finish at the Beijing Film Academy after the Cultural Revolution, the period from 1966-76 when children betrayed parents and neighbors turned on neighbors in the name of upholding Chairman Mao Zedong’s latest political campaign -- sometimes with fatal effects.

Chen’s 1984 film “Yellow Earth” opened the world’s eyes to a country suffering from extreme poverty and isolation. “We had lost everything,” he said.

Sitting comfortably in a downtown Beijing editing suite reflecting on three decades of rapid advancement, Chen said he feels no duty to explain his homeland, now the world’s No. 2 economy. He offers words of caution instead.

“Things are changing so fast here that not many people are ready for it,” Chen said.

At a time when the government is pushing for movies that promote a positive image of China and its rich culture – and foiling those that focus on painful 20th century memories -- Chen avoids modern politics.
 
“If you want people to understand who you are, you can’t force them to take what you want them to,” he said. “As filmmakers we need to be friends to our audience.”

Hoping “Sacrifice” will remind moviegoers of their shared human experience, Chen said: “The Chinese people need to regain ‘common sense.’  People are equal. At least at one time they were equal. Why not today?”
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