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HONG KONG — Farewell My Concubine director Chen Kaige says he follows his heart — and not box-office predictions — when he chooses his projects, rebuffing criticism that he and his contemporaries have compromised their artistic integrity in exchange for commercial success.
“If you asked me to choose between making a good movie and making a box office hit, I will choose to make a good movie. I have worked in the film industry for so long. There is no reason for me to betray my heart,” Mr. Chen said last week, on the sidelines of a screening of his new costume drama, Sacrifice, at the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
Mr. Chen and fellow director Zhang Yimou are part of China’s famed “fifth generation” of directors — the first generation of Chinese filmmakers to gain attention in the West as their country emerged from economic and political isolation in the 1980s. They wowed critics with their gritty portrayals of rural life in films such as Yellow Earth and Red Sorghum.
Both Mr. Chen and Mr. Zhang have experimented with big-budget blockbusters in recent years, however, to the chagrin of cinema purists. Mr. Zhang designed the opulent opening and closing ceremonies to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Mr. Chen’s 2005 fantasy epic, The Promise, was particularly ridiculed by movie fans, although it was a solid hit in China. He scored another best-seller with his 2008 biopic of late Peking Opera star Mei Lanfang, “Forever Enthralled.” The film starred Hong Kong actor-singer Leon Lai and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Zhang Ziyi.
The movie marked Mr. Chen’s return to the theme of traditional Chinese opera — a subject matter he first explored in Farewell My Concubine, his 1993 Oscar-nominated drama about the relationship between two male performers.
With Sacrifice, an adaptation of a classic Chinese play about an orphan who avenges the death of his family, Mr. Chen seems to have found both popular and critical acclaim. The movie quickly became a hit after opening in Chinese theaters in December and also has received positive foreign reviews.
Asked if he had mastered the balance between art and commerce, Mr. Chen said: “I am not clear on how to find this balance, but I have a thought. I think it’s a good thing that Chinese movies are developing their own market. It’s a good thing that more people come to see your movies.”
The veteran director, however, acknowledged the lack of variety in a Chinese market dominated by historical, kung fu and costume genres.
“I think the biggest issue is whether Chinese films can truly diversify. We have different types of audiences liking different types of movies and not only have a single type of movie,” he said.
Mr. Chen said Sacrifice will be released in the U.S. in the second half of the year. Its Japanese release, originally scheduled for May, likely will be delayed by the recent earthquake and tsunami.
The Chinese director said he has continued to receive offers to direct in English — after his 2002 English debut, the erotic thriller Killing Me Softly, starring Joseph Fiennes and Heather Graham, was denied a commercial release in the U.S. — although he hasn’t come across material he is comfortable with.
Mr. Chen said he likely will start shooting his next project, a contemporary story, this year, but he wouldn’t give details.
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