TOGETHER directed by Chen Kaige, written by Chen and Xue Xiao Lu, produced by Chen, Yang Buting, Yan Xiaoming, Li Bolun, Lee Joo-ik and Chen Hong, with Tang Yun, Liu Peiqi, Wang Zhiwen, Chen Hong and Chen Kaige. 116 minutes. Opens Friday (June 27). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 108. Rating: NN Rating: NNNNN
we begin by trading cannes shop talk. Teri Hart from the Movie Network has just finished interviewing veteran director Chen Kaige. Before Chen starts up with me, we stand around arguing about how much juror Meg Ryan had to do with Gus Van Sant's Palme d'Or win. What once were titans of a new and faraway Chinese cinema have long since joined the rest of us industry types with vested interests.
It's a scene in keeping with Chen's new film, Together. A burnished male weepie about a violin prodigy and his rustic dad, it shows the Beijing classical music world as a snakepit of treachery and corruption.
"Everybody can be corrupt," Chen says of the teachers and tastemakers he based his story on. "You need good connections. I know someone who is considered the number-one professor in China. Whenever his students are in competition, first place is guaranteed. It doesn't make sense."
So if old-fashioned cronyism has re-emerged to the extent that even artistic achievement is for sale, does that hold true for filmmaking, too?
"Yes," Chen says immediately. Then he pauses. "Yes." Then, "I don't know."
He clears his throat and elaborates.
"You can't really buy and sell achievement as a filmmaker," he says. "But you can literally change yourself, change your beliefs.
"Many filmmakers start with something that they want to express. But eventually, there's a great temptation and they sacrifice their own style in order to make the audience happy and to make the movie that will make money in the market. I call this being corrupt. You live a very comfortable, easy life. That's the biggest harm for filmmakers."
It's hard to tell who he's talking about. His old colleague Zhang Yimou has been charged with selling out by making a crouching, hidden epic called Hero, but then so has Chen for making Together.
"It's a free world," Chen responds. "People can say what they want to say. I think the priority is to be honest with myself as a filmmaker."
Years ago, that meant embedding subtle political currents in films like Life On A String and Farewell My Concubine.
But recently, Chen's films have sought more traction in the Western marketplace.
He made his English-language debut last year with a Heather Graham-Joseph Fiennes erotic thriller called Killing Me Softly. It went straight to video. Now he's being slammed for the backstage melodrama that gives Together a near-Hollywood feel.
"China has changed," he says simply. "I'm fed up with political allegory. Chinese people need to learn how to be happy. I want to show the world that China is no longer a remote country. The Chinese people are weird? No, they are not. They're normal. They're just like people in this world. That's the message."
He coughs a big cough.
"Some people say, 'Your style has changed, your motive has changed.' I don't think so. I'm following my heart. Really. It's a simple, lovely story. It's warm and can touch people's hearts. There's nothing wrong with that."
For Chen, music has often been the means to that end. But he has a surprising take on what China's overwhelming embrace of Western classical music means for his country.
"We have to grow up as a nation, not just economically, but spiritually," he says. "There are a lot of people who believe we need classical music to clean ourselves up as human beings. I think that's because there's a very strong connection between Western classical music and the church.
"We don't have a church, so we feel like we need something that can support us spiritually. Why can a singer like Pavarotti be so popular in China? Because this kind of music brings us up to somewhere we've never been before."
It takes an artist deeply connected to his culture to underrate it like this.
"I think some classical music and Western opera," Chen concludes, "are the language created by God to communicate with human beings."