China's cultural evolution
Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige is no stranger to turbulent father-son relationships.
"Boys have conflicts with their fathers," says the director, best known to Western audiences for "Farewell My Concubine" (1993) and "The Emperor and the Assassin" (1999). Chen is discussing his new picture, "Together," but he could just as easily be talking about his own life.
Chen's father was respected filmmaker Chen Huai Kai. The family was living a comfortable life when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. The Red Guard invaded their home. Chen was made to publicly denounce his dad as a "counter-revolutionary." He was 14.
It was at a train station, where Chen was taken away from his family and relocated to the countryside, that things changed.
"I saw my father when the train started to move. He chased after the train," Chen recalls. "By chance, I turned and looked at him. That is the moment I realized how much I loved him."
Chen later wrote his father to apologize for what he had done. "He did forgive me, [writing] 'I forgive you not only because you're my son, but because you represent the future of the family.' "
They reconciled, and the elder Chen remained a major support and influence for his son until his death nine years ago. That parent-child conflict resonates in "Together," complete with a climactic scene in a crowded train station.
The story focuses on Xiaochun (Tang Yun), whose father (Liu Peiqi) sacrifices everything to get him a music teacher. The son isn't sure that this is the path he wants, especially when the father switches teachers to one more geared to professional success than simply a love of music.
In an interesting twist, Chen plays the "modern" teacher himself. ("For me, it was not enjoyable," he says. "I didn't have a director. I was on my own.")
In the film, Chen is playing off two facets of contemporary Chinese society. One is a love of Western classical music, shared by both the current leaders of the country and Chen himself. "Classical music really saved my life," he says, recalling his time of rural labor as a teen. "A friend of mine came to me with some classical music records. We listened to them secretly."
For today's China, studying classical music is one possible path to fortune in a society that has grown increasingly capitalistic. "In the old days, only rich families allowed their children to do it," Chen says.
Today, many parents dream of performing careers for their kids. "The motive is obvious," he says. "They want to use music to be the key to being rich and famous."
Another facet Chen explores is the current conflict in generational attitudes. The director says that, while parents like the goal-oriented "modern" music teacher he plays, many younger viewers prefer the more traditional - and music-loving - teacher played by Wang Zhiwen.
Unlike Chen's earlier films, which ran into political trouble in China, "Together" has been warmly received. "We cannot say we have complete freedom, but things are slightly better," he says. "I guess government officials realize China is about to become the biggest film market in the world."
Chen has been offered the opportunity to make films in Hollywood. He maintains a California residence and a local agent, but he has yet to find the right script.
Right now, he is focused more on the future of film in China. "We're still in the process of development of the Chinese film industry," he says. "We want to make more, and make [the industry] better.
"What I want to do is have a school," Chen says. "If I can have my own students - eight to 10 - I can really help them, financially and technically."