My favorite foreign director, Chen Kaige, has a new movie, The Promise, coming to U.S. theaters on May 5. He’s best-known for Farewell My Concubine, which follows a duo of Chinese opera stars from their childhood in the 1920’s, to their heydey in the 30’s and 40’s, to disgrace during the Cultural Revolution. It’s got everything: Depth of feeling, historical richness, and amazing spectacle. It also set me on a quest to listen to a lot of Chinese opera, which I’ve only recently started to fulfill.

But Kaige’s done much more. Don’t miss:

  • Temptress Moon, an exquisite tale of tradition, modernization, and betrayal during inter-war China;
  • The Emperor and the Assassin, a jaw-dropping period piece and exploration of the psychology of absolute power;
  • Together, the story of a violin prodigy in modern China. You must watch this one till the end – the last ten minutes make the movie and reduced me to tears.

    Kaige’s work is often banned in China. But even when he gets past the censors, his anti-statism is thinly veiled. Here’s an excerpt from an interview:

    [Kaige] was pressured by school authorities to condemn his father – a noted filmmaker – as a creator of subversive art. It was the height of China’s Cultural Revolution and the wholesale house cleaning of the arts by Madame Mao was relentless and unsparing.


    “What I remember most is coming home afterwards. I waited until very late when everyone would be asleep. I crept in and went through the three rooms in the apartment to my bed. I was too ashamed to speak to anyone.”

    The next morning he saw his father but they did not speak and scarcely made eye contact. His father finished his breakfast and went back to a confinement camp and re-education program. For years, he would be allowed to come home to his family once a week, but even after the policies of the period evaporated, he was never to make another film.

    Even today, China…

    “…is a country that has no past,” he avers. “Political regimes systematically robbed us of history and it’s only now that we are beginning to get it back. My wife… who is 20 years younger than me has no comprehension of much of the repression that went on for decades.”

    But here’s the part of the interview that hits me hardest:

    “You must understand that during the Cultural Revolution all but the most patriotic of music was banned. It was a crime, certainly to have music from the west, but also the classics.”

    He can still vividly recall a friend with a record player and a cache of outlawed vinyl and how they would lock themselves up in a closet and listen to the discs. Though almost 40 years have past, he describes how he began to weep upon hearing Beethoven’s music for the first time as if it were yesterday.

    If I were stuck in the hellhole of Maoist China, I can’t imagine a better way to cope.