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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2002

Heather's here, but with a hitch

Seeing as Hollywood has been cherry-picking the ripest Chinese talent, perhaps it was only a matter of time before they enticed director Chen Kaige, too. Yet while it was easy to see how action-stylists like John Woo and Tsui Hark could give the studios what they wanted, it's harder to imagine a point of confluence with Chen. True, he won an Academy Award for his historical drama "Farewell My Concubine," but his films have been too specifically Asian, too intelligent and -- lately -- too bleak to suggest he could deliver the sort of multiplex-friendly entertainment the U.S. industry craves.

News photo
Heather Graham and director Chen Kaige at a recent press conference in Tokyo.

Perhaps it was the runaway success of Ang Lee -- who metamorphosed from small, arty family dramas to blockbusting, arty chopsocky -- that created the space for another Asian auteur, but MGM has given Chen his chance to make an English-language film with Western stars.

"Killing Me Softly" is the result, an erotic thriller featuring Heather Graham ("Boogie Nights") as Alice, an American career woman in London who leaves a safe but dull relationship for frenzied sexual fulfillment with Adam, a dark and dangerous alpinist, played by Joseph Fiennes ("Shakespeare in Love").

Things get weird when Mr. Right turns out to have a few kinks of the control-freak type and a shady past filled with allegations of rape and worse. While Alice tries to work out whether or not she actually likes being strangled during sex, she turns to Adam's sister (Natascha McElhone) for advice, only to find that she knows more than she's telling . . .

Chen is obviously aiming for the delirious swoop of classic Hitchcock, so it's a shame the film plays more like "9 1/2 Weeks," especially the terribly misjudged performance by Fiennes. Graham, however, lights up the screen whenever the camera lingers on her.

Graham and Chen turned up recently in Tokyo to discuss the film, which opens first in Japan. A canny marketing move, for sure, since Graham is appearing in a current hit, "From Hell," with two other films slated to open here later this year -- "Committed" and the next "Austin Powers" flick. And as for Chen, Japan is one of the few markets where his last film, "The Emperor and the Assassin," did any real business.

On why she took the role

Heather Graham: I wanted to work with Chen Kaige, and I loved the way he described the film, making it more interesting than just a typical thriller. I liked the idea of how, when you fall in love with someone so deeply and passionately, there's a part of you that's afraid that they have so much power over you, when you wake up the next morning after you've made love with someone, wondering who that person is.

On the film getting slapped with an 18/adults only rating in Japan

HG: Maybe the young people will sneak in to see it. I don't know a lot about the ratings system, but I guess I don't think there's anything wrong with sexuality. I think in America it's also censored a lot, but I'd rather watch sexuality in films than violence, and I find that to be less censored than sexuality.

Chen Kaige: You all know I'm from China, and China is often criticized for its censorship, but actually, it's everywhere. But we're patient. We can wait. When people who are under 18 grow up, they'll come to see this movie. [Laughs.]

On what attracted him to the project

CK: Human relationships. This is a story that could happen anywhere -- Tokyo, London New York, Paris, any big city. In these modern times, we can go anywhere so easily, you just buy a ticket and go. You want to call your friends, you've got a mobile phone and fax . . . but we find it so difficult to really understand each other now. I think this is a social disease we share everywhere. I just found it amazing that a woman could fall in love with a man she doesn't trust.

On what a conservative Chinese audience would make of this film

CK: The truth is, they're going to like this movie. The truth is when [Chinese] are together, they can be very conservative. But in private, they'll say, wow, this is what we're doing every day.

On making a film in English

CK: I'm often asked about doing this film "as a Chinese director." Maybe it's because I can speak English, but I don't really feel like I'm Chinese, or from another culture. Heather, Joseph and the crew -- we worked together as a family. With the dialogue, we'd just talk it over a lot. If a line wasn't working, I'd say, find another way to express yourself.

On the sex/strangulation scene

CK: This scene didn't exist like this in the script. The script described it as bondage, with her tied up in ropes. But I wanted to shoot a really beautiful sex scene, so I didn't want anything too violent. Using the cords [with which he asphyxiates her] took on a symbolic meaning: Joseph plays a mountain climber, and for him cords are what allow him to save a life, or lose it. And since it's a thriller, I wanted the audience to be wondering if he might kill her, to suggest the danger within this beautiful scene.

On performing her sex scenes

HG: Kaige doesn't like to do rehearsals that much, which is fun as an actor, because it makes it more spontaneous. So we talked about [the scene], but we didn't do any choreography. I liked working with Joseph, he's a very sexy, passionate man, but at the same time, I trusted him, I didn't feel like, y'know, he'd take advantage of me. [Laughs.]

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