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Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Chen Kaige plays to the audience

For the press conference of "Together," director Chen Kaige brought over his entire main cast. Sitting at the center of the table, he seemed like some powerful but benign patriarch, surrounded by an adoring family. He kept shooting fond glances at them all, especially 13-year-old Tang Yun, who plays Xiaochun, the protagonist of the story, and who is currently studying violin at one of Beijing's elite music schools.

News photo
From left: Liu Peiqi, Tang Yun, Chen Kaige and Chen Hong at Shibuya Bunkamura in Tokyo.

"The boy's grown so tall in the past year," smiles Chen. "If I had known he was going to grow 10 cm in less than a year, I'm not sure I would have hired him."

Chen says he has come to love Tang so much he wants the boy "to remain exactly as he was. My feeling at this point is that of an indulgent grandfather."

Asked whether it was difficult to direct children with no experience in front of the camera, Chen answered: "I learned in 'Farewell My Concubine' that if children genuinely believe in a story, they will want to act and get into character. The important thing is to start with a good story, something that will really convince."

Tang himself sat quietly and listened to the director with the reverence of a good pupil. When he spoke, it was to stress how much the violin meant to him. "I enjoyed acting," he said. "But my music comes first."

During the shooting, Tang brought his instrument on the sets and practiced whenever he was able, so that any time he wasn't acting, he was playing. Liu Peiqi, who plays Tang's father, said he had never seen anyone so dedicated and hardworking.

"Between sets I would go over and talk to him so we could become friends and be able to evoke the closeness that was essential to the movie. But the boy was always practicing! So I contented myself with just giving him a hug, or patting his head. . . . Having children of my own, I know how important it is to tell a child you love him."

The other member of the entourage is Chen Hong, the director's wife and one of China's most prominent actresses. "This is the first time in our 7-year marriage that we've worked on a project together," she said. "I've been wanting to do this for a long time and it's finally happened."

Chen said that the part of Lili was written especially for his wife. "Hong was always acting in period roles -- and this usually meant women suffering under a feudal, male-dominated system. Also, she was always someone's daughter or someone's wife, and I felt she never got the roles she deserved."

In this film, Lili is no victim of eithersystem or circumstances -- she's a fiery individual who goes after what she wants and shows spirit and integrity along the way. "Not the kind of woman you normally see in a Chinese film," says Chen. "But there are plenty of women like Lili now in China."

One of Chen's objectives was to show just how much China had changed in the past few years. "We have developed intensively and fast -- to the extent that many of us lose track or can't keep up. Progress is all very well, but we must also keep in mind that we've had to pay a huge price for it."

Chen says he created this story to remind himself of that price, that is, a breakdown of familial bonds and relationships: "How should we cope with the seduction of material wealth? How should we choose between personal happiness and social success?"

Chen gave Xiaochun a similar dilemma: The more he succeeds with his music, the more distanced he feels from his father, and this makes him lonely.

"In the end, I wanted Xiaochun to realize two things: that he should ask himself what he had ever done for his father, instead of the other way around, and that by the time he was ready to love his father, he would most likely be far away. Material gain or fame ultimately brings little satisfaction. We all need warmth and love from other people, especially from our families."

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