Born August 12, 1952, in Beijing China. Attended the Beijing Film Academy after its 1978 reopening, in the wake of Mao's Cultural Revolution
's first feature, Yellow Earth
, produced in 1984, was the film that introduced the world to the Fifth Generation
, a group of young filmmakers who set out to reinvent Chinese cinema, with apparent success. Besides Chen, this group includes Zhang Yimou
, who was the cinematographer for Yellow Earth
and went on to greater success as a director, as well as directors Tian Zhuangzhuang
, Zhang Jun-Zhao
, Wu Ziniu
, Huang Jian-Xin
, Hu Mei
, and Zhou Xiao-Wen
Yellow Earth dealt with the story of a Chinese Communist soldier who, in 1939, is sent into a remote rural village in order to collect folk songs to use in Chinese Communist Party propaganda efforts. The relationship between him and the villagers is a difficult one, as their backgrounds and ideologies are so alien to one another. However, the soldier manages to inspire and influence a young girl, who is about to be forced into an unwanted arranged marriage with a much older man, but who would rather join the Communist army and escape the backwards customs that until recently defined the only world she knew.
The film is spectacularly beautiful, it has a unique visual poetry, but its story and character development seem stilted to a Westerner who is unacustomed to the explicit didacticism of Communist propaganda films. It would take time for Chen to develop a more sophisticated approach to character, and a greater sense of subtlety. Ironically, though he and his contemporaries were influenced from the begining by their contact with Western cinema, Chen's later development was criticized by some as a form of "Westernization," a negative value judgment that was applied to his films when compared to those of his peer Zhang Yimou.
It appears that certain critics were fond of the exoticism of a film style so diferent from what they were used to, to such an extent that it seemed a violation of their aesthetic code for a Chinese filmmaker to become more worldly, international, or cosmopolitan in his approach to filmmaking. Yet, at the same time, they recoiled from the notion of a self-consciously spectacular style, which to them seemed the wrong kind of exoticism. But critics are fickle. Their ideas regarding the difference between Zhang and Chen seemed an echo of an old Cahiers du Cinema debate regarding the "Japaneseness" of Yasujiro Ozu vs. the "Westernness" of Akira Kurosawa, who was harshly undervalued at the time. But now the quest for "genuine" Chinese cultural art has turned the tide in favor of a not-really-Chinese filmmaker, the Taiwanese Hou Hsio-Hsien, whose art seems more insular, less aware of its international impact (at least until recently!).
In any event, despite shifting opinions, Chen has continued to produce great films, generally with a grand epic quality, particularly in the case of the films Farewell My Concubine, and The Emperor And The Assasin. The former deals with a friendship/possibly-almost-love-but-still-platonic-relationship between two male stars of the Peking Opera, one of whom always plays the female romantic lead against the other. The latter film deals with the intrigues and affairs that lead to the foundation of the first unified Chinese empire under the rule of Emperor Qinshihuang.
Other films by Chen include The Big Parade, a political drama, King of the Children about a teacher who breaks with the official Party approach to educating children, Life on A String about travelling musicians, and Temptress Moon, about love and betrayal within a family of aristocrats.
Strangely enough, Chen's latest film, Killing Me Softly, is an American romantic thriller starring Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes. As Chen is currently living in exile in New York, we may expect a radical shift in his filmmaking career. Of course, the charge of excessive "Westernization" seems inescapable now, regardless of whether Killing Me Softly turns out to be a masterpiece, or an artistic flop.