Kaige Chen (together with guys like Yimou Zhang and Zhuangzhuang Tian) has meant a lot for Chinese cinema in the 80s. Before they arrived international appeal was extremely limited, even for me pre-80s Chinese cinema is still a pretty dark, black hole. But with films like Huang Tu Di [Yellow Earth], Hong Gao Liang [Red Sorghum] and Dao Ma Zei [The Horse Thief] things slowly began to change.
To be honest though, I'm not a very big fan of China's 80s cinema. It tends to be quite political, with a recurring focus on rural drama, often surrounded by a strong whiff of propaganda (or counter-propaganda). I only watched Da Yue Bing [The Big Parade] from Chen's 80s work, but that was a pretty big disappointment, not even the fact that Yimou Zhang was responsible for the cinematography made it any easier to sit through.
Chen's big international breakthrough came in the early 90's. Ba Wang Ji [Farewell My Concubine] is one of China's biggest classics, an epic scale romantic drama that panders to the arthouse crowd without completely alienating its potential audience. It's not a bad film, but it's a little tame and quite on the safe side. Personally I prefer Chen's other 90s collaboration with Li Gong and Leslie Cheung, Feng Yue [Temptress Moon]. Not in the least because Christopher Doyle is at the top of his game in that one.
Following in the footsteps of Yimou Zhang and Ang Lee, Chen directed his own fantasy/martial arts epic in 2005. Wu Ji [The Promise] wasn't too bad an attempt, but a little heavy on the CG and simply not as good as the films it was competing against. Chen also participated in two high-profile anthology films (Chacun Son Cinéma and Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet), but failed to make a big impression in the little time he was given for each short. Clearly not one of Chen's strong points.
Like many directors struggling to find their best form, Chen reached back to the material that once made him famous. Mei Lanfang [Forever Enthralled] is another classic opera drama, substituting Gong Li with Ziyi Zhang (you can't help but feel a little sorry for Li). While not a bad film, it failed to spark much interest. The same could be said about Zhao Shi Gu Er [Sacrifice], a historic war drama once again catering to commercial demands.
Sou Suo [Caught in the Web] seemed to foreshadow Chen's seemingly inevitable demise. It's clear that Chen never felt comfortable directing a contemporary thriller, but since Chinese cinema was evolving in that direction Chen had little choice but to try and follow. Lucky for him Wen Jiang would release Rang Zi Dan Fei soon after, throwing Chen a final lifeline. An opportunity Chen grabbed with both hands, seeing as Dao Shi Xia Shan turned out to be his best film to date.
Like many of his peers, Kaige Chen started out directing rural arthouse dramas but eventually ended up catering to the masses. As Chinese cinema grew, he grew with it, trading creative freedom for bigger budgets and ever increasingly lavish productions. Chen handled it pretty well, but he was never truly able to competed with the likes of Zhang. If you're a fan of the classic Chinese dramas then Ba Wang Ji should be the best place to start, do you prefer China's more recent big budget epics then the freshly released Dao Shi Xia Shan is the one you should be looking for.
Best film: Dao Shi Xia Shan [Monk Comes Down the Mountain] (4.0*)
Worst film: Da Yue Bing [The Big Parade] (1.0*)
Reviewed film(s): Dao Shi Xia Shan
Average rating: 2.90 (out of 5)