(King of the Children)
Director: Chen Kaige
Production: Xi'an Film Studio; Eastmancolour, 35mm; running time: 106 minutes.
Producer: Wu Tianming; screenplay: Chen Kaige, Wan Zhi, based on the short story by Ah Cheng; photography: Gu Changwei; editor: Liu Miaomiao; lighting: Jia Tianxi; assistant director: Qiang Xiaolu; art director: Chen Shaohua; music: Qu Xiaosong; sound recording: Tao Jing, Gu Changning; sound editor: Liu Miaomiao.
Xie Juang (
); Yang Xuewen (
); Chen Shaohua (
); Zhang Caimei (
); Xu Guoqin (
); Le Gang (
); Tan Tuo (
Village Team Leader
); Gu Changwei (
); Wu Xiao (
); Liu Haichen (
Chen Kaige and Rayns, Tony, King of the Children and the New Chinese Cinema , London, 1989.
Aubert, J.P., "La cinquième génération" in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1988.
Variety (New York), 18 May 1988.
Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1988.
Stanbrook, A., Films and Filming (London), August 1988.
Glaessner, V., and Rayns, Tony, "Tearing Down the Temple of Culture" in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), September 1988.
Tessier, M., Revue du Cinéma (Paris), April 1989.
Baecque, A. de, "L'école en feu" in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1989.
Niel, P., "Traitement de texte" in Positif (Paris), July-August 1989.
Cinemaya (New Delhi), Winter 1989–90.
Chen Kaige, "Breaking the Circle: The Cinema and Cultural Change in China" in Cineaste (New York), no.3, 1990.
Chow, R., "Male Narcissism and National Culture: Subjectivity in Chen Kaige's King of the Children ," in Camera Obscura , January-May 1991.
CinémAction (Courbevoie), March 1993.
Brochu, D., "Marques d'un cinéma moderne: Le roi des enfants ," in Cinémas (Montreal), vol. 3, no. 2–3, Spring 1993.
Rayns, Tony, "The Narrow Path: Chen Kaige" in Projections 3 , edited by John Boorman and Walter Donoghue, London, 1994.
Lu, A., "Chen Kaige," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 33, September/October 1997.
* * *
King of the Children is a deceptively simple film. It tells the story of a young man who becomes a teacher of junior high school students in the Yunnan countryside and realizes, in a heart-wrenching way, the extent of his task. He discovers that his students are not given any textbooks and that they are used to learning by rote. The time is the Cultural Revolution. Lan Gan, the young man, was part of a brigade made up of city youths sent to the remote countryside for re-education by working alongside illiterate peasants. He gains a transfer from his brigade to a softer job as a teacher even though he is not qualified, having hardly graduated from high school himself.
The young man's experiences mirror director Chen Kaige's own experiences during the Cultural Revolution as a zhishi qingnian , or "intellectual youth." Sent to Yunnan to work in a production brigade in the late 1960s, early 1970s, Chen was attracted to the story by novelist A. Cheng (a fellow production brigade member in Yunnan) because of its simplicity. But the director has invested his own aesthetic references in the adaptation. These references are entirely visual—their meanings and significance are implicit and open to interpretation. What cannot be denied is the film's emotive power conveyed entirely through its images and an interesting montage-mixture of sound effects which illustrate certain scenes (sounds of tree felling, a voice chanting folk melodies, and so on).
To begin with, Chen films his protagonist Lan Gan mostly in distant long shots, locating him in an environment of harsh, primitive beauty (by the by recalling the stunning compositions in Chen's first film, The Yellow Earth , where earth seems to engulf a man). As well as reinforcing the effect of rural stupor, lethargy and boredom felt by the lead character, these long shots reveal the immensity of space and the concrete, objective world in which the character finds himself. He can no more hope to transcend this space than the problems of humanity within that space. Similarly, we first see the central setting of the school in a very long shot (which in point of fact, opens the film), in a photographic time-lapse sequence from mist to clear sky to sunset. The school, where the central drama unfolds, is seen in open air, flanked by mountains—it appears as a minor, unchanging spot in a flurry of changing time.
The narrative is punctuated with elliptical cuts, deliberate omissions, and long-held shots which impart information on a subliminal level but which in fact hold the key to Chen's mode of visual storytelling. A direct, linear mode is avoided. Instead, we look to visual detail and the behaviour of the characters to draw narrative (and emotional) sustenance. Thus, the film's spare use of medium to close shots, as in the scenes of Lan Gan reacting to his students in class (particularly the sensitive Wang Fu with whom he strikes an uneasy rapport), gain even more impact. Time and space are wondrously controlled. A second viewing of the film shows how tightly edited and temporally well-sustained the narrative actually is (the film even feels shorter than its nearly two hours running time) and also reveals more clearly the rich metaphorical layers which Chen creates to underline the simple story.
The metaphor of objective space to illustrate man's smallness is obvious while it also points out the results of the more complex, and destructive urges, of man, small as he is. The protagonist is shown at crucial points in still shots standing in a wilderness of burned tree stumps. The final scenes of these tree stumps manifested as wooden statues of strawmen and other grotesque figures, the burning of the forest (for swidden agriculture), and the intriguing sub-plot of the young cowherd urinating on the ground to disconcert cows too stubborn to move along (which gives rise to Lao San's explanation of his use of a compound word made of the characters of "cow" and "water" in his valedictory lesson to his students) are all a manifestation of man making a mark on earth.
The last message of Lan Gan to Wang Fu as he leaves the school (having been dismissed for his unorthodox teaching methods) may be summed up in one word: creativity—he implores Wang Fu not to learn by rote and to start thinking for himself. However, man's creativity is compromized, Chen seems to say, by man's failure to understand and come to terms with his environment. On the other hand, even as Chen underscores the effects of human alienation, poverty and neglect, there is no simplistic explanation offered for the obviously disastrous effect that human foolishness has waged on human affairs (the devastation wrought by the Cultural Revolution on a generation of students, for example).
Chen has succeeded in bringing out the abstract core of his story without diminishing its effective simplicity. In fact, the film comes across as a moving indictment of China's education policy, its politics, and the country's backwardness and endemic poverty. King of the Children is also the first film in which Chen deals with the disaster of the Cultural Revolution in personal terms. It is a subject that Chen and other Fifth Generation directors have a great deal to say about having experienced it at first hand. It offers great human drama, ranging from the tragic to the absurd. In King of the Children , Chen depicts the Cultural Revolution as a national tragedy but he does not condemn it outright. In that sense, Chen is less interested in the political implications of the Cultural Revolution. A philosophicalminded director, Chen has shown that his real subject is man and the ambiguities and implications of his behaviour.