Interview: The sexplorers

Director Chen Kaige explores themes of sexual possession and lust with help from Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes in Killing Me Softly. Chris Betros reports.

When Chen Kaige went to Britain to make Killing Me Softly, his first English-language film, the Chinese director didn't expect too many cultural differences. After all, he said, "to make a film anywhere in the world, you only need three things—actors, cameras and a director." Except, someone forgot to tell him about lunch breaks and afternoon tea. "That drove me crazy," said Chen during a visit to Japan with the film's star, Heather Graham. "In China, if we're in a hurry, we just have a lunchbox, but in Britain, they all wanted an hour for lunch every day. And then we always had to stop for a tea break at 4:30pm."

Billed as a psychological sex thriller, Killing Me Softly tells the story of Alice (Graham), an American businesswoman living in London, who drops her comfortable but ordinary relationship with her boyfriend and begins an obsessive affair with a mysterious mountaineer (Joseph Fiennes) after their eyes meet on the street one morning. Sparks fly, and they spend most of the movie playing out their torrid passion.

For the bodacious, blonde Graham, who can also be currently seen dodging Jack the Ripper in From Hell, Killing Me Softly is not just a sexual thriller. "It's about possessive love, how easily we give someone power over us, even someone we hate or don't trust," she said. "How many of you have woken up the morning after making love to someone and wondered who that person beside you really is?"

Chen, 50, said that some studio brass were at first apprehensive that a Chinese director could tell such a story. "What they don't realize is this is a universal theme," he said in confident English. "This is life, it happens in Tokyo, New York, London, Paris and Beijing. Chinese people might be conservative when they are out in groups, but in private, this is what they're doing every day."

The son of a noted film director, Chen has had a topsy turvy life. When he turned 15 during the chaos of Mao's Cultural Revolution in the '60s, he joined the Red Guard and publicly denounced his father, an incident he depicted in the climax of his acclaimed Farewell, My Concubine (1992). During the late '60s, he was sent to work as a laborer on a rubber plantation in Yunan Province. By the late '70s, he was back in Beijing, one of a new generation of filmmakers questioning the themes of Chinese patriotism, nationhood and identity.
He spent 1987-90 in New York before returning to China. Perhaps influenced by Western filmmaking, Farewell My Concubine marked a turning point in Chen's career, away from art and more toward commercial success. He cast international star Gong Li and Hong Kong pop sensation Leslie Cheung in leading roles. His films have since been regular entries in international film festivals. Chen now says he is interested in exploring themes that affect us all. "Nowadays we seem to have everything we want. We can go anywhere, talk to anyone with mobile phones, but it is still so difficult to relate to and understand each other.

It's like a social disease. The fact that I am a Chinese director doesn't matter."
For Graham, her character in Killing Me Softly is yet again one of two types she seems to prefer—innocent ingenues or sexpots, the latter most notably as Roller Girl, the porn actress always on roller skates in Boogie Nights (1997) and as CIA agent Felicity Shagwell in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999). "I guess I'm fairly free-spirited. I like the idea of exploring sexuality in movies, especially when it is spontaneous with no rehearsals," she said. "Joseph Fiennes is a really sexy and passionate guy, and I didn't feel he was taking advantage of me."

Originally from Milwaukee, Graham traveled a lot as a child with her father who worked for the FBI. Dreaming of stardom, she headed to LA as a teenager and worked as an usher at the Hollywood Bowl, before making her 1988 film debut in License to Drive. This was followed by her first breakout role, as a drug addict in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy. She became familiar to TV audiences with a recurring role in David Lynch's wildly popular series Twin Peaks. Voted the ShoWest convention's Female Star of Tomorrow in 1999, Graham has been busy in recent years with Lost in Space, Two Girls and a Guy, Committed, Bowfinger, Say It Isn't So, From Hell and the third Austin Powers film, tentatively titled Goldmember but likely to be changed due to legal disputes with James Bond producers.

Killing Me Softly was also the subject of disputes in the US, over its rating. "I don't know why," said Graham. "I'd rather watch sex scenes than graphic violence which is a lot less censored these days." For Chen, who has lived much of his life under censorship in one form or another, was more practical. "I'm patient. People under 18 will grow up and see this film eventually. The funny thing is, it has been censored for the US, but it won't be in China."

Photo: Chris Betros

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ISSUES 349-
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