Sound And Vision: Chen Kaige
In the article series Sound and Vision we take a look at music videos from notable directors. This week we look at Duran Duran's Do You Believe in Shame?, directed by Chen Kaige.
Chen Kaige is a director mostly known for stagey and stately melodramatic period pieces, like Farewell My Concubine, which won him the Palme D'Or in Cannes. Often his films are set in his native China, exploring themes of family and love in lush settings. Later, more spectacular films like The Promise and Battle of Lake Changjin 1 and 2 infuse his style with more action. One thing Chen Kaige isn't associated with is American films, probably because of the humongous flop of his erotic thriller Killing Them Softly; or a modern day setting, despite his more recent internet-thriller Caught in the Web. These are considered outliers in an oeuvre that is often considered singular.
Color me surprised that, even before Farewell My Concubine, Kaige made a big budget music video in America, in a contemporary setting. Duran Duran's Do You Believe in Shame? bears almost no stylistic hallmarks you would consider to be Kaige-esque. But it is a Kaige-video through and through.
The three members of Duran Duran all get a separate storyline, only to be interconnected in the final shot. The storylines are all heavily symbolic and melodramatic, which feels vintage Kaige, while also not having too much overt drama going on, nor grand things happening. In other words: for something this over the top and kitschy, it is all quite subtle. Which is fitting if you've seen some other Kaige films, as he often goes over the top (in a good way) without it becoming overwrought (in a bad way). He seldom falters.
And par for the course for a Kaige-directed piece, Do You Believe in Shame? is quite stately. The characters, while they are infused with human emotions, also behave and walk in such a way that these emotions are heightened. In a Kaige-film, the actors are almost like marionettes or mannequins: they move and act in just an unnatural enough manner that they become larger than life. Icons. Symbols.
Do You Believe in Shame? has the same quality, because I consider that to be a quality, in fact. Lesser directors would make characterizations like these fall flat. In the hands of Kaige, as in his films, the tension between humanistic portrayals and stately iconography is ever present, but he makes it work. Kaige is a tightrope walker, as a director. And if you see the evidence on display in Do You Believe in Shame?, he already got the craft down to a tee, years before he won the Palme D'Or.