‘Concubine’ helmer sets ‘Madame Mao’ pic

“Farewell My Concubine” director Chen Kaige has outlined production plans for his next film “Madame Mao,” which will be based on the life story of the wife of Mao Tse-tung.

The director, whose “Farewell” won a Golden Palm Award at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and is a double Oscar nominee, said he’d like to be in pre-production on the picture before the end of the year.

The film will focus on the early years of Madame Mao as a young actress before she married the leader of the Communist movement in China.

Kaige said that much of the “Farewell” cast and crew will be brought back for “Madame Mao.” He said “Farewell” co-screenwriter Lilian Lee has already started to work on a first draft of the screenplay, which he expects to receive in four to six weeks. The director made his remarks during a telephone interview from Beijing Wednesday.

Kaige said that he has approached “Farewell” star Gong Li about playing the lead in “Madame Mao.” He added, “In my mind she is the only one who can play Madame Mao, because she is from the same province and understands that character.”

The director said he does not expect financing for the project to be a problem, as “Farewell” producer Hsu Feng will return on “Madame Mao.” He said he expects production of the film will take 14 to 16 weeks.

Kaige said that despite the critical success of “Farewell” throughout the world (Miramax distributes domestically), government interference in China has not subsided. Banned twice in that country, he said, “Recently the Chinese government has taken some symbolic steps to assure the West that it is making progress toward improving its human rights record,” but he dubbed those moves “small tokens meant to satisfy Western pressure.”

In what he described as a “severe crackdown taking place in cultural circles, ” Kaige expressed concern that the government will thwart plans for “Madame Mao.” He cited “new rules for co-production of Chinese-foreign films which involve significant censorship throughout the filmmaking process” as one of the biggest threats to “Madame Mao.”

Kaige cited bans on satellite TV, scathing attacks on such films as “Concubine” (he said a prominent national writer called it “sub-spiritual garbage”), the cancellation of MTV-style programming on China Central Television and tight restrictions on the press as indications that things are tightening up.

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