BERLIN (Reuters) - Chinese director Chen Kaige pays tribute to the power of an "ordinary person" in his latest work -- a film about a cross-dressing falsetto singer who became a hero in China for defying the Japanese in World War Two.
"Forever Enthralled" is Chen's homage to Mei Lanfang, one of the country's most celebrated exponents of Peking Opera, a traditional Chinese performance art that includes mime, dance, gender-swapping and a shrill, nasal singing style.
Mei, born into a family of performers in 1894, was one of the first stars of the genre to bring Peking Opera to the outside world, touring Japan, the United States and elsewhere.
"I'm not even a big fan of Peking Opera," Chen said as he showcased the movie at the Berlin film festival. "The only reason I wanted to do this film is Mei Lanfang. Whatever happened to him, he gave it back to the whole world smiling.
"That's the power that only belongs to very brave people," he added. "The reason that we call him a great man is because he was an ordinary person for his whole life. He always carefully listened to what his heart told him. He was a legend."
After Japan's occupation of Beijing in 1937, Mei came under intense pressure to perform for the invaders, but refused despite the risk of reprisals against him. He died in 1961.
Given the film's focus on the heroism of an individual from history, reporters asked Chen, 56, if the Chinese authorities exerted any influence on his portrayal of Mei.
Chen said they did not, but noted he had to show "respect" when he collaborated with Mei's son on the production.
"I was a little nervous at the beginning whether he would allow me to do the movie I wanted," he said. "I don't think I could do everything I wanted. I'm not saying that there's anything I should be sorry about. But this is the reality."
With colorful performances of Peking Opera and pointed observations about the cultural divide between China and the West, the lavish production combines elements of tragedy, comedy and romance in a period spanning more than 40 years.
Featuring "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" star Zhang Ziyi and Chen Hong, the wife of the director (as Mei's wife), the film stars Hong Kong actor and singer Leon Lai as Mei himself.
Zhang said Mei's life showed how important liberty was.
"Freedom is the most powerful thing in life," she said. "Sometimes people keep an eye on you, but I still think we have to try as much as we can to keep (our) freedom."
Chen said he had already incorporated elements of Mei's character into the male lead of his celebrated 1993 film "Farewell My Concubine." The director, whose father knew Mei, remembered seeing the artist when he was a small boy.
"I saw him dancing in the courtyard in the early morning," he said. "Obviously Mr. Mei never thought there was a little boy who would make a film about him in the future."
Editing by Myra MacDonald