IT was 1967. Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution had pushed China to the brink of anarchy, and the Army was ordered to quell the madness. In the following months, millions of city-bred youths, many of them Mao's loyal Red Guards, were rounded up and banished to the countryside for ``reeducation'' through peasant labor. One of the exiled youths was a boy from Peking named Chen Kaige, who was sent deep into the mountains of China's southern Yunnan Province. Rising at dawn each morning from a dirt-floored hut, Mr. Chen went to the hills with a machete to slash down thick, green groves of bamboo.
``In the beginning, I thought I was destined to serve society,'' recalls Chen, who was an idealistic 16-year-old and a privileged film director's son when Peking officials sent him to join a production brigade in Yunnan in 1968.
But three harsh years in the wild and impoverished hill country stripped away Chen's confidence in the utopian slogans of Mao. ``We spent every day in the mountains chopping down bamboo. We had little to eat, and no books to read. Life was bitter and dull,'' he says.
``I was ready to crumble. I didn't know what to believe in. In the end, I knew there was only one road to follow - I had to depend on myself in life.''
If any single characteristic has made Chen, at 35, China's most internationally acclaimed young filmmaker, it is the bold individualism he embraced as a youth in the hills of Yunnan.
Chen's search for meaning in his turbulent past has lent exceptional power to his films, which include ``The Big Parade'' (1985) and ``Yellow Earth'' (1984), one of China's first experimental movies and the winner of several foreign awards.
Philosophical and artistically stunning, Chen's films embody the best aspirations of China's avant-garde ``fifth generation'' directors, the first to graduate from film academies since the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
The ``fifth generation'' artists, who grew up in a decade of mass political upheaval, are known for radical innovations that defy ``socialist realism,'' China's dominant cinematic style since the 1950s.
After returning from Yunnan in 1975 and working for two years at the developing plant of the Peking Film Studio, Chen enrolled in the prestigious Peking Film Academy in 1978.
Like others of his generation, Chen avoided the restrictive atmosphere of large, established, state-run studios. After graduating from the Peking Film Academy in 1982, he shot films under the auspices of small studios in Shaanxi and Guangxi Provinces.
In the less pretentious, more open climate of the minor studios, Chen and other new directors flourished. Drawing on Western techniques and their own innovative ideas, they broke out of the Maoist mold of revolutionary romanticism.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, who ironically have felt compelled in today's climate of eased censorship to make stinging, political films, Chen is devoted to art for art's sake.
``A lot of Chinese filmmakers use their art as a way to criticize the government. ... I want to create something more important than politics.''
Chen's favorite and most autobiographical film is the recently completed ``King of Children,'' (Haize Wang), based on a novel by writer Ah Cheng.
``King of Children'' is a deeply personal and critical portrayal of how China's ancient culture - still pervasive under communism - represses the innate creativity and individualism of the Chinese, especially the young.
Set during the Cultural Revolution, the film tells the story of a quiet, lanky youth nicknamed Lao Cha, or ``old settler,'' who is sent from the city to teach Chinese at a thatch-and-bamboo school in the Yunnan wilderness.
At the schoolhouse, the headmaster hands the young teacher a required textbook of Maoist liturgy, which he methodically chalks onto a blackboard, which he methodically chalks onto a blackboard for the peasant children to copy and memorize.
``The east is red. The sun rises. Tens of millions of people turn their red hearts to the sun,'' dozens of little hands scrawl earnestly day after day. In time, Lao Cha grows disgusted with himself and his cowardly work, knowing that the rote recitation of Mao's doctrine is not true learning, any more than was the memorization of Confucian classics by Chinese scholars in centuries past.
He discards the textbook, does away with discipline, and asks the students to write essays about their lives, which they do with innocence and beauty. But local authorities soon discover his iconoclastic ways, and force Lao Cha, the ``king of children,'' to leave the school.
``In `King of Children' I had been thinking about our inheritance of this ancient Chinese spirit, and what effect it has on our lives,'' Chen said. ``As artists, we draw on this spirit in our work - using it as a `bed on which to lie' or `an umbrella to walk under' - but ... it blocks our creative development.''
To convey his interpretation of culture, Chen uses vivid symbolism and a striking, experimental soundtrack, giving ``King of Children'' a sensual quality and keeping dialogue sparse.
In one scene, Lao Cha tries to push a primitive stone roller used to flatten the dirt schoolyard. But he fails, just as he fails to budge China's educational and cultural traditions.
A dictionary is another symbol. When Lao Cha reads it at night, he is awed by the chanting voices, hissing, and primitive drums that pour from the Chinese characters on its pages.
``All of Chinese history and culture lie in those pages,'' Chen said. ``People can create culture, but culture controls them. Chinese like to boast that they have a civilization 5,000 years old. They say `Our hearts are very calm,' but they don't think about how it influences them.''
Chen believes children suffer the most from this cultural heritage. In the film, youth in all its naive wonder and purity is symbolized by nature, especially trees, and by a wild and illiterate young cowherd, who roams the hills refusing to go to school.
During the final scene, a vast expanse of hillside surrounding the schoolhouse is violently consumed by flame when officials decide to clear the lush, rapid-growing vegetation.
``I've been here seven years, and I don't know how many times they've set the hills on fire,'' sighs Lao Cha. As he leaves the school he passes the little cowherd, who watches him warily from a landscape of charred trees.
``The burnt trees are like many of our children,'' Chen says. ``They are there, but they are no longer living. Our way of education destroys people.''
Ironically, Chen says that even the Cultural Revolution, which Mao launched to uproot and overthrow China's feudal tradition, was in itself an extreme manifestation of a conservative Chinese mentality that hungers for authoritarian rule.
``Chinese artists talk about the problem of their roots. They want to prove they have roots because the Cultural Revolution supposedly destroyed them. But I believe our relationship with our roots is already too intimate, the roots are part of us.''