My guest this week is one of China’s most famous and influential film directors, Zhang Yimou — the man behind such visually opulent period films as Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern.
by Lorraine Hahn
LH: Lorraine Hahn
ZY: Zhang Yimou
LH: Hello and welcome to this special edition of TalkAsia from Beijing, I’m Lorraine Hahn.
My guest this week is one of China’s most famous and influential film directors, Zhang Yimou — the man behind such visually opulent period films as Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern. In 2002 he moved mainstream with the adventure epic, Hero, and won international acclaim for his stunning martial arts piece, House of Flying Daggers, two years later. Born in Xi’an in 1950, the son of an officer in the Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang army, Zhang has always had a tenuous relationship with the Chinese authorities. After working in a textile factory during the Cultural Revolution, he was accepted into the Beijing Film Academy. Together, with Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang and Zhang Junzhao, he was part of a famous group of filmmakers known as the Fifth Generation.
Welcome to TalkAsia thank you very much for joining us. You began as a cinematographer known for your lush visuals, beautiful cinematography. Are visuals more important to you than the plot?
ZY: Actually both complement each other, so we should not exaggerate the importance of one over the other. Chinese moviegoers appreciate a good balance, so we should try to achieve a perfect combination of content and visual impact; those would be the best works. Having said that, visual movies can have an extraordinarily strong impact, so I believe that visuals deserve a lot of attention as well.
LH: Let’s talk about colours, you use a lot of colours in your movies. Are they very very important?
ZY: I’m asked this question a lot, and I’m not sure I know the answer. It’s probably just a personal preference. Ever since I made my first movie, I have tended to use very strong and rich colours and visual. And this hasn’t changed. Maybe it’s because I’m Northern Chinese. I was born and I grew up in the northern part of China, and I was heavily influenced by the local folk art and the local environment there. So I guess it could just be a matter of where I’m from!
LH: Can you walk me through the process of let’s say taking a script and then you know putting it onto a storyboard. What goes through your mind?
ZY: The first step is to find an interesting screenplay, and that’s like shopping in a store. When you’re first walking around in a shop, browsing, you don’t necessarily know what you want or what you’re going to buy. Not until something really catches your eye, like a special item or certain clothes. Then you consider if you have enough money to pay for it. If you do, you get it, and you get it because it interests you, it doesn’t matter if you already have a similar item. Now once you have the screenplay, then you do research — perhaps spend a lot of time trying to make the screenplay feel right, while at the same time keep it accurate and as interesting as possible. Sometimes it takes me as much as three or four years just to finish fixing or rewriting a screenplay to my satisfaction. But once that’s done, you can look for investors, try to convince the investors why you want to make that movie. It’s a lot easier if you have a very good screenplay.
LH: Where do you get your ideas from? Do you get it from walking down the street or even watching movies?
LH: It’s hard to tell where inspiration comes from. Very often, it comes when you least expect it. Perhaps you get a tiny detail or specific image in your mind and you find that image beautiful. Or sometimes, inspiration comes from another person, something that another person says or does moves you. You find yourself touched and the feelings give you an idea you can use and develop. And sometimes the ideas come from watching other people’s works or movies because I really love to go to movies myself. Whenever I see a very beautiful movie I become sleepless at night. I’d be lying there thinking that the person who did the movie did such an excellent job — why can’t I do it too? Can I do something as good? So then I try to learn from them, learn from their different approaches to angles and perspective and adapt them into my own work. So that’s another place where I can get ideas.
LH: Mr. Zhang we’re going to take a very very short break. When we come back we’ll talk to Zhang Yimou about taking China’s film industry to the future, by using lessons from its controversial past.
LH: Welcome back to TalkAsia coming to you this week from Beijing.
Mr. Zhang you were part of the famous Fifth Generation of filmmakers. What were you trying to do at that time? Were you trying to just make movies or were you trying to make a statement?
ZY: Actually my goal at that time was quite basic and quite ordinary. All I wanted was to get my university degree. In the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, I spent three years working as a farmer and seven as a worker in a factory. When the Cultural Revolution came to an end, I was still at the factory and I really did not want to work there any longer on the night shifts. It was a very tiring and difficult life, and I wanted to get out of that environment. The best solution at that time seemed to be to go to university.
Even today that is true for most ordinary Chinese families — if their children can go to university, it could change their lives or their fate for the better. So there would be a chance of a higher standard of living.
LH: But you almost didn’t get into university correct? You were too old, twenty seven?
ZY: Yes, I was five years older than a student should be to qualify for university. I had to write a letter to the Minister of Culture, who was in charge of all the arts and cinema colleges in China. I wasn’t even sure myself if my application would be successful. But the Minister personally approved the letter and made the very unusual exception for me. Until then, I myself did not know what my future would look like. I think even the school thought I would be just an informal student!
LH: If you didn’t get into university, were you considering another career?
ZY: Actually I went to university in 1978. And even in 1980 I was still not really thinking about working in cinema after graduation. In fact, I was hoping at the time to be a journalist or a photographer for a newspaper or magazine. I thought that would be a really good career for me.
LH: A lot of the Fifth Generation was considered a thinly veiled criticism of the Chinese Government. Is this really the case, do you consider yourself a political filmmaker?
ZY: Personally, I don’t deliberately put political messages into my works, but during the Cultural Revolution, the art and the artist’s work will tend to overlap. A lot of people suffered during that period — the art suffered and the country suffered. I have always just wanted to use my movies to tell the human stories, to express people’s feelings and emotions. Of course China is a political society, and sometimes it is inevitable that you have to touch on some history. But for me it’s a story’s background, that’s all.
LH: I wanted to ask you about the use of symbolism in your movies: for example, featuring criticism of the fathers and women as catalysts. What is the basis of this symbolism?
ZY: I would say I tend to adopt a more affirmative approach to women because many of my works are dealing with the theme of anti-feudalism. So I have used a lot of historical themes in my works, you know the Chinese culture and the Chinese tradition. The man and the father are dominant in both society and family, and a lot of pressure is put on the female, and I wanted to reflect that.
LH: Are Asian films getting the respect and recognition they deserve outside of Asia?
ZY: This is a goal I strive for. I have always hoped that Asian movies can enjoy better development and can enjoy a better position in relation to the rest of the world. I’m sure this is the hope and goal of all movie directors in Asia. To answer your question about whether enough attention is being paid to Asian movies, it really depends on the effort and work of the Asian directors. I can already see that, in addition filmmakers here in Mainland China, those in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, have also already come up with excellent, outstanding movies. That’s really all you can do. If you want the world to notice you, you have to keep coming up with good works. And when you do good work, hopefully you will get the recognition.
LH: Mr. Zhang we’re going to take another very very short break. When TalkAsia returns, Zhang Yimou talks about his early influences and the muse behind his movies. Stay with us.
LH: Welcome back to TalkAsia, my guest is renowned Chinese film director Zhang Yimou. Mr. Zhang I want to ask you about your childhood, much of which you mentioned earlier was spent during the Cultural Revolution. How much did that influence your adult life?
ZY: I think my experience represents a wealth of assets for my life and my work. During the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, I was 16 to 26 years old. I experienced a lot of chaotic situations, and saw a lot of tragic things around me. So that deep understating of human life, of human society really benefits me today – in the way it affects my work, my thinking or even how I deal with my problems. You know, when I’m looking at different types of movies, I tend to think more about human life, about the human spirit, about the human heart. That’s from my past experience that’s still very deeply rooted in me.
LH: You were born into a family that was affiliated with the Kuomintang. Was that a problem?
ZY: We were the children of what was called the “Black Five Categories” of family backgrounds. That was a special name given to us during the Cultural Revolution to indicate that we were not from mainstream families, but rather from a bad background – a low end family. We were severely discriminated against at that time in so many areas. China was very political. So whenever you wanted to do something, like apply for a job, or enter university, you had to fill in a form and on that form you had to specify your family background. And then based on what you put on the form, the administration people would classify you into different categories. And if you belonged to a certain category, you were only allowed to do certain things and not allowed to do other certain things. It was hard and very severe; your position in society really was determined by your birth.
LH: You know just speaking with you I can feel your passion, not only for your work and your movies but also for China. Yet you have this love-hate relationship with the Chinese Government and still, despite it all, live in China. Why?
ZY: Actually I don’t see it as a relationship between me and the Chinese Government. Rather, it’s the relationship between me and the Chinese soil, the country of China and the Chinese people. This land of China is where I was born, where I grew up, so you can never sever the ties between us. No matter what this country or this land has done to me, how badly it may have treated me, I still always see myself as a son of this land. And I would never betray my land, my country and my people. I will be loyal forever to the land, like a son to his mother. So this is the main reason why I always want to stay in China. It’s not about the relationship between me and the government; it’s more about blood-ties between me and the Chinese land, the country. I’m always proud that I’m a director from China, and I’d like to come up with the best possible works to give back to my land and my people.
LH: Now you’ve worked with some beautiful leading ladies: Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi now. How important was someone like Gong Li in your movies?
ZY: Actually they’ve played a very determining role, an extremely important role in all my movies because you know, movies are not just about beautiful images or pictures or sceneries – they are also about human emotions. You need good actors to bring your movies to life. My stories are about human kind, about people and how they think, so it’s important to be able to show the people’s spirit and their emotions. I’m so glad I’ve had the opportunities to work with Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi. The coincidence side of this story is that I found both of them from the same academy. And at the time when I decided to cast them, both of them were in their second year of school, so they had rather similar beginnings. I’m very proud that today, both of them have become internationally famous actresses. I’m happy about what they have achieved. And I hope that in the future, we will have more outstanding actresses like them emerging from China.
LH: You’ve dabbled in other projects, opera for example, Turandot. Is that something you want to do more of?
ZY: Of course I hope I can have more opportunities to do these different types of work or endeavors. I see them as challenges in my career. For December 2006, Tan Dun, the famous Chinese composer has invited me to be the director of his opera, which will be staged at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. So I am very happy to have more opportunities to work in this new area.
LH: There is a famous story about how you bought your first camera. How did you buy it?
ZY: Back then, I didn’t have much money. I could only save 5 Yuan every month, after putting aside money for eating and basic living expenses. I really liked shooting pictures, and wanted to own a camera. But to buy a camera at that time, you needed to have at least 188 Yuan, or more than 20 US dollars – a lot of money for me at that time! I knew it would take me two to three years to save enough money to buy one. I had already saved for more than a year but it was far from enough. At that time, it was also possible for people to donate their blood for money. So I decided to do that! I donated my blood to augment my savings. It took many months but I finally had enough money to afford my first ever camera. That was in November or December of 1974, I still remember. With that new camera I began shooting pictures. So I guess you could say that was my first contact with the movie industry!
LH: So you actually bought that camera with your real blood?
ZY: Yes, you can say that.
LH: Tell me about your new movie. I know you’ve just about finished it. What’s it about?
ZY: It’s an ordinary art movie, a little different from Hero and my previous works. It’s about the relationship between a father and son, which is a theme I haven’t explored very often in past movies. I’m working with someone I really admire. When I was young, there was a very famous Japanese director whom I worshipped. I was a really big fan of his, and always dreamed of someday working with him. That dream has come true! It took me five years to write it, but I’m so happy I can realize a dream. Now I only hope that the audience will like it.
LH: Mr. Zhang thank you very much, xie xie ni. We look forward to looking your new movie.
You’ve been watching a very special edition of TalkAsia from Beijing, I’m Lorraine Hahn. Let’s talk again next week.