[INTERVIEW] Zhang Yimou
- INTERVIEW: ZHANG YIMOU
By Fred Topel
This sure seems to be the year of the translators. We have spoken to
so many Asian artists who do not speak English, and communicated
through translators. Perhaps it is just a coincidence, or a sign
that the Asian film culture continues to explode in America. I just
can't believe that in 10 years of watching these movies, I haven't
picked up a word of the language. We should be able to do this in
Mandarin but I'm still reliant on the translation services.
Zhang's latest martial arts epic, House of Flying Daggers, got
released this month from Sony Pictures Classics, a lot faster than
Miramax brought Hero to U.S. screens. Presumably building off of the
recent buzz Hero received, Daggers is another character drama that
happens to entail large groups of people firing arrows and fighting.
Funny how that happens.
Q: How tough is it to transplant human drama onto a martial arts
Yimou: This is very difficult and also important that to put passion
in the relationship in the action film. Yes, it's easier to make
this film after Hero because I have more experience.
Q: What led to your decision to move to martial arts after a long
history of dramatic films?
Yimou: The script for Hero and House of Flying Daggers were brought
to me at the same time and they were talking about the same themes
of sacrifice, but in two different ways to express those themes. For
Hero, it's a more classical way of talking about people's belief and
to sacrifice the individual for the big picture, but for House of
Flying Daggers, it's another way. It's about the individual and
sacrifice to pursue their own love. It's always been challenging for
me to direct different styles of films, like before I was doing
films on a small scale, on a small budget, talking about ordinary
people's lives, and now with Hero and House of Flying Daggers, they
are such huge scale films that are as different as heaven and earth.
But for me, it's always just great to face different challenges.
That makes me grow as an artist, and makes me to develop and to
learn and enhance my skills and make me more knowledgeable. But my
next film will be another small-scaled film that talks about
ordinary people's lives too, and I think after all of these
different style films I will continue the learning process and
that's important for all of the actors because I remember I was in
Cannes Film Festival a Japanese director received a lifetime
achievement and he was on stage and he was saying that I think to
study how to shoot the film and that makes me think to be a director
is to learn and challenge myself.
Q: Do you have ambitions to work in the U.S.?
Yimou: On account of the good receipt of Hero at the box office, a
lot of American companies have invited me to be a part of American
films, but for me personally I don't think so because I don't know
English and I don't know the stories or characters, so
right now, no.
Q: What are the restrictions a filmmaker in China faces today as
opposed to 10 or 20 years ago?
Yimou: Back twenty years ago they abandoned the creative part and
it's very different because now it's about making commercial films.
Now it's a big concern for almost every director in China, to think
about the marketing, the competition angle, the huge pressure of
Hollywood films, so it's very complicated for people to make films,
but this is an opinion that in the `80s in China, people would just
make pure art films. Now, for all of the artists in China, it's
their responsibility to protect Chinese films so they have their own
space in world cinema.
Q: How do you do that?
Yimou: The first concern is the piracy in China, which there is
nothing I can do personally about government's attention to control
it, and also China has been remarking that there are about twenty
pieces of foreign films from Hollywood will come to China and all of
the young audiences love Hollywood productions. That gives pressure
to Chinese filmmakers. Hero also helped. Actually I use them to try
out to see if I can do it to receive good box office to fight
Hollywood films, but now I feel that they are not bad and they will
be a success at the box office in America, but ideas are not enough.
A filmmaker also has to think to enhance the quality of the film.
That is very, very important. A good film must contain good quality
and then it will receive good marketing as well.
Q: Are you happier with the way that Sony Classics is handling House
of Flying Daggers?
Yimou: I don't understand about the marketing. I think the companies
have their reasons to do it this way and personally I hope they're
all doing a good job to help promote
Q: How tough is it to insert social commentary in your movies?
Yimou: No matter how many years ago the film is about, the audience
is from today, so they have the same things in common when they see
the film. It's about society, it's about young audiences and how
they see it and all of the stories are about the passion and
beautiful things and about seeing what's in common. The most
important thing is that the audience can get information from the
movie and also the film can impact society and a young audience, or
the audience in general. But yes, it's difficult. It's difficult for
me to make traditional, classical films because you cannot just
directly go into people's minds. It's not a direct way to extract [a
message] because it's a traditional story.
Q: Are you interested in making a martial arts comedy?
Yimou: It's not in my plan.
Q: What are you working on next?
Yimou: My next film will be shot next month and it will be a
contemporary themed film and no fighting anymore.
Q: Are there any plans for a third martial arts movie?
Yimou: Yes, we are looking for a new script for the third one.
Q: Talk about the use of color in this film as opposed to Hero?
Yimou: Colors have always been the priority of my concern. Sometimes
I can just choose color because of the dynasty- for example, in
Hero, the Qin dynasty was represented by black. In previous Chinese
films, I think there's not enough black to show the Qin dynasty, so
that's why I chose Qin to represent black colors. Now, I have many
different choices. I can use different backgrounds and different
eras, but that's how I chose the black. I chose colors to represent
different eras that represent a color. For House of Flying Daggers I
used the rich colors from the painting on the wall and it was during
the Tang dynasty all of the rich color enhanced the picture.
Q: How do you balance acting with action?
Yimou: I really appreciated my action director, Tony Ching, who has
a lot of experience making over a hundred or 200 films, but at the
beginning we both agreed that there was not much interest in just
making an action movie. We needed depth of the characters and story
so we had many meetings before we shot the action scenes, and during
the action scenes, I am just like the assistant director sitting in
front of the monitor, and Tony is the director, directing all of the
action, and also Tony has a lot of experience working as a director
too, so we put together the acting and fight scenes to make it look
Q: Talk about the role of women in Chinese society, since you always
have strong women leads?
Yimou: Asking about the position of women in Chinese society is a
huge question to talk about because there are millions and millions
of Chinese women out there, but let me just talk about in the
context of the big cities. In the big cities, the male and the
female are equal, but there are still lots of problems in the
countryside. Men still look down on women and women face a lot of
pressure because of tradition, and now we need to protect women's
position and protect their rights. For the films I've been making,
it wasn't my intention to make all of female themed movies, but
people just make that conclusion for me, but looking back, yes,
maybe that's true and maybe that's why people have called me a
female's director. I'm always interested in female stories, but
maybe it's easy for me to capture the female when they face
depression and how they try to fight back against society and
Q: What does Hong Kong style mean to you?
Yimou: Hong Kong filmmaking is a more commercial style, especially
they are making a lot of martial arts action films and I think
that's the initial city for martial arts films. For example, the
actor Jet Li, and from recently, mainland China's martial arts, we
just make them recent and we need to hire lots of technicians like
martial arts directors from Hong Kong because they have the best
source there. Right now, Hong Kong movies also face difficulties and
the pressure of the commercial, but personally I hope that Hong Kong
movies will have a great future because the base is very strong.
Q: What about Hollywood films influenced by Asian films?
Yimou: In mainland China, almost every year we're seeing almost 20
Hollywood films, so there's a big impact on the young generation,
people and filmmakers in China. I think the best part about
Hollywood films is that they've always had really good publicity and
commercialized marketing, and also it's a good story, a touching
story, some of them, and a lot of creative thoughts in the movie,
but for Chinese films, we need to invent and retain the nationality
and the flavor of the eastern. Also, to make great stories.
Q: Have you been satisfied with the translation of your movies to
Yimou: We cannot avoid this problem. For example, in this film,
we're using a poem to describe how beautiful the female character
is, but it's really, really tasteful in our film, talking in
Chinese, but when it translates into English, it doesn't make sense.
It loses quality there. But I think it's okay in this kind of film.
The huge damage for this is in comedy, because for comedy there's a
lot of local humor and sometimes because of different islands,
different cities and different countries, sometimes people are
watching without laughing at all.