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Jiang Wen, Cinematic Philosopher

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Although many actors in Asia and the West have tried their hand at directing, few have met with such acclaim and success as Jiang Wen. Known as part of the Sixth Generation of Chinese directors after stepping behind the camera for the first time in 1994, Jiang is also one of the country's most beloved and acclaimed actors, having starred in a variety of hit television series and films. Although in the past more associated with the arthouse end of the market and with the cinema of social criticism, he has of late moved somewhat into the mainstream, taking on stately roles and helming the massively successful action comedy western Let the Bullets Fly.

At the same time, Jiang has continued to show his own unique character, mixing satirical humor and humanistic concerns to tackle genuine social concerns in a manner which is all the more effective for being accessible and entertaining. This approach has certainly struck a chord with local audiences, his films becoming increasingly successful in China. At the same time his works have won him much praise from overseas critics as well, being one of the few directors to make films which are instantly recognizable to foreigners as being culturally Chinese, though without pandering to cheap exoticism or cinematic tourism.

Early Years

Jiang Wen was born in 1963 in Tangshan, Hebei, to a military family. After relocating to Beijing at an early age, he enrolled in the Central Academy of Drama, China's top acting institution, graduating in 1984 and gaining experience on the stage with the China Youth Theatre. Interestingly, his younger brother Jiang Wu followed the same path, and is himself a well-known actor, having starred in Zhang Yimou's To Live, Zhang Yang's Shower, and who will soon be seen in Jackie Chan's 1911.

Starting his career in television, Jiang made his film debut in 1986 with Hibiscus Town, a Cultural Revolution melodrama directed by Xie Jin and adapted from a novel by Gu Hua. The film was much praised by critics, taking home Best Film and other prizes at the prestigious Golden Rooster Awards. Jiang himself won Best Actor at the Hundred Flowers Awards, marking his arrival as a serious talent.

Around the same time he also starred in the dramas The Last Empress and Le Palanquin des Larmes, before landing his breakthrough role in Zhang Yimou's first directorial effort Red Sorghum. Co-starring Gong Li, the film brought Zhang to the notice of critics, being a powerful anti-war picture of life in 1930s, pre-communist China just before the brutal Japanese occupation. A deeply humanistic and visually impressive work, the film swept the Golden Rooster and Golden Phoenix awards, with Jiang taking home Best Actor, and made a stir on the international festival scene, winning the Golden Bear at Berlin.

Another important role for Jiang followed in 1990 with Black Snow, from Fourth Generation Mainland director Xie Fei and writer Liu Heng. Jiang turned in a powerful performance in the film, which saw him as a downtrodden 24-year-old man, unschooled due to the Cultural Revolution, who struggles to make good after being released from a labor camp. The gritty film furthered his international reputation, winning the Silver Bear at Berlin and Best film at the Hundred Flowers Awards. Although the next few years saw more film appearances for the actor in The Last Eunuch and The Trail, it was his hugely popular role in the 1992 television series A Native of Beijing in New York, which really pushed his career to the next level.

Behind the Camera

In 1994, Jiang wrote and directed his first film, In the Heat of the Sun, based on the novel Wild Beast by Wang Shuo. Jiang also acted in and narrated the film, a Cultural Revolution set tale which differed from its peers by aiming for something more personal and intimate, following a group of teenagers in Beijing during one event-filled summer. Apparently based partly on some of Jiang's own reminiscences, the film was not so much a piece of social criticism as it was an ambiguous snapshot of a specific time and place, neither condemning nor approving. His first outing as director was a resounding success, winning six Golden Horse awards in Taiwan (where it was actually the first Mainland Chinese film to have been entered and won) including Best Director and Screenplay, as well as garnering praise at overseas festivals, with its young lead Xia Yu taking Best Actor at Venice.

Next up, Jiang switched genres, starring in the historical epic The Emperor's Shadow for renowned director Zhou Xiaowen. The film saw the actor in the title role as China's first Emperor, attempting to conquer and unify the country and put in place a common language and currency, while having to deal with assassins and a widening rift with his brother (played by popular Mainland star Ge You). Pre-dating the current trend for period set blockbusters, the film was a lavish production which still stands as one of China's most costly. Though initially controversial and subject to criticism regarding its accuracy, it marked a high profile and prestigious role for Jiang, one of the first times he would play an Emperor or ruler.

In 1997, the actor teamed again with Zhang Yimou for Keep Cool, a film which saw the director trying something a little different. Instead of the historical affairs for which he had become known, the film was a distinctly modern and urban affair, charting social change, financial pressure, and upheaval in present day Beijing, shot on a lower budget and largely with handheld cameras. The comedy featured Jiang as a rough and ready market bookseller who runs into trouble when he tries to pursue an ex-lover who is now with a richer man. It was another hit, especially abroad, with it being nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice, where both he and Zhang Yimou were fast becoming mainstays.

Also in the same year, Jiang provided one of the voices for the animation Lotus Lantern, and starred in Mabel Cheung's The Soong Sisters with Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, and Vivian Wu, another slice of recent Chinese history which won him Best Supporting Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

Courting Controversy

In 2000, Jiang returned to directing with Devils on the Doorstep, a film which would truly reap a whirlwind of controversy, resulting in him apparently being banned from filmmaking in China for seven years. As well as co-scripting and producing, Jiang also took the lead as a villager who during the last years of the Second Sino-Japanese War is given the task of acting as the custodian of two Japanese prisoners, leading to tension and conflict amongst the other locals. Shot in stark black and white to enhance its air of historical, news-reel accuracy, the film immediately caused problems in China, with the Chinese Film Bureau criticizing it for not showing the villagers and the Japanese soldiers as enemies. Jiang instead chose to focus on their responses and attitudes as a means of exploring human behavior and fear. Perhaps what enraged the authorities even more was the fact that he submitted the film without approval for competition at Cannes, where it played to great acclaim, being nominated for the Palme d'Or and winning the Grand Jury Prize. This resulted in both Jiang and the film being banned domestically, though it has remained a much admired work, and one which underlined him as a director of substance, not to mention securing him a place on the Cannes jury panel in 2003.

Whilst the official details of the directing ban were not made public, they did not stop Jiang from acting, and in 2002 he starred in the Mainland film The Missing Gun for director Lu Chuan, who would go on to helm the award-winning Kekexili: Mountain Patrol and The City of Life and Death. The black comedy saw Jiang as a small town policeman who spends the film searching desperately for his lost pistol, and was the first Chinese digital production to be officially screened.

A bigger production followed the next year with Warriors of Heaven and Earth, a swordplay epic which saw him starring alongside Vicky Zhao and Nakai Kiichi, as an army officer on the run in the Middle Kingdom during ancient times. Directed by He Ping, the film was a blockbuster release which also enjoyed success overseas, with international hunger for the genre still strong after the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. Jiang then featured again opposite Zhao in the romance Green Tea for director Zhang Yuan, a gorgeous and highly visual film which boasted cinematography from Wong Kar Wai regular Christopher Doyle.

The next couple of years were also busy for Jiang on the acting front, collaborating with actress Xu Jinglei on two films in 2003 and 2004. The first of these was My Father and I, an intimate drama about love and loss which marked her debut as a director, with Jiang taking a small role. This was followed by A Letter from an Unknown Woman, which she also helmed, adapted from Stefan Zweig's famous novel, in which Jiang played the pivotal role of a writer who receives the titular letter from a woman regarding a relationship he had all but forgotten. The film was a handsome affair, with an impressive recreation of 1930s and 1940s Beijing, and won the Silver Shell for Best Director at the 52nd San Sebastian International Film Festival.

In the same year, Jiang also appeared in a second aesthetically accomplished period piece in Jasmine Women from former cinematographer Hou Yong, another Zhang Yimou collaborator. Following the lives of three generations of Shanghai women in a family through the 1930s, 50s, and 80s, the film was headlined by Zhang Ziyi and Joan Chen, with Jiang playing a film studio boss.

The Sun Also Rises

After appearing in the 2006 television series Daqing Fengyun, Jiang was finally able to put the Devils on the Doorstep furore behind him and step back behind the cameras after a seven year hiatus with The Sun Also Rises, adapted from the novel Velvet by Ye Mi. For his directorial comeback, he returned to the themes of In the Heat of the Sun, though with a more mature, philosophical approach born from years of experience and reflection. Although still revolving around the Cultural Revolution and dealing with politically sensitive topics, the film was measured and thoughtful, with a complex, multi-layered narrative that follows Jiang himself, along with Anthony Wong, Joan Chen, and Jaycee Chan as a series of characters from 1976 onwards, dealing with a variety of subplots that help to make for a highly personal and thoughtful take on the period.

The film is certainly intricate, though unlike others with overlapping narratives it has a more ambiguous and often dreamlike feel, with some truly gorgeous and cinematic visuals. Interestingly, the film was also somewhat of a family affair for Jiang, with his wife Zhou Yun (with whom he also starred in the Mainland television series Jin Hun Feng Yu Qing around the same time) playing one of the lead roles, and his newborn son making an appearance. The film met with a positive critical reaction, with some hailing it as Jiang's best and most mature work to date. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it proved particularly popular at overseas festivals, including Venice, where it was nominated for the Golden Lion, eventually losing out to the more controversial Lust, Caution from Ang Lee.

More directing followed for Jiang, this time with an international flavor, as he contributed a segment to the 2008 anthology piece New York, I Love You in 2008, along with the likes of Natalie Portman, Brett Rather, Shekhar Kapur, and Iwai Shunji. In 2009, the actor was also one of a vast many to appear in the prestigious event picture The Founding of a Republic, produced to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the People's Republic of China. The epic all-star drama was a historical retelling of the Chinese civil war from 1945 to 1949, charting the rise to power of the Communist Party, directed by Fifth-Generation helmer Huang Jianxin, and with a script by Wang Xingdong. Despite some fears that it might be a mere propaganda piece, the film was well received by critics, and was a commercial juggernaut at the domestic box office, pulling in over RMB400 million.

Let the Blockbusters Fly

By 2010, Jiang was firmly established as one of the very top stars and directors in Chinese cinema, and so it perhaps wasn't too surprising that for his next outing as a helmer he aimed for something a touch more commercial with the comedic action western Let the Bullets Fly, which as usual he also wrote and produced. Set in China in 1919, the film revolved around Jiang himself as a bandit, who after a train robbery ends up taking on the governorship of a crime ridden town from the slippery Ge You, only to clash heads with its underworld boss Chow Yun Fat. The film was certainly a star-studded affair, with Carina Lau, Aloys Chen, and Zhou Yun also amongst the high profile cast, and saw Jiang on superb form both as writer and director.

Although a comedy and ostensibly more mainstream than his previous outings, Let the Bullets Fly was a masterful blend of popcorn entertainment and his usual themes, working in social commentary and satire in a manner which gleefully defies pinning down, as well as a fair amount of ambiguity and intelligence. The mix went down particularly well with local audiences, and the film was Jiang's biggest earner to date, surpassing other hits like Feng Xiaogang's If You Are the One 2 and Chen Kaige's Sacrifice during the prime box office season. A sequel is apparently now being planned.

Jiang's latest outing was the Donnie Yen vehicle, The Lost Bladesman, based on the exploits of the legendary historical Romance of the Three Kingdoms figure Guan Yu, in which he took the role of prime minister Cao Cao. Directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, and with action choreography from Yen, the film was a mix of biopic drama and sword fighting action, with some stunning visuals and epic battle scenes. Although sold mainly on its duels and the presence of current martial arts king Yen, the film arguably belongs to Jiang, whose excellent performance balanced humanity, humor, and ruthlessness, and added a very welcome ambiguity to the proceedings. The film was another box office smash for the actor, emphasizing again his status as not only one of China's most philosophical and talented filmmakers and stars, but also one of the most prominent and popular.

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Published June 17, 2011

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