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Cinema and the City - Interview with Jia Zhangke

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Jia Zhangke doesn't break box office records with every release like Feng Xiaogang, or create star-studded spectacles like Zhang Yimou, but he has over the last decade emerged as one of China's most important filmmakers. Though recognition at home is a more recent development, Jia's name has carried great weight in world cinema since he burst onto the festival scene in 1997 with Xiao Wu. A regular presence at the major international film festivals, he won the Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival for Still Life. As the most prominent figure among the so-called Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, Jia has garnered widespread acclaim for his festival darling films exploring the lives of the Chinese grassroots population and the effects of rapid urbanization on China's landscape, culture, and historical memory.

Jia's most recent film I Wish I Knew is a documentary about the city of Shanghai from 1933 to the present day. Through interviews with people of different generations and backgrounds, he forms a fascinating collage of stories, images, and experiences that together capture Shanghai's vibrant history, migration, identity, and cinema. Jia discussed his latest film with YumCha! when he was in town for the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival last year, and it perhaps comes as no surprise that the director is as unassumingly outspoken and insightful as his films.


Q: Why did you choose Shanghai as a documentary topic?

In the early nineties, I moved to Beijing for university and became interested in China's contemporary history, in particular the Republican Era. Many writers' works were set in Shanghai, for example Hu Shih, Shen Congwen, and Eileen Chang. Because I read a lot of recent literature and modern history, I became especially interested in Shanghai, as almost all of China's important political, economic, and artistic figures were in Shanghai before 1949. Many historical events happened in Shanghai; I felt that there must be something special about this city.

I originally wanted to make a film about 1927 Shanghai, because a lot of violence occurred between the Communists (CCP) and the Nationalists (KMT) that year... I really wanted to film that story. At the time I had my eyes on a novel, French author Malraux's La condition humaine, but we didn't film it in the end due to copyright and other issues. Instead, I had the opportunity to film a documentary, because I discovered that many second-generation descendants of historical figures were still living in our time.

From a filmmaker's point of view, I especially admire director Fei Mu. My impression of Fei Mu is that he's a historical figure. He belongs to the forties. Later, I learned that Fei Mu's daughter, Barbara Fei, lived in Hong Kong, so I thought, why don't I go interview her, and hear her stories about her father. That's how the idea to make I Wish I Knew came about.

Interview Subjects
(In order of appearance)

1. Chen Danqing, painter and writer
2. Yang Xiaofo, son of civil rights martyr Yang Xingfo
3. Zhang Yuansun, grandson of "MSG King" Zhang Yiyun
4. Du Meiru, daughter of gangster/tycoon Du Yuesheng
5. Wang Peimin, daughter of underground CCP member
6. Wang Tung, director
7. Chang Hsin-I, writer
8. Barbara Fei, daughter of director Fei Mu
9. Wei Ran, son of actress Shangguan Yunzhu
10. Zhu Qiansheng, Chung Kuo - Cina crew member
11. Chang Ling Yun, former KMT pilot
12. Lee Chia Tung, engineering professor
13. Hou Hsiao Hsien, director
14. Huang Baomei, model worker and subject of 1958 documentary
15. Wei Wei, Spring in a Small Town actress
16. Rebecca Pan, singer and actress
17. Yang Huaiding, stock investor and self-made millionaire
18. Han Han, writer and race car driver
Q: How were the interview subjects selected?

First, we did a breakdown of Shanghai's civilian composition. In the past, Shanghai was a capital-based city, so capitalists and entrepreneurs was one classification of people. If there are enterprises, there are workers. Then there are politicians, soldiers, and artists. We followed this classification breakdown to search for subjects, and made a list of over 150 possible interview subjects... In the end, we were able to interview over 80 people.

Q: How did you design where the subjects would be interviewed?

This was a truly brain-racking process. In the film 18 people appear, but in actuality we filmed over 80 people, and for every person we had to find an appropriate space for the interview. For Hou Hsiao Hsien, for example, I wanted to bring him to the train in his films. The Shifen railway shows up in many of his films like Goodbye South, Goodbye, Dust in the Wind, and A Time to Live and A Time to Die. I think that railway belongs to him so when he's talking about his connection with Shanghai, we should place him in his film space. For artist Chen Danqing, I put him in a construction site building because he frequently writes about how construction and redevelopment has affected Shanghai memory in his essays.

Q: Which story about Shanghai left the deepest impression on you?

The one that I most connected with was Shangguan Yunzhu's story. She was a famous actress of the forties, and committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution. After her suicide, her daughter's life was also very tragic. She experienced many misfortunes during the Cultural Revolution before passing away. I particularly empathize with this two-generation mother-daughter story because I also work in film.

Q: Your film includes many clips from other films set in Shanghai. Have these other films influenced your impression of the city?

I wasn't thinking about using images from other directors' films at first. I mainly wanted to use Michelangelo Antonioni's Chung Kuo - Cine, because in the seventies he came to China to shoot a documentary, and Shanghai was a very important part of it. Shanghai took up about 1/3 of the documentary. For my film, the oldest person I interviewed was in his nineties, Yang Xingfo's son Yang Xiaofo. His story began in 1933... and so our film also begins in 1933. From 1933 to the present, China went through a historical period called the Cultural Revolution. I thought if we could use Antonioni's clips about the Cultural Revolution, it would bring us back to that period.

For other people, I didn't have anything planned. I was looking to interview Shanghainese people who had migrated to Taiwan and Hong Kong. By chance, I was talking to director Wei Te Sheng, and he told me that director Wang Tung migrated to Taiwan by ship... Wang said that his grandmother tied their whole family together with a piece of rope to make sure no one got lost on the way to Taiwan. This incident showed up in his film Red Persimmon so I used that clip.

More and more of these threads came together to form a structure for the film. With Barbara Fei's interview, naturally Spring in a Small Town was used. With Rebecca Pan's interview, naturally we thought of Days of Being Wild and its depiction of Shanghainese people in Hong Kong. To me, the clips - be they from narrative films like Hou Hsiao Hsien's Flowers of Shanghai or documentaries like Huang Baomei and Chung Kuo - all document the fate of this city. It's actually very appropriate because Shanghai was China's film center in the thirties and forties, so it fits with the city.

Q: In the film, there are shifts to Taipei and Hong Kong, where many of the interview subjects now reside. Is leaving Shanghai a part of the Shanghai story?

In the beginning we needed to find an angle from which to film Shanghai, as Shanghai has too many angles... I eventually found a story thread in the movement of people in Shanghai, because it's a city of migration. Not only do many people from around the world come to Shanghai, but also moving away and leaving are an important part of the city's fate. Every time there's war and disaster, people leave.

Tan Dun, who lives in Shanghai now, says every time he walks past Huangpujiang and sees the boats, he thinks about how in the past ships and ships of people came to this city, laid down roots, exercised their talents, and found success. And then whenever there's war and disaster, they leave ship by ship.

Where did they go? Primarily Hong Kong and Taiwan, because a very important national memory is the separation of 1949. In 1949 after the KMT lost, they went to Taiwan. Many Shanghainese people followed to Taiwan, and many took the middle route and came to Hong Kong, so the China-Hong Kong-Taiwan triangle became an important structure for the film. As such, the decision of 1949 also became the film's core.

Q: I Wish I Knew's English title is from a song title, as are the titles of Platform and Unknown Pleasures. Pop songs also often appear in your films. Why do you place these songs in your films?

Music is a generation's memory. When we talk about history and changes, popular music is a mark of the times... I Wish I Knew is Zhang Yuansun's favorite song from his youth. I didn't know the song originally, and only found out by chance while talking to him. I asked him what kind of music he liked, and he said he liked to sing English songs, especially I Wish I Knew. When switching from China to Taiwan and Hong Kong, I wanted to insert a Taiwanese song and a Cantonese song that matched the mood of the film, and use the language change to signal the change in location. Lim Giong helped me select Teresa Teng's "Flower in Rainy Night" and Sam Hui's "Drifter's Song".

Q: Why did you add Zhao Tao's character of a woman wandering the city into a documentary?

I have a very open perspective towards documentary and narrative films. Documentary and fiction are both ways of expressing our true feelings, so I don't think there's any contradiction. While shooting I Wish I Knew, I suddenly had an inspiration on how to tell the story. Once you're in Shanghai for a while, you'll realize that the city has over the past hundred years seen so many different people coming and going, so much life and death. Not everyone has the chance to tell his story. There should be a figure to represent the voiceless people so I used fiction to create this feeling. Zhao Tao plays someone without an identity, who comes from an unknown place and time period and never speaks a word. This is an important part of my impression of Shanghai, because the city is full of hidden heroes and stories. Too many things have been forgotten and lost with history.

Q: How was the film received in Shanghai?
Everyone said they were able to see another Shanghai, different from the Shanghai that's usually seen... After the nineties, there have been many visual representations of Shanghai, like city promotions and tourism commercials. Actually, these commercials take 5% of Shanghai's character and magnify it to 100%. Now I'm using this film to show 95% of Shanghai's character. The other 5% I'll just leave to them to keep showing. What's that 5%? The modernized and commercialized side, the Pudong side - I'm not too interested in it.


Q: Why are you so interested in making films about cities and urban life?

When I went to Beijing in 1993, I thought it wasn't too different from my hometown. Society and way of life were about the same. After the nineties, however, rapid economic development brought rapid urbanization. This is a very important thing that's happened in my lifetime, so the changes of the city and how these changes affect culture and life in China is something I've been observing all along.

Q: How do you think your filmmaking style has changed in the past decade?

There have been big changes with every film, and also no change. The constants are the topics and people I'm interested in. My passion is capturing the most ordinary Chinese people and the most ordinary Chinese places. This has never changed. Even in big cities like Chengdu and Shanghai, my camera still shows the people I'm interested in, ordinary civilians and workers.

Of course, in terms of filmmaking style, there have been big changes. Xiao Wu, Platform, and Unknown Pleasures are completely fictional narrative dramas, while The World is very conceptual, placing characters in a virtual world, almost like contemporary art. Still Life is similar to a wuxia film. One man and one woman travel from afar to traverse the martial world, except they're solving personal problems rather than seeking revenge. From 24 City to the present, I've been combining documentary and narrative.

Q: Why the shift to making documentaries in recent years?

It has to do with the environment in which I live. Because of China's fast urbanization, a lot of old architecture and spaces have disappeared. Those who experienced history are aging, and we're not allowed or encouraged to talk about many historical stories. I think this is a contradiction. If we don't talk to these elderly people, the stories will disappear. I want to fight against this.

24 City was a beginning. The film talks about the workers at a state-run factory over 50 years' time. At the time, we were very rushed, because the factory was being torn down and turned into a real estate development. If we didn't film the factory, it would never be seen again.

Q: What's the difference between the people in your narrative films and the people in your documentaries?

There's no big difference. The difference is in the identity and family background. For example in I Wish I Knew, the people's family backgrounds are more well known, like Du Yuesheng's daughter and Zheng Guofan's great granddaughter are both from prominent families. The commonality is that they're all people who have been hurt by history, people without power, ordinary people.

Q: Your films tell the story of China, but who do you think your films' audience is?

As a director, I don't consciously think about who my audience is because it's hard to envision who will see and share my film. In 2007-08 I went to Los Angeles. I was eating in a Chinese restaurant, and a few cooks suddenly came out to tell me they liked Still Life. I was really surprised. I think cinema is a kind of sentiment. It finds audiences who share that sentiment, regardless of country, nationality, and upbringing.

Q: Do you hope more people in China watch your movies?

Yes, I've been working hard on it all along, but it won't affect my perspective or feelings towards work. It's to be expected in today's consumer culture that the audience's first choice isn't this type of film. What we need to do is try to affect them, try to create the opportunity for them to experience this type of film. In other words, we have to make people of a different sentiment be able to experience the same sentiment as us.


Q: In the next ten years, what kind of Jia Zhangke films will we see?

You'll see a Jia Zhangke who's very adept at shooting genre films. My next few projects are all genre films. First I'm shooting a wuxia, then an espionage film, a crime film...

Q: Can you tell us more about your upcoming wuxia film produced by Johnnie To?

The film is set around 1900 during the twilight years of the Qing Dynasty. A small county in Shanxi suddenly encounters many changes because of the abolishment of the imperial examinations. As the entire nation undergoes a transformation, it brings different changes to the people of this small county including the officials, the bandits, and the swordsmen.

Q: Your pacing and storytelling style tend to be slow and deliberate. How will you adjust that style to a wuxia film with action?

I don't necessarily think that my wuxia film will be fast. My film will be slow, but it will be a slowness that audiences can accept, a different slowness than my previous films. Audiences will find that slow can also be commercial... Actually, filming slowness is very difficult because it's an artistic slowness.

Q: What is it like working with Johnnie To?

Johnnie To is like a college instructor. We decided to shoot this film three years ago, and in these three years we've met up for discussion every few months. He's taught me many things, because he's a master of genre films. He has a lot of practical experience that he's shared with me without reservation... I think he's like another me, a me that I haven't realized yet.

Q: You usually work with the same group of actors. Are there other actors you'd like to work with in the future?

I might be working with French actress Juliette Binoche soon. We have a project in mind. And I've always hoped to work with Maggie Cheung Man Yuk and Tony Leung Chiu Wai. Also Lim Giong from Taiwan. He hasn't appeared in a film for almost ten years. I hope he can make a comeback, because I really like his presence.

Q: Are you worried about how audiences will react to your change in filmmaking direction?

I'm not worried, because my genre and commercial films will be very exciting. I'm confident in this respect. Only bad films lose audiences. When the audience likes a director, it's not dependent on genre, but on whether the director is creative and can surprise you. If your film has nothing new, even if you continue to make art films, people will regret watching. If you can bring new surprises with different kinds of films, then your audience will become bigger and bigger.

Q: Do you have any hopes or expectations about the box office for your next film?

There's no need to hope because it'll definitely be better. If we're following commercial film standards to shoot the film, then box office is a simple matter. What's difficult is advancing the wuxia genre, because I hope to take it to a new level, to bring new experiences to the wuxia film. This is my dream. Box office is only a part of the process. I've never worried about box office, so I don't have any expectations for it either.


Q: How has the Chinese film industry changed in the past decade?

To put it simply, the quality of films is getting worse and worse. This is the big change. Be it for commercial films or so-called art films, the decline in quality is severe. Commercially speaking, the current state of Chinese Cinema is similar to the experience of Hong Kong Cinema in the 1970s and 80s. For example, making film after film about Wong Fei Hung, about Ip Man, about Painted Skin, and shooting all kinds of sequels. There are no new ideas, no advancements. For art films, there are also no exciting new directors. The outlook is not optimistic.

Q: Are there restrictions to filmmaking in China?

Restrictions will always exist. There's the censor board, things from the government about what can't be filmed. The issue though is that for a director, the greatest limit is themselves. If you want to film it, then film it. It's just that you have to pay a price. If you have a great desire for freedom, then you can pay that price. Lou Ye was able to make Summer Palace, and I was also banned for five years. This is the price we pay to express our creative freedom.

There are two sides to the question. On one hand, there's the matter of pushing for changes in the cultural policy. On the other hand, I think that freedom is a personal decision. If you want freedom, you'll have freedom. You just have to face the consequences. The people who are willing to face the consequences become free. The people who fear the consequences become very unfree.


Jia Zhangke was still in his twenties when he won the Berlin Film Festival's Netpac Award for Xiao Wu. Last year, he became the youngest ever recipient of the Golden Leopard Lifetime Achievement Award at the Locarno International Film Festival. What comes next for a director who's already being recognized for "lifetime achievement" at the age of forty? For Jia Zhangke, he's taking the step that many other filmmakers of his vanguard generation are taking: commercial filmmaking.

Jia's upcoming venture into commercial films, starting with a wuxia produced by Johnnie To, has some film aficionados excited about this collaboration of Chinese Cinema greats, and others apprehensive that another Chinese arthouse maverick will be lost to glossy, on-message epics. For those who are worried, it's worth noting that Jia himself doesn't seem to be worried at all. Instead, he is brimming with ideas and inspirations for his next film, and the film after that. "Only those without ideas need to worry," Jia told us matter-of-factly, "and I have many ideas." Given Jia Zhangke's impeccable track record, we have no reason to not believe him.

Interviewer: Sanwei

Jia Zhangke Filmography
- Xiao Wu (1997)
- Platform (2000)
- Unknown Pleasures (2002)
- The World (2004)
- Still Life (2006)
- Dong (2006)
- Useless (2007)
- 24 City (2008)
- I Wish I Knew (2010)

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Published January 31, 2011

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