Zhou Xiaowen on "The Emperor's Shadow"
by Augusta Palmer
Billed as the most expensive film ever shot in China, “The Emperor’s
Shadow” is a fictionalized account of China’s first Emperor and his
court musician. The film boasts a star-studded cast featuring two of
China’s most famous actors: Jiang Wen (of “Red Sorghum”) and Ge You
(“To Live,” “Farewell My Concubine”). Not surprisingly, given its
acerbic take on a fictionalized relationship between government and the
arts in ancient China, “The Emperor’s Shadow” encountered problems with
censorship after its initial release in China. In 1996, it did brisk
business at the box office during a brief release in five major Chinese
cities; but then it was banned for no clearly-stated reason. Eight
months later the Chinese authorities gave permission to re-release the
film in China, again without reason. The U.S. release of the film should
be fraught with less bureaucracy.
Fresh from lecturing at Harvard, director Zhou Xiaowen, best known for
his 1994 film, “Ermo” (a contemporary story of a woman who dreams of
owning the biggest TV in town), was in New York to do publicity for the
film, which is being released in the U.S. by Fox Lorber and will open
in New York on December 18th at the newly refurbished Cinema Village.
Zhou, a slender black-clad man with a full beard and a penchant for
wearing baseball caps both in person and in publicity shots, is a
veteran film director whose modesty is offset by a pair of dancing
indieWIRE: After the international success of “Ermo,” a film with a
contemporary setting, what made you interested in this early period of
Chinese history [the film is set in the second century B.C.]?
Zhou Xiaowen: In 1983, before I became a feature filmmaker, I made a
film about ancient Chinese science and I touched on ancient history and
archaeology. I don’t like history; I just like the buildings, the
palaces, the dress. But at that time I couldn’t come up with a story. In
1989, Lu Wei [screenwriter for Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine” and
Zhang Yimou’s “To Live”] and I talked about ancient times and thought we
could make a story.
That is one reason [I made the film] . The other is that when I was
growing up and becoming a filmmaker I found that everybody wanted to
control others’ souls, minds and spirits. Of course, it’s impossible;
but year after year everyone wants to do it. The first emperor wanted
to do it. He had the most power at that time. Many Chinese rulers have
wanted to do this – for generation after generation. Even a wife wants
to control her husband. A little kid wants to control his parent’s mind.
That is very interesting to me. So the theme is that nobody’s mind can
iW: It’s especially interesting that the emperor wants to control the
people’s minds through art – through music and a national anthem. I
thought that one of the film’s central points was the way governments
can control people through the arts and, therefore, governments want to
iW: Have you made any films since “The Emperor’s Shadow”?
Zhou: Yes, I made a film called “The Common People,” which I just
finished, with the Shanghai Film Studio. It’s a story about handicapped
people and is set in the present. It tells two stories with no
relationship to one another. The main characters of each story meet in
the beginning and at the end, but the stories are not related to one
iW: How did you get interested in this subject matter?
Zhou: Last year I met some people who were disabled. . . they had four
major symptoms: they think very logically, their physical abilities are
limited, they cannot be cured, and what is wrong with them is not
inherited. I became friends with them and started filming them with a
small video camera. One day, I realized I had those four symptoms
myself. . .
iW: Maybe we all do. Hence the film’s title, “The Common People.” Did
you write the script?
iW: Did you write the script for “Ermo,” too?
Zhou: Actually I did write it, but the screen credit went to someone
else. It’s an interesting story. I had a friend, a person from Beijing
who said, “If you want to make ‘Ermo,’ I’ll give you the money.” This
guy’s name is Lang Yun. Halfway through the shooting he said he didn’t
have any more money. I asked him what we should do about it and he said,
“Just forget about it.” He’s a good man but he’s very irresponsible. So
I said, “You already gave me so much money and you even borrowed some of
it from your friends, what should we do about that?” And he said,
“That’s okay, it’s just my bad luck.” So then I had to start borrowing
money myself. The worst was the time when I asked someone for money and
he said he only had one yuan (about $10 US) and asked if I still wanted
it. And I had to say yes.
When the film was almost finished, I met Jimmy Tan [of Hong Kong’s Ocean
Films]. At that time he really wanted to make films, but he didn’t know
anyone in the industry. After he met me, he said he wanted to invest in
filmmaking. So I said, “Why don’t you look at this film I just
finished?” I said I had a lot of loans and no way to repay them. He
loved the film, so he repaid my debts and became the producer.
But Lang Yun, the first producer was unhappy. He said, “I gave you half
of the money, how come I’m not getting a producer’s credit?” Because he
gave up the project voluntarily, Jimmy Tan didn’t want to give him the
producer’s credit. So I gave him the screenwriting credit to show my
gratitude to him. But Jimmy Tan actually gave Lang Yun’s money back to
him. If Jimmy Tan were a stingy businessman, he wouldn’t have felt he
had to give the money back.
iW: Are you excited about the film’s U.S. release?
Zhou: I’m very grateful to Fox Lorber for doing it. It’s quite
meaningful to me that they are willing to release my film because even
if it’s only a small percentage of the American audience, it’s still a
lot of people.
Also, we all know that Hollywood films take up over 80% of the world
market. Even so, we still have more than 10% of the world’s audiences.
I don’t think there is such a thing as a “good’ or “bad” film.
Regardless of whether it’s a commercial film or an independent, personal
film like mine, it’s simply a matter of whether you like it or not.
Therefore, I only consider my films finished after they’ve been seen by
an audience. When I complete my work on a film, I think it’s only half
If there are a thousand people in the audience, there are a thousand
different “Emperor’s Shadows.” I don’t want to force my opinions on the
audience. I don’t want to use films to educate people. That is the
attitude I hate the most. It’s like deciding who is more stupid than you
are. Everybody is the same.
iW: So you don’t think there is really a difference between Hollywood
and independent films?
Zhou: Of course there are differences. And I don’t think they should be
called Hollywood films, since that style has been copied by many people
all over the world. We should just call them mainstream films. The
biggest difference between mainstream films and independent films is
that the makers of mainstream films must always consider pleasing the
audience first. They have to consider whether the audience will like it
for the story, the characters, the dialogue. Every sentence has to be
considered this way. This isn’t right or wrong; it’s just the way they
have to do it.
I think I belong to the smaller group of filmmakers working on more
personal independent films. My intention is to find my own feelings in
the story. That’s the most important thing. After I get the financing,
of course, I’ll sit down with the producer and other staff members to
discuss what the audience expectations are. During that time we might
have to alter our script a bit. But once the film starts shooting, then
I go back to my own feelings. At that time, your eyes are no longer on
the audience’s pocket. And that’s the main difference between
mainstream and non-mainstream films. Of course there are other
differences. The budget is much higher for mainstream films. The
technology is much more advanced. The stories are similar to ones used
before. They must use big stars. Non-mainstream films are just the
opposite. . .
iW: But you have some pretty big stars in “The Emperor’s Shadow”. . .
Zhou: (laughs) Yeah. . . So this film is really a contradiction. In
comparison with “Ermo,” this is a more mainstream film. It had such a
big budget that the producer would prefer to use bigger stars. So, I
prefer making lower budget films.
iW: So using big stars was the producer’s choice? Or would you have
chosen the same actors yourself?
Zhou: Actually, this case is not typical. I really felt myself that
Jiang Wen and Ge You were the best choices for the roles. And these two
happen to be the best actors in China and the two most expensive actors.
But Jimmy Tan said, “That’s fine; I’ll pay for it.” So all the problems
were solved. . .
iW: If you got the opportunity to work in America, what kind of film do
you think you would make here?
Zhou: I’m a Chinese filmmaker. I don’t know about the culture and
traditions here — I cannot be an American director. But I could make a
film in America because I think the earth is smaller than it used to be.
So China and America are closer…
[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer currently teaching a course
on the history of Chinese Cinema and pursuing her doctorate in Cinema
Studies at N.Y.U.]