INTERVIEW: Simple Tale Amid Urban Sprawl; Zhang Yimou Shifts Gears with "Happy Times"
by Matthew Ross
(indieWIRE: 07.24.02) — Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou is one of the world cinema’s most accomplished practitioners of the visual epic. In films like “Ju Dou,” “Red Sorghum,” “To Live,” and “Raise the Red Lantern,” Zhang proved himself a master of using color — usually deep reds and yellows — as a narrative as well as stylistic device. (In many of his early films, Zhang employed the old three-strip Technicolor process of 1950s Hollywood, which produces highly saturated images.)
“Happy Times,” which Sony Pictures Classics releases this Friday, is the director’s second film set in a modern city, and it marks a significant departure his familiar genre and eye-catching style. A bittersweet comedy about loneliness and cruelty among the urban poor, the film follows a hapless aging bachelor named Zhao (Zhao Benshan) who woos his money-grubbing fiancee by claiming that he’s a wealthy hotelier. She buys it, and seizes on the opportunity to get her blind step-daughter (Dong Jie) out of the house and into one of Zhao’s hotels. Zhao and his gang of unemployed pals frantically devise one ploy after to another to fool the girl into believing his lies. In the process, a tender friendship develops. Using a naturalistic, simple camera style and focusing on performance, Zhang manages to create a touching addition to his increasingly diverse body of work (which will soon be further expanded with the samurai epic “Hero,” starring a who’s who of Hong Kong cinema). indieWIRE spoke with the director about experimenting with new material, working with actors, and his knack for finding beautiful ingenues.
indieWIRE: “Happy Times,” is different in so many ways than your previous work. How did you first get involved in the project?
Zhang Yimou: It’s adapted from a short novel. I loved the story, which is about dreams, how to fulfill this little girl’s dream. In adapting this novel I saw an opportunity to make a different film, not to repeat what I’ve done before. In the novel, the material world is fake, but the spirit is very real, and it was this kind of structure that attracted me.
I used a very different method to shoot this film, and many people told me that it looks like it was shot by a first-time director. I wanted to keep everything as simple as possible. I didn’t want to make a sexy camera moment or to define anything deliberately, which is very different from what I’ve in the past, which is to try to look for the most beautiful angles. The shooting for “Happy Times” was much shorter than usual; it only took about 40 days to finish the film. I think that’s part of the major difference.
iW: What were you most concerned with before shooting the film, considering the fact that it is visually less complicated that your other work.
Zhang Yimou: I spent most of my efforts training the young actress who portrayed a blind girl. I have never shot or portrayed any blind characters in my films, so we spent a lot of time training the actor. I also visited several schools for the blind to understand how they function. And we were able to find a 19-year-old blind girl, who just as the film depicts, went blind when she was 10. We got the real blind girl’s family permission to have her live with Dong Jie throughout the production in order to have the actress learn to play the blind character. I was giving homework to Dong Jie. I would tell her, “I’m going to shoot you looking for things for five days.” So you have to ask her how to look for things, and then in between I would give her a quiz. I asked the assistant director to shoot her looking for things with a video camera so she got everything right.
iW: You seem to have such a wonderful eye for finding these spectacularly talented and spectacularly beautiful young actresses. From Gong Li to Zhang Ziyi, and now Dong Jie. Can you talk a little bit about how you found her?
Zhang Yimou: It was rather difficult, I had an open casting call on the web, and we received about 40,000 people who entered. Not only people from China, but from Hong Kong and Taiwan. It took several months to review each case until we found Dong Jie. First of all, we videotaped all the 40,000 faces; I was looking for someone who was very cute and very pure. After I reviewed all the videotape and picked the faces I wanted, we had to see them in person. We had each of them audition three times. And every time I asked them to perform a blind girl, and Dong Jie was the best among them. And with the way Dong Jie looks, I thought she would be able to arouse sympathy from the audience.
This whole process, looking for Dong Jie process was very controversial, and it was about two years ago when we did that. We had a lot of coverage in the news media. To me, I wasn’t looking for a particular face. To me, I liked them because they were very Asian, very typically Asian looking. A lot of girls in Asia look very Western.
iW: I know in the past you’ve cited certain filmmakers as influences on your work. One person I know you have mentioned is Kiarostami, and also the Italian Neo-Realists of the ’50s. Were there any specific influences on you when you were making this film?
Zhang Yimou: There are many directors who have influenced me. I’m a real film buff. Going to the movies is my only habit. So when I see any great work, that great work will become my new model. I don’t believe anybody was a born filmmaker; we all have to learn from the past. As for the Italian Neo-Realism, it was the one in school that we watched a lot when we were in college. Obviously it interests me a great deal.
iW: But nothing specifically on this film?
Zhang Yimou: No, nothing in particular.
iW: I once read that while your films rarely have overtly political content, they can always be read as political. How do you think “Happy Times” can be read from a political point of view?
Zhang Yimou: China is a very political society and you can read the political situation through various stories. “Happy Times” is not a political story, but rather a story about life. However, there are many details that can reflect today’s society. Such as everybody trying to make money. Money is very important in our life today. For example, in the film the mother will only see money, but not people, not the boyfriend. Whoever has money is her boyfriend. This kind of satire can be read politically as well.
iW: “Happy Times” is technically described as a comedy, even though there is a lot more than just comedy going on. Do you think that you are going to return to the comedy in the future?
Zhang Yimou: No, not really. I personally prefer tragedy. And I think “Happy Times” in the end still considers tragic elements in it. I guess to me I probably can reflect our sentiments more through the tragedy. So I’ll continue to make them.