Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “Ju Dou,” “Hero,” “House of the Flying Daggers“) has been making movies in his homeland of China, from within the system, for the past two and a half decades. During this time, he has witnessed, and participated in, the gradual, incremental thawing of Chinese relations with the West, and the partial loosening of the viselike grip of governmental control over film production. Honored with a tribute at the Marrakech International Film Festival, and presenting his newest film “The Flowers of War“, Zhang spoke, through two translators (Mandarin-French, French-English) to a small group of journalists about his filmmaking life under a notoriously repressive regime, the themes he revisits, and working with Christian Bale. Here are five highlights from that conversation.
1. Yimou’s characteristic focus on female protagonists is his way of paying tribute to his mother.
“I respect women a lot probably because of the role my own mother had in my life. At the time I was born, because of the political situation, I was considered born ‘under a bad sign’ but my mother had the courage to fight that and to make my life easier and even to bring joy into our family which wasn’t easy at that time,” he explained. “So I think I had a tribute to pay to the difficulties she had to undergo. And in general, in Chinese society women are under pressure more than men, and if you look at my work I tried to deal with this pressure that people have to cope with and women were a good angle to do that from.”
2. In China, the political situation has eased internally for filmmakers…
“[For many years] censorship was very strict at every stage of filmmaking…but nowadays these things have changed. There are some subjects which are still taboo, and we wish for more freedom as film directors, but as any Chinese film director can tell you, now we can mostly make the films we want to make…,” he said. “Maybe I can give you one clue about the evolution of China: we’re here now sitting and talking [which would not have been allowed previously].”
3. …but this relative openness is presenting its own challenges.
“Every day now there are 5 new screens in China. Nowadays China has become the second biggest market in the world, in terms of box office. So as filmmakers we have to adapt to this evolution and to the requests of the market and so use ingredients in our films that are likely to attract more viewers… Now we feel the pressures of commercial filmmaking under the influence of Hollywood.”
4. And so casting Christian Bale in “Flowers of War” was both appropriate and useful
“What matters most for me is the loyalty to the original story, and here because of this period of time, during this massacre, there were foreigners in China, so it made sense to cast a foreigner. That’s why we chose Christian Bale,” Yimou shared.
“But of course there are investors who want to see who you’re working with and who the cast is and of course the mention of Christian Bale’s name was helpful in getting them to invest more in the film,” he continued. “And then Bale was kind enough to give us a discount on his normal salary, so he wasn’t too expensive for us. And the collaboration then was very smooth and nice because he is a great professional and also a very kind man, very caring with the children in the cast. Working with him was nothing but pleasure.”
5.Though his films range from small studies to sweeping epics, Zhang feels his focus has remained the same
“I haven’t changed much. The inspiration that I get is from human beings, and I’m interested in the stories of the individual. History changes and Chinese society has evolved but as I’m interested in individual destinies, I still have the same relationship with them,” he reflected.
“Retrospectively, I realise my work has allowed me to deal with different aspects of human life and also to have a bridge with other people, to have connections with people all over the world. That is what I feel it has brought me — being able to relate to people all over the world from all different cultures. And so now retrospectively I feel grateful for having become a director,” he added. “But I’m still interested in the same aspects of human life, and in fact, the next film that I’m going to shoot is the kind of film you might refer to as my early films – a smaller budget, a more intimate approach.”