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BERLIN 2000 INTERVIEW: Two For One: Zhang Yimou Comes Back With a Vengeance

BERLIN 2000 INTERVIEW: Two For One: Zhang Yimou Comes Back With a Vengeance


by Augusta Palmer



(indieWIRE/2.16.2000) -- Over the last 15 years, Zhang Yimou has amassed an impressive collection
of golden animals from European film fests (e.g. Berlin's Bear, Venice's
Lion) in addition to a few Oscar nominations. Yet he hasn't had an
American release since 1995's "Shanghai Triad." But it's not for lack of
trying. He's not only made three films, but also branched out into
opera, collaborating on two productions of "Turandot" with Zubin Mehta.

Surprisingly soft-spoken and unassuming for a director who very publicly
pulled two films from Cannes '99, Zhang this year has not one, but two
films being released in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics. The first,
"Not One Less," opens in the U.S. this Friday and features a documentary
shooting style and a story about a rural school where even chalk is a
valued commodity. The second film, "The Road Home," made its world
premiere on Tuesday at the Berlin Film Festival (see indieWIRE's review
of the film this Friday).

Made on the heels of "Not One Less," "The Road Home" drew on the same
crew, but is shot, according to Zhang, in "another Chinese tradition,
that of poetic narrative." One wonders whether the fact that former
flame Gong Li heads the Berlin jury is an advantage or a liability for
"The Road Home"'s chances at a major prize in Berlin. Regardless of
whether the film adds any more golden animals to Zhang's menagerie, it
is slated to open in the U.S. near the end of this year.

Already the recipient of a Golden Lion at the 1999 Venice Film Fest,
"Not One Less" marks a return to Zhang's filmmaking roots. Ever since he
worked as the cinematographer on Chen Kaige's "Yellow Earth" (1984),
Zhang had wanted to do a film about kids trying to learn in the
countryside.

Two years ago, when he ran across Shi Xiangsheng's novella about an
older man working as a substitute teacher in Xian, Zhang knew it was
close to what he'd been looking for. He changed the older male character
to a thirteen-year-old girl, played by Wei Minzhi, and focused the story
on her struggle to keep a rural class together in order to collect a
cash bonus.

What makes the film worth seeing is the audacity of Zhang's verite
shooting style (inspired by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami) and the
use of non-actors for the leading roles. The beauty of the film's
compositions and the careful sound design (a major strength in Zhang's
body of work which is rarely remarked upon) make the film's fictional
qualities apparent, yet the film closes with a postscript detailing the
characters' whereabouts and the end credits reveal the performers are
all playing a version of themselves. Zhang is manipulating documentary
form to serve semi-fictional content.

"I wanted to adopt the style of a documentary. Even though the central
events didn't happen in real life, many of the film's circumstances are
drawn from real life. Since we filmed it in a documentary style, the
postscript added to that effect," says Zhang. "This is also because this
kind of incident keeps happening in China. We used all non-professional
actors -- one of the first times this has been done in China. It was
easy for us to communicate with the actors and for them to get into
their roles because these things happen so much in daily life."

Because casting was a crucial aspect of the production, Zhang and his
crew cast a wide net. If the nine students in Wei Minzhi's class seem
particularly vivacious, it's because they were chosen from a pool of
forty thousand. Says Zhang, "Finding the right actor is very important.
Although each one was chosen to play the role they have in real life,
not everyone can appear on screen. So, we had to develop a process for
selecting the actors." To sift through the crowds of children that
surrounded their car at every school, "We'd
just point to a kid and ask him or her to start singing," explains
Zhang. "Nine out of ten kids wouldn't even open their mouths, but the
ones who did had passed through the first selection process."

Maintaining the energy, which initially caught the director's eye,
required ingenuity on Zhang's part. During the "first selection
process," Zhang was amused that his eventual lead, Wei Minzhi, forgot
the words to the song, just as she does in the film. "Initially I wasn't
sure she was the one who would be selected to play the teacher, but I
knew I wanted to use that song," he says. "Then, after we decided to
cast her, we told her
not to sing the song for two months. So, naturally, when we were
shooting that scene she would pause because she couldn't remember the
lyrics. So my instructions to her were, 'No matter what happens, keep
singing.' So, as the interaction between Wei Minzhi and the older
teacher continued, eventually she just looked at me and said, 'Director,
I forgot my lines.' So we had to cut that part out."

Like "The Story of Qiu ju," which won Zhang his first Golden Lion, "Not
One Less" centers on a strong female character standing up and fighting
for what's hers. Zhang's predilection for stories about strong, stubborn
Chinese women can't be attributed merely to pro-feminist sympathies,
however. Zhang emphasizes the dramatic construction of his films as
opposed to their purported reflection of Chinese lives: "In fiction, we
need to create obstacles for the characters. In China, with thousands of
years of feudalism and patriarchy, there are many more obstacles for
women. So this brings more drama to the
story."

Addressing a question about film censorship within China, Zhang is
equally direct: "Of course if you make a film and you want to show it
[in China] you have to go through censorship. [But] there are ways to
get around this. There are people making films outside of the system --
underground films with another kind of distribution. But I can't do that
because I'm too well known and there would be penalties imposed on me."

But his inability to hide from the censors may be balanced by the ease
with which he obtains funding for his projects. "Right now, it's not
difficult for me to get investment, particularly in China. There are
people who are well off and they would give money simply because they're
passionate about you. As long as I keep the budget down to three million
U.S., it's easy to get the money."

Chinese filmmakers now have the mixed blessing of worrying as much about
the market as they worry about censorship. Zhang explains his
experimentation with a variety of film forms are motivated by both
artistic needs and a reaction against the lack of range within the
Chinese film market. "I'm always interested in trying different styles.
I try to do something different with every film. This also has to do
with the market, because the market right now in China is swamped with
films that are either very commercial or very political. There's very
little variety so I'm trying to do things differently."

While in the U.S. promoting "Not One Less," Zhang was busy preparing for
future projects. He combined an appearance at Sundance with a trip to
Vegas to see Cirque du Soleil's "L'Eau" and was frequenting New York
theater productions as well in order to prepare for an "environmental
opera" version of Third Sister Liu (another gutsy heroine who sings her
way into and out of trouble) to be staged at Gweilin, China's most
famous scenic wonder. He'd also like to stage a ballet version of "Raise
the Red Lantern." And those are just some of his extracurricular
activities. Zhang hopes to shoot one film this April and another next
year. And despite his practical preference for shooting in the
countryside ("It's easy to record. It's very quiet and people's
concentration is better. In [urban] China now everyone has a beeper or a
cell phone"), Zhang's next film will be a contemporary city film about
"the problems of everyday people."

Which does bring up the issue whether American distributors will be open
to another urban film. His 1997 work "Keep Cool," his first film without
the star power of Gong Li, is a fast-paced modern tale shot with a
whiplash-inducing camera -- quite the radical change of pace for a
director best known for his visually stunning period pieces. Though his
biggest box office hit in China, "Keep Cool" remains virtually unseen in
the rest of the world.

It seems that American distributors prefer their Chinese films to be
period pieces or at least have a rural and "backward" setting, as in his
last two releases. While it's touching to note that a Sundance audience
spontaneously gave Zhang money "for the children" in "Not One Less," it
also seems worth wondering why American distributors feel much more
comfortable selling pictures of an abject rural China than an affluent
urban China - especially when both Chinas happen to exist.

[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer who also teaches film studies
courses at New York's School of Visual Arts and is completing her Ph.D.
at N.Y.U.'s Department of Cinema Studies.]

TAGS: Interviews
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