In the first talk of this year’s HBO Directors Dialogue Series, the 53rd New York Film Festival welcomed renowned Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke back for the seventh (count ‘em) time. The director’s 17-year filmmaking career has consistently yielded significant cinematic expressions of a changing China, with titles such as “Still Life,” “A Touch of Sin” and “The World.”
The filmmaker is currently on the Main Slate of the New York Film Festival with his latest ambitious feature, “Mountains May Depart.” In addition to being a director at this year’s festival, Jia Zhangke is also the subject of a documentary by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles, entitled “Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang,” which is playing in the Spotlight on Documentary section.
At the event, Jia Zhangke spoke with Dennis Lim, the director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, about “Mountains May Depart” and his motivations as a filmmaker, before answering questions from gung-ho audience members. Check out some of the must-read highlights from the talk below.
The influence of music in his films
Music features heavily in Jia’s films, and “Mountains May Depart” is no exception, with two songs — “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys and the Cantonese pop song “Take Care” by Sally Yeh — repeated throughout the epic film.
Growing up at the end of the cultural revolution in China, Jia noticed a turning point that had a large effect on how he consumed music and pop culture. “I do think before that time that every song that you would listen to would almost be propaganda. It’s all about the collective, it’s about this concept of ‘we,'” he said. “I think it’s not until later on that you get to hear songs, especially pop songs that focus a lot more on the individual.”
Jia went on to note the emancipatory impact of the influx of pop cultures from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the West, saying that, “Through pop songs and pop cultures, the young people get to express themselves individually.”
Speaking to the transnational power of music, Jia added, “For my generation, when they’d listen to this song, they probably didn’t even understand the lyrics so much as enjoying the beat, the rhythms, and the sense of freedom, the sense of expression and the sense of going somewhere, you might not go west, but you just go somewhere.”
The significant title(s) of “Mountains May Depart”
When asked about how he chose the title to his new film, Jia explained the film’s two titles, Chinese and English, came to him at different times, but each fit the film’s fascination with time and space.
“Of course, the English name, ‘Mountains May Depart,’ has something to do with the Chinese saying that ‘mountains may depart, but our love will never change.’ I think that nicely captures the sense of that something might change so dramatically, but something will never change in the long run. If you really think about that, there are changes that you go through in terms of your love, your human emotions, from your first love, to familial loves, to all the inevitable journeys that you have to take, birth, aging, illness, death, I do think that even with all these changes that you have to encounter in life, there are certain human emotions that will always be there and that is something that will never change.”
The theme of drift
Jia expanded on the idea of drift, one of his preferred themes, which symbolizes the spatial elements of his films. Jia noted that, “The social reality I very much want to present in this film is this idea of human migration and human mobility. Because of the economic developments that we have experienced in China, people started to leave their hometowns, they went into big cities, even went abroad to seek a better life and I think that in order for me, as a filmmaker, to present that in a clear, identifiable and relatable way, it’s to somehow start with that idea of leaving your hometown and going outward.”
Like several of his films, Jia chose Fenyang as a starting point from where some characters in “Mountains May Depart” might then leave. Jia explained, “The reason why I chose Fenyang, my hometown, as a starting point is because this film is very much about that feeling of drift. The best way to convey that feeling is to somehow start with your hometown. You drift away from where you were born. That is how you will find yourself as an alien resident or a foreigner.”
What he’s learned from his wife and actress Zhao Tao
Since her acting debut in Jia’s 2000 film “Platform,” Zhao Tao has acted in every one of Jia’s films. Jia married his muse in 2012, but during the dialogue, he spoke about the lesson she taught him about film on their first encounter.
In 2000, when he was looking to cast the female lead for “Platform,” Jia had to find someone who had the proper appearance, the dancing talent and also knew his own Shenxi dialect. Jia remembered when he first saw Zhao Tao teaching a dance class, “I immediately noticed her interaction with her students. She mentioned that for you to dance well, you need to imagine that you can’t speak and the only way that you can express your feelings is through your arms, your legs, your body.”
“Immediately and suddenly, I realized that what she just said not only says a lot about what dance means, but also about what film means. To me, film is something similar. When you can’t express some things through words, you need to rely on the imageries and rely on the cameras to somehow help you express your feeling,” he said.
A vision of the future (and the future of film)
When he first decided that the third episode of “Mountains May Depart” would be set in 2025, Jia could not help but get giddy at the idea of representing the future. Jia said, “Since I’m going to bring the story to 2025, then sky’s the limit.” Jia even considered having Dollar fall in love with a genderless alien, but felt driven instead to represent the diversity of interpersonal, human relationships.
Speaking to how his balanced depiction of futuristic electronics, Jia said, “In terms of the telecommunications or the electronic devices, I do think that this will be the area where you’ll see a lot of transformations. Just look at the speed in which we’re updating the devices that we have now. I can only imagine the kinds of devices that ten years from now we will use. That’s why I narrowed in on only those devices, and updated them, finding a way to make them not only futuristic, but also realistic.”
Feeling lost and found through film
When asked by an audience member if he has ever felt lost, Jia responded, “I was lost quite often, and I was very, very lost after I finished ‘Touch of Sin’ and at one point, even considered possibly not making any films anymore. You will get to see how lost I was in the film that will be screened in the festival tomorrow, a documentary about myself directed by Walter Salles.”
“But even though I might have considered the fact that I might not want to make any films anymore, when you watch films by Chaplin, suddenly you just realize, wow, how beautiful films are, and can be, and should be. When you look at that particular scene in ‘Bicycle Thieves’ with the father and son hiding underneath the roof in the rainy day, I do think that’s something that only film can somehow convey, those kinds of feelings and connections, and I think that’s something that really compelled me to start making films again,” he said.
Explaining what compels him most to make films, Jia stated, “To me, the biggest attraction and the biggest motivation to make films is to somehow present and represent different characters in different situations and living conditions.”