The Berlin Film Festival felt the impact of China’s coronavirus outbreak in the days leading up to the 2020 edition, with 118 cancellations from people attending either the festival or the market. However, one of the biggest names in China pulled it off. Director Jia Zhangke arrived in Berlin for the start of the festival, just in time to premiere his new documentary, “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue,” which chronicles three generations of Chinese writers. “It was quite a challenge,” the filmmaker said through a translator in an interview with IndieWire at the festival, “but we made it.”
However, the coronavirus has already had a direct impact on his work back home. Jia, best known for intricate dramas such as “A Touch of Sin” and last year’s “Ash is Purest White,” had been preparing to shoot a new narrative feature when the virus broke out in the Wuhan region last December. Now, he has been forced to postpone it indefinitely.
“We still can’t really do all the pre-production necessary for us to have this happen in April,” said Jia, who described the project as focused on “young people in China and the here-and-now” with a story set in the spring and summer, which meant that they would not be able to shoot until next year at the earliest. He smiled. “Maybe we’ll write a new script,” he said.
It’s only one of countless film and television productions to be delayed, since the China Federation of Radio and TV Association declared a halt all projects for the foreseeable future. “For some film companies and studios involved in pre-production, a lot of costs are going down the drain, and those that already started production have to be somehow cut short or suspended,” Jia said. “Some of them are already in the process of distributing films and they’ve paid for a lot of promotion and PR costs. The economy is now taking a huge hit, and I think the investment side will be hugely impacted as well.”
He added, “On a personal level, as filmmakers, I don’t think that this epidemic will somehow dent our passions or our eagerness to continue making films. This epidemic has caused us to stop and think about our society and a lot of issues that we haven’t been reflecting on for a long period of time. So on a creative level, we may find a lot of source of inspiration as a result of this epidemic to make more work.”
To finish post-production on “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” for the Berlin deadline, Jia had to scramble. “Because of this epidemic, we couldn’t do everything as planned,” he said. “The color correction and the DCP, the subtitles, those sort of things took a little bit of maneuvering in order for us to somehow finish before Berlin.”
Until his flight left the country, he feared it would be canceled. “Fortunately, the airline didn’t somehow seize the operation,” he said, “but they were fewer people onboard and we were all asked to wear masks on the flight.” Several collaborators chose not to make the trip. “Something very sudden happened and it’s understandable,” he said. “But for me, the festival had already announced that the film would be shown here and I had promised that I would be here.”
However, the filmmaker said the virus is debilitating Chinese movie theaters, which outpaced the U.S. in screen counts several years ago. “Right now, the biggest challenge and the danger that we face is actually the operations of cineplexes in different cities,” he said. “I don’t think audiences will want to go into cinemas for another month or so. I would say it won’t be until maybe June or August that you will have a return of audiences.”
He added that the outbreak coincided across the 15 days of the Chinese New Years, which ran from January 25 through February 8. “I can see how a lot of cineplexes will not be able to survive due to not having income for the first half of the year,” Jia said. “For a lot of the cineplexes, that’s how they make half or a third of their income.”
In Berlin, 5,000 miles from the epicenter of the Coronavirus outbreak, Jia was eager to discuss “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue,” a movie that finds acclaimed writers Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua and Liang Hong discussing the evolution of their craft and how it emerged from changes to the society as a whole.
“I respect them the most because they’re very, very honest and brave — not only in terms of how they write, but how they express themselves,” said Jia, whose work has been forced to contend with Chinese government censorship over the years. “Through the making of this film, I absorbed a lot of the strength of these authors. Over the decades of making films, the difficulties I’ve experienced have made me feel discouraged at times. The changes are so slow and sometimes the situation gets worse. Through my collaboration with these three authors, I felt that changes are possible if we just keep doing what we can not only individually but as a society.”
Last year, two Chinese films from Berlin’s lineup were abruptly canceled due to alleged “technical difficulties” that many assumed were a cover for censorship issues. Jia shrugged off such possibilities as having any impact on his own mission. “As a filmmaker, if I feel that if a certain issue should be captured on film, I’m not going to change the film I’m going to make,” he said.
While his documentary deals with memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution — a touchy subject for the current government — Jia felt secure about those passages. “Format-wise, this is a documentary and these three people bore witness to what happened in their real lives,” he said. “These are personal memories in the truest form, and they’re undeniable, which is why I could make this film without any problems.”
He was energized by the recent global success of Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” and the message its Best Picture Oscar win sent about the potential for Asian cinema worldwide. “This is something we’re very proud about, but I think what filmmakers in China have learned the most is the precedent that Korea set by winning this. It’s important that the government provides support for filmmakers to make their films freely. For us, that’s the biggest message for us to fight for.”
Last year, Jia wrapped the third edition of his growing Pingyao Film Festival, which he started to support independent filmmaking throughout the country. Jia said he aimed “to introduce Chinese audiences to new, international, young and diverse filmmakers — beyond what they might see with Hollywood, which is not enough,” he said. “Also, we want to create a platform for Chinese independent filmmakers to be able to show their work.”
Jia wasn’t sure how long it would take for the country to recover from the impact of the virus, but said he hoped his presence in Berlin sent a positive message. “The sentiment in China is very pessimistic in terms of the film industry,” he said, “but I wanted to press on and make sure I’m bringing some light to the whole dark situation we’re experiencing.”