A leading figure of the Sixth Generation movement in Chinese cinema, Jia Zhangke is one of the most emblematic auteurs working today. In sharp contrast with the inadvertently epic quality of the post-Mao cinema of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, Jia uses neorealist narratives to depict the left-behind lives on the periphery of China’s economic miracle: the “non-holders of power” who fall victims – or, as in A Touch of Sin (2013), violently react – to the degradations of privatisation, deregulation and cultural alienation. His latest film, Mountains May Depart, and Walter Salles’ documentary about his life, A Guy from Fenyang, were screened at the London Film Festival this year.
Interview: Maria Dimitrova
Portrait: Xstream Pictures
Maria Dimitrova When you were young, did you always know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Jia Zhangke Not really. Not in the beginning anyway, only after I had graduated from secondary school. I didn’t manage to get into university, but up until that point I was already very fond of writing, and when I didn’t go to university my father sent me to another, bigger city, Taiyuan, to learn painting. It was during that time I came across Yellow Earth, a very famous film by the director Chen Kaige, and that really struck me. It was the start of my interest in film; I suddenly realised, Oh, film can be made like that. Before that it never crossed my mind. In China, if you wanted to make films or be in this business, there’s no other way than going to Beijing Film Academy. That’s the only avenue to getting a foot in this industry. It took me three tries to get into the school.
MD So in a way you came to film through writing? When you sit down to write your script, do you always know from the first scene how it’s going to end or does the script change while you film?
JZ When I put pen to paper, nothing is clear. Although when I was writing Mountains May Depart, I had three phases in mind. Three phases of a woman. The first phase was a very young and innocent phase, with everything looking up and optimistic. The second phase was one that had gone through something in life, had gone through some experiences, and you start to see some signs of life experiences on her face. And the third phase would be one that has grown old, and had gone through a lot. Those were the only three phases I had when I was putting pen to paper; all the rest was blank. In the course of writing the screenplay, this person started to have signs of life – a pulse, a breath – until she was complete. That is the process that I went through. It wouldn’t be very difficult to come up with those phases, but it is the creative process of what’s in the middle that is most interesting and takes the most work.
MD You depict the burgeoning optimism of 1999, where Mountains May Depart begins, but by the final part, set in a utopian 2025, we gradually find that optimism to have been displaced. Do you have any optimism about China’s development now, particularly in regard to the turbulent growth of the Chinese film industry?
JZ The optimistic bit about the film industry is that the market is expanding, and more and more people are going to the cinema to watch films. What is pessimistic, however, is that there isn’t much variety in the Chinese industry. Things are quite single-track, quite monotonous, with a lot of films trying to copy or mimic Hollywood. Because the industry has expanded so quickly, and is still in the throes of rapid growth because demand keeps growing, there are a lot of quick-fit approaches in place handling quite poor-quality material, which in fact drives creativity down.
MD What about for the changes in Chinese society in those decades?
JZ As for China in general, there is a trend that is going backwards. This in itself is rather pessimistic. For instance, I half-jokingly said yesterday that five years ago we were able to use Google in China, whereas now we have no access to it. There’s a very strong conservatism, and it doesn’t quite come from the ruling power, but from the people. It’s powerful and quickly strengthening precisely because it comes from the people themselves, and it is particularly insular and deliberately closed to the outside world. In the social sphere, there is a fierce fight between the voices that call for openness and the conservative power. I can give you an example: we all know that there was a lot of reflection on the Cultural Revolution in China in the past years. People realised that it was a catastrophe; the entire Chinese society renounced and rejected it. However, in recent years we’ve also heard very strong voices defending it, which is the opposite of what happened before.
For some reason in recent years we hear people defending it and justifying it, and trying to find justifications for almost reclaiming it, and these are not minority voices. The difficulty is that these conservative views are affecting the younger generation. For instance, there’s a lot of inequality in China, there’s a huge gap between the rich and poor, and younger people who are dissatisfied with the situation are now led to believe that this is the result of the wrongdoing of a certain group of people, and encouraged to think back to the Cultural Revolution and inhabit the mind frame of class struggle of that time. Instead of thinking forward, instead of trying to find a positive strategy to change the current unfairness or inequality, many people are looking back in order to blame other people or bring them down. From the 1970s onwards we have been witnessing this unprecedented situation, which constitutes a very strong and harmful cultural influence.
MD What are some ways to counter this conservatism, especially among young people?
JZ It’s now a very sensitive and confusing cultural situation, and it is only through culture that we can change that. A very important thing is to revisit history and to truly reflect on history, and try to find out what really happened. This would mean looking history in its face rather than at a very decorated version. We also have to break the monopoly of the ruling power of how history is being interpreted. The media has to play a part in breaking the monopoly from the ruling power.
MD Local or Chinese media?
JZ The whole world. Because authority is holding the media, it has a very powerful tool in its hands to interpret history, to interpret what is reality. Therefore, other people need to break through that, and film can be a useful tool for that because it is very closely related to history. It can represent history as well as contemporary reality, and we can make the most of it by using it as a media and as a tool.
MD What do you think of films that show a repressed side of history, like Lou Ye’s Summer Palace [which features a re-enactment of the Tiananmen Square protests], which receive attention at international film festivals at the price of never being granted exposure in China? A parallel could be made with A Touch of Sin, which, while made with official approval and finance, was not released in China like Mountains May Depart. How does one reconcile with or counter this predicament?
JZ Actually, with the internet and digital technology, no one can really stop anyone from watching anything. The existence of these films, no matter how bold they are, it cannot be hidden from the audience. The information that they are trying to put forward can always go across. Piracy is something that financially harms filmmakers, particularly independent filmmakers, but on the other hand, because of piracy their films are able to be seen. A Touch of Sin is a very good example, as it is still being censored. It’s not allowed to be shown in China, but it can be shown in Taiwan, and people can travel there to see it. Of course, it’s not a very convenient way, but in this atmosphere, being able to exist, to be out there at all, is the most important thing.
MD In this sense, how much of a political statement or a matter of artistic integrity is it to work with or without the state’s support? You have made films both ways, and I was wondering whether you feel that it is most important to just get the work done, even if that support demands compromises?
JZ I just do what I want to do; I say what I want to say. If I censor myself, if there’s self-censorship, then I’ve already failed.
MD How has your approach to filmmaking changed? In Walter Salles’ documentary you mention an intention to re-edit your first feature, Platform. What is your attitude towards your earlier films?
JZ Normally once I’ve released my films I don’t watch them any more. Perhaps I would still do a little fine-tuning after the premiere because that is still during the extended creative period, but after that I wouldn’t. Once I’ve reached a point that I’m totally happy with it, I don’t touch a film.
MD Would you ever consider doing a film outside China, in the US, for example?
JZ That thought crossed my mind many years ago, but that’s not the most imminent thing, not the most pressing. What I had in mind was a 1960s story I wrote about Chinese people abroad.
MD What are you working on now?
JZ I’m making a wuxia [a traditional martial-arts film] set around the turn of the 20th century. It will take another two years to come to fruition. §
Mountains May Depart is out now in China.