an interview with Jia Zhangke, one of my favorite film directors in China

Finding Freedom in China on Film: A Q&A with Jia Zhangke

Filmmaker Jia Zhangke. Credit: Kino Lorber

By Jonathan Landreth

Jia Zhangke is among the most celebrated filmmakers China has ever produced—outside of China. His 2013 film, A Touch of Sin, a weaving-together of four tales of violence ripped from modern-day newspaper headlines, won the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival and drew high praisefrom the critics of The New York Times, yet, despite being cleared by censors for production and slated for release, it never made it to the big screens of mainland China. But nor was it officially barred, and it remains in a state of official limbo even today.

Jia’s latest film, Mountains May Depart, also a Cannes premiere, screened at the New York Film Festival in late September and is, he says cautiously, slated for release in China in late October. Like all of Jia’s films, Mountains May Depart contains strong social commentary. The film, which stars Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao, explores freedom: how one conceives of it, what one does to get it, and how others try to limit it. The story is told in three separate sections, set in 1999, 2014, and 2025—years far enough apart in a country where breakneck change is a given, that the whole world seems to upend on screen every 40 minutes or so.

If one of these sections were to prove an easy target for China’s notoriously thin-skinned and mercurial film censors as they prepare to approve its release, it’s the film’s third act, in which a father and his son, named Dollar, try to rebuild a life in Australia, speaking a dysfunctional mix of Chinese and English more than a decade after fleeing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s widespread anti-corruption campaign of 2014.

Are you free to live as you please and make films that you believe in?

How we see or understand freedom differs from person to person. Some people see freedom as money, that somehow buys more freedom by bringing you out of poverty; and some people see freedom as an ability to be mobile and travel freely. For some people, freedom is access to certain information, not only domestically but also internationally. As a filmmaker, the clearest issues have to do with the censors in China, and how I can maintain a certain level of freedom within the limitations and restrictions imposed upon me.

There are a lot of different sources of restriction of freedom within the film industry. The market deters certain filmmakers from making certain films. Sometimes investors say not to make films starring elderly or sick people, or with poverty in them, just because they won’t sell. This really puts a lot of restrictions and limitations on what kind of freedom one enjoys as a filmmaker.

I think the most important restrictions we must realize and deal with are those that we impose on ourselves. How do we motivate ourselves to embrace what we have, to liberate ourselves from those restrictions that we actually impose on ourselves?

There was chatter online that Mountains May Depart might be named China’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy award nomination, but that honor appears to havegone to French director Jean Jacques Annaud’s Wolf Totem, a film co-produced by the state-run studio behemoth China Film Group. What happened?

I knew that Mountains May Depart had to be submitted with the government’s blessing to represent China [in the best foreign film category at the Oscars], and the three Chinese producers saw this as an opportunity for this film to gain exposure, to be received and understood by the cinema world. They were in charge of initiating the submission, which, as it progressed, became such an interesting process to me.

I used to think that of the hundreds of films made in China each year, maybe four or five would qualify to be submitted, and then you would have a selection committee to decide which film would then become the finalist to represent China. Then I realized it doesn’t work this way. Even before the deadline, which is October 1, the producers and the distributor of Wolf Totem announced in August that the film would represent China in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The word came from the Wolf Totem distributor, so we didn’t even know if this was an official state announcement or not. So our producer approached the Film Bureau to verify that this was indeed the case, that Wolf Totem was the film to represent China. If that were the case, then we wouldn’t pursue it. You know, what’s done is done. But the state agency never actually responded and that’s why our producer started to pursue this whole process of application, because we never got a no from the Film Bureau.

Then, suddenly, the producer of Wolf Totem attacked us on social media. It became a big controversy. Later on, the government came out to say for sure that Mountains May Depart would not be China’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film. At the same time, they never confirmed that it would beWolf Totem. Basically they said “not you,” but remained vague about who it would be.

Watching how this played out made me realize there are huge problems with the whole process. First, who’s on the committee selecting the film? Second, which films are actually being considered before the committee makes a final decision? Third, what are the criteria for the committee’s decision-making? It doesn’t matter whether it’s my film or another film that represents China in the Best Foreign Language Film category, I think that there should be some kind of procedural transparency that people can observe and follow. I care more about that than whether or not my film is going to be the one chosen.

Mountains May Depart opens on young Chinese dancing, in 1999, to the Pet Shop Boys’ 1993 cover version of the 1979 disco classic “Go West” by The Village People—celebrities of the gay liberation movement in 1970s New York. In the late 1980s, the song was a pro-democracy anthem in the Eastern Bloc. When did you first hear “Go West” and what did it mean to you?

The first time I heard it was around 1994 or 1995 in a Beijing disco called NASA, a very popular hangout next to the Beijing Film Academy. I really loved the song when I first heard it and I think it was very much about the rhythms and beats. It gave a very attractive sense of freedom at the time. Between the beginning of the “Open Door Policy” in late 1970s and the moment I heard the song in 1994-95, there was a huge influx of foreign products and foreign songs—Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd, and ABBA were very popular. A lot of us in 1994-95 listened to this song. There wasn’t a lot of ideological or symbolic meaning to it. It was just very catchy.

Listening to this song now represents the collective memory of my generation at the time. It also triggers the muscle memory we used to have and it transports me back to the physicality, the vitality, and the energy I used to have in the disco, just dancing the night away.

The Chinese diaspora is growing around the world. Your film depicts an enclave that ends up living in grand style in Melbourne, speaking a mix of Chinese and English. What’s shaping their experience?

I didn’t used to pay much attention to Chinese immigration because in the past I’d had friends who left for other countries and it seemed a very organic process: they studied overseas and afterwards found a job and decided to stay. It wasn’t something on my radar but, suddenly, in the past two years, a lot of my friends have made the decision to leave their very comfortable lives in China behind and take their whole families to different countries, for better education opportunities for their children, or over their concerns about food safety or air pollution.

These new immigrants have a lot of issues, including the problem of language. They lack the experience to preserve their own language and culture and pass it down to the next generation. In my research [for the film] I found the parents’ generation, especially the fathers, very much living in Chinese culture and in a Chinese environment, creating a home away from home. They watch Chinese television programs, read Chinese newspapers, and probably know more stuff than I ever would inside China. On the other hand, you have their children, and all they care about is assimilating into the local culture, linguistically and culturally. You create these two different generations and there are huge gaps.

Since so few moviegoers in North America—which for now remains the most lucrative film market on the planet—are used to reading subtitles in the theater, do you think it makes sense for Chinese filmmakers to shoot in English to tell China’s story?

I still think it’s better for Chinese films and filmmakers to speak Chinese. I don’t think it’s a good thing for the Chinese characters in the film to speak English or other languages in order to cater to the market needs. For this particular movie it made sense and was necessary because it’s about immigrant families in a new country, and the deep generational gaps because of these linguistic issues.

In the film’s 1999 and 2014 sections the Fenyang dialect of Shanxi is spoken a lot, and it’s there for a reason. Language has a lot to do with how you think and how you experience reality. A lot of producers wanted me to make the film with people speaking Mandarin in order to have a wider market in China, but that wouldn’t do. Just like the Chinese language should not be lost to using other, foreign languages, the dialects are also something that we need to preserve.

A version of this interview was published on ChinaFile. It was interpreted by Vincent Cheng, and transcribed with help from Yishu Mao.

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