Dr. StrangeCinema reports from the Hawaii International Film Festival— the largest “East meets West” film festival in the United States. HIFF held a tribute to the works of Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke. On October 23, Jia himself gave an extensive talk on a multitude of topics, ranging from his own film philosophy to his thoughts on Chinese cinema. Dr.StrangeCinema was there to cover this intimate conversation with one of the world’s most uncompromising filmmakers.
On the criticism that while his films portray the working class they actually cater to the intellectual elite
Migrant workers, largely peasants, are from farm villages. When China had this issue of residency permits, if you did not have a residency permit, you could not go to the city. In the beginning of the 1990s, with reform, things changed, and masses of agricultural workers from the countryside migrated to the cities. But the life between city and countryside is so different, and this is a concern for me.
The changes break the stereotype of rural life. In rural communities, people have bonds, interact as a group. But when rural communities move to the city, they face alienation and isolation, and they have to find a new way of surviving. And money becomes a tool, a new artifact that gains importance in their lives. In the movie Pickpocket for example.
And also, I’m very concerned about workers. For example my work 24 City, that film focuses on a state-run factory. Originally the people who worked in this factory had good income and high status, they had a stable life. But as China moved from a planned economy to a market economy, many state-run enterprises collapsed. And many people became unemployed, and these people became marginalized. So like the migrant rural workers in the city, these displaced urban workers are also a source of interest.
These rural people and urban people are of the lowest rung of Chinese society. But I do appreciate the truth in the question you asked, “Are they watching your movies?’ Film markets are urban. And the market is growing, but it’s an urban market. And the price of a film ticket is very high. So peasant workers and urban workers are not going to the movies. But this fact is not going to diminish the passion in my filmmaking. The impact of a film is not determined by the size of the audience, but by the interplay between film and the culture that surrounds it. Can a film bring new understanding into the cultural sphere?
It is my intention to express the truth of the lives of the people I study—the lives of the underprivileged—and by doing so, change the discourse in culture. Talking about it like this is very abstract, but I’d like to give an example from the 1980s. In the 1980s, there was a very popular movie. It’s about the happy lives of rural families. And at the time, the ticket to see a movie was only 20 cents, 20 Chinese cents. And it drew an audience of 100 million. In contrast, take the example of Yellow Earth, which was shown at the Hawaii International Film Festival, I believe in 1990. Not many people saw it in China, but in 30 years, we’ll see that the impact of Yellow Earth will be far greater than (this film). This sort of contrast gives me confidence in what I do. When I have a strong desire to convey a message, I’m not going to think about how many people are receptive to this message. As long as my product exists, it has value.
I don’t believe that I am making films only for intellectuals though. Whether you are able to appreciate films does not depend on your level of education but on feeling, an openness of emotions. I was very surprised in 2008, in Los Angeles, eating at a Chinese restaurant. A group of chefs from the kitchen came out with white hats on and said they watched Still Life. And I was very surprised. By contrast, many Chinese intellectuals criticize me often for only focusing on the backwardness of Chinese society and putting on displays for foreigners. Such criticism began with the rise of the Fifth Generation in the 1980s. It’s the same criticism that’s passed onto me as well.
But as directors and as artists, we have the motivation to look at the hardest, most challenging parts of survival in a society and somehow find the potential within that society nonetheless. So for me, a return to daily living in making a film is important.
On Chinese cinema
When I first began studying film history, we learned that there were two basic forms of filmmaking. One is the anti-realist, fantastical depictions. For example, A Trip to the Moon. And on the opposite side, you have the Lumiere Brothers filming a train entering the train station, that’s realism. For myself, I prefer realism because it is a way of putting important pieces of life on screen. Why is it that reality—the truth—is so important to Chinese directors right now? It’s because for so long, we were lied to.
For a long time, Chinese policy, vis-a-vis film industry, had nothing to do with reality. There were two kinds of films, one that was primarily entertaining, which told traditional stories and such. And the other that was mainstream portrayed life as happy. And so with the revival of Chinese cinema in the 1980s, directors have been struggling to find a reflection of self on screen. Where does what I see reflect my thoughts and my experiences?
In Chinese aesthetic tradition, truth is a foundation, is a cornerstone. If a work does not have truth in it, then it is hard to talk about beauty in its space. Then there’s the issue of fairness. With a population of 1.3 billion that is undergoing rapid change, there are so many contrasts in China, so many social contrasts between the rich and the poor, between regions, between coast and inland. If 1.2 billion people find no representation of their reality on screen, then they truly become a silent majority. So we need to find a way to break these restraints.
On his preference for long takes
I like long takes. Through these long takes, I express respect to my subjects. A long take is an objective portrait of the subject. I often joke that I need the long takes to document the changes. In contrast, take the montage. Montages interfere with portrayal of space and time. Reality is manipulated and the audience is passive and manipulated. Ironically, my focus in school was Eisenstein. It’s not that I have something against montage, but my times and my country require the long take. The long take also shows respect to space, as it does not cut things up. Traditional Chinese aesthetics emphasizes blending of human nature and environment. It is natural for me to gravitate toward this kind of filmmaking. In Still Life, you see many scenes where the background setting is large and the characters are small, very much like traditional Chinese paintings.
On cinema’s ability to transcend cultural boundaries
Human beings are situated in time and place. I grew up in the 80s, when China was defrosting, and I heard about the East-West culture clash. But Godard, Antonioni, Ozu and so on addressed our common humanity. There’s a Buddhist saying, “Everyone is born, lives, gets old, and dies.” Realizing that communication between cultures is possible has given me confidence.
On film as entertainment
I don’t oppose entertainment. When China was a closed society, personal entertainment was not allowed. I was a part of the crowd who shouted, “I want entertainment, I want popular music.” But I’m shouting a different slogan now, “I want truth.” I don’t think film should be in service only to the audience. Taking something like film with as much potential as it has, to divide it into genres, to ask “Is it funny?” or “Does it make money?” is to oversimplify. When you take something with infinite potential and just cater to the audience, you end up with a lazy audience. The unfamiliar and the incomprehensible will allow the audience and us to get to know ourselves better.
On American cinema
Maybe it’s because I haven’t watched enough American movies, but depiction of daily life is lacking in American films. Daily life is so crucial in depicting the reality of a situation.
On fellow filmmaker Zhang Yimou
If I can speak frankly, Zhang Yimou, whom I love and have been influenced by, when I saw his movie Hero, I didn’t understand it. Hero emphasizes just one thought, that totalitarianism is sometimes justifiable. Can’t we come up with a more moral message? A Chinese poet once wrote, “Be careful, for whoever you oppose, you may become.” This is something I have to watch for.
On his next film In the Qing Dynasty, a martial arts epic
I have a desire to share my vision of history with a more accessible film. The film is set around 1900 AD in a provincial city, with bandits, martial artists, foreigners, and officials. My focus has been on change. I was born in 1970, and I felt that change began with Deng Xiaoping in the 70s, but it really began at the end of the Qing Dynasty, so I felt rather stupid. The famed German sinologist Wolfgang Kubin has said of this period, “How disorienting it must have been for China which had thought of itself as the center of the world to realize that it was just one of many nations.” I want to go back and explore that. Chinese society is moving so doggedly forward, I need to gather evidence of the way we’ve been in the past.