Master of His Generation
-- China master Zhang Yimou discusses his latest movie “House of Flying Daggers” and the crafts of filmmaking --
By Andrew Huang
(This article originally appeared in Taiwan News on December 15, 2004)
When I saw Zhang Yimou, he was sitting in a beech chair situated right next to the swimming pool of the Martinez Hotel in Cannes. The brilliant sunlight of the summer French Riviera was brilliant and all-penetrating. The cascade of light poured onto the swimming pool surface and bounced back onto the poolside. In the middle of his long press junket, director Zhang was sitting in his chair, his entire body enveloped by the celestial brilliance of sunglow. The effect is what you would call a cinematic moment --- a cinematic master sitting right in front of you literally radiating light.
Zhang is wearing his trademark working-class style outfit – blue shirt over grey T-shirt with olive pants. It seems that despite his decade plus world-class fame, Zhang remains close to his root inside and fashion wise. He has not opted to upgrade his wardrobe to Gucci or Armani even if he is coming to promote his latest movie “House of Flying Daggers” in the glitz-filled city of Cannes.
However, his presence is so majestic that no one is likely to mistake him as just another ordinary tourist passing through the Martinez. His glares are assuringly firm, his mannerism no-non-sense, and his sun-tanned, minimally maintained physical presence speaks of a regal king who has lived many glories and knows the ways of his battle.
My first question to Zhang is about his passion for the kungfu movie genre and why he has chosen to make two kungfu movies back to back.
"I grew up watching kungfu movies and reading kungfu novels,” Zhang says. “Thirty years ago, kungfu novels were banned in China. However, all the young people read it in secret and grew up with it."
"Ang Lee is the one who said ' every Chinese director wants to make a kungfu movie.' I borrowed his line to reinstate my point of view again," says Zhang.
"It's first and foremost a love story," says Zhang of his new movie. "It's a love story inside the package of a kungfu movie."
Zhang's decision to focus on the love story of the protagonists in his new movie is wise both artistically and politically. The simple structure of a love story between three lovers easily pulls in the audience' patho and wins applause at the end of the screening in Cannes. His decision to focus on individuals also brings him back to his root as China's premier director who dares to show sympathy towards the victimized individuals under China's feudal tradition such as in "Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern." This return of focus to the individual is particularly welcoming in the wake of the backlash he faced two years ago for depicting the tyranic Ching Emperor as sympathetic and emphasizing the good of the nation over the individual.
"There is no so-called perfection for a movie. Movie is an art form in which you always live with regret," says Zhang of his philosophy as a filmmaker. "I'd be satisfied with some good moments in the movie which could leave the audience with good memories after
they leave the movie theater."
As the first China director who brought Chinese films onto the international stage with his award winning "Red Sorghum”and also the China director who ivented the so-called "commercial" movie two years ago with "Hero," Zhang expresses his opinions on the state of filmmaking in China.
"I don't think China's films have problems with artistic expression. The problem they are facing is commerce, not art. They keep going around in the art-house, elite film circle," says Zhang. "With a commercial vehicle like "House of Flying Daggers," I try to put together a package that would appeal to the audience. Zhang Ziyi and Takashi Kaneshiro are both great fit as the romantic leads. Andy Lau is fantastic with that calculating, complicated character. All the stars have box office appeal and great actor quality at the sme time."
"With a kungfu movie, you follow the path of other people and try to create something new in your movie," says Zhang. "I think it's important for a Chinese director to face this challenge."
"The challenge of making a kungfu movie is how to combine action and drama in the same movie," Zhang explains. "For me, the action sequence remains the most difficult part. The part of the love triangle is very easy for me." As someone who starts out as an art-house director, Zhang finds the dramatic part of the film far easier to handle than the action sequence. In fact, two third of his production time is spent on the action sequence.
For anyone who has seen the movie, there is no doubt that some action sequences will become classic moments in history. The opening dance sequence, for example, cleverly combines the graceful dancing of Zhang Ziyi, the flowing sleeves of the beautiful costume designed by Academy winner Emi Wada and the suspense of an assassination attempt into one. The ending showdown scene features the three lovers duking it out with jealousy and flying daggers against a changing landscape.
In the middle are two classic action sequences shot in bamboo forests --- no doubt a tribute to King Hu's "A Touch of Zen" and Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." The first scene feature a team of flying imperial guards shooting storms of sharpened bamboo sticks down onto the two lovers on the run, Mei and Jin. The second scene features Mei and Leo swinging daggers across against each other -- a form of sexual overture -- before they go on to consummate love in the bamboo forest.
"At first I hesitated about shooting another action sequence set in a bamboo forest," explains Zhang. "But then I thought, if I could bring something new into the scene and create something fresh for the audience, it will not matter that these action scenes take place in a bamboo forest again."
Zhang has said that there is no Chinese cinema without Chinese literature. As a director, Zhang regularly look to the well of modern Chinese literature for inspiration. His debut feature "Red Sorghum" is adapted from China writer Mo Yeng's novel of the same title. The classic "Raise the Red Lantern" is adapted from China writer Su Tong's novella "Wives and Concubines." The acclaimed "To Live" is adapted from Yu Hwa's "To Live."
However, for his last two outings with the kungfu genre, Zhang has decided to create original stories by himself rather than adapt a work from China's vast canon of kungfu novels. Asked why he decides to create his own story with his two kungfu movies, Zhang replies: "I feel that most of the kungfu novel classics have been adapted into movies numerous times and there's nothing fresh left. I decided to create something new by writing my own story."
Asked what he artistic envelope he aims to push this time, he says the subject matters of "House of Flying Daggers" is what distinguishes it from other kungfu movies.
"'House of Flying Daggers' is about a love triangle. Moreover, it's a triangle between one woman and two men. This is something that has never been attempted in a kungfu movie before," says Zhang. "It's basically a modern love story inside the trapping of a kungfu movie."
"I want to focus on the individual, the human story this time --- in comparison to the theme of "good of a nation" in "Hero."
"In this new movie, the characters abandon the rules of the traditional wuxia world and dive headlong into their personal love. Their personal love is their ultimate goal," explains Zhang. "This is not a traditional kungfu story. This story is about their rebellion against the rules of the traditional wuxia world."
Zhang decided to use the Tang dynasty as the backdrop of his movie when he saw paintings from Tang dynasty around 7 to 8 century A.D. "I became mesmerized by the colors and atmospher of those paintings," says Zhang. After deciding on using Tang dynasty as the setting, Zhang went ahead to choose the color schemes of his movie. Then the costume design and art direction followed the color scheme.
Actor Andy Lau describes the experience of working with Zhang Yimou as such, "Zhang will keep all the other elements such lighting and camera angle the same and just allow the actors to improvise. With his approach, you can’t just strike a pose as in Hong Kong movies and get by. You really have to focus and feel the emotions."
"Zhang will spend one whole day on one single take if necessary," Lau adds. "I think his concentration really makes his work that much better from other's. And then after the work is done, he is smart enough not to care about the result or other's reaction anymore."
Actor Takashi Kaneshi describes Zhang as "great with leading the actors." "With director Zhang, I learn to open up my emotions more," says Kaneshiro. "He gives you the confidence to fullfil your potential."
Zhang has been nominated for the best foreign picture category at the academy awards for "Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Hero." A versatile artist, Zhang won a best actor award for his acting debut(and one of his few acting appearances) in the movie "Old Well." Zhang is the first director to be invited to direct a revisionist version of Puccini's classic opera "Turandot" in Florence in 1997. His direction of "Turandot" was acclaimed by the Italian press as "poetic and full of magic."