Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 35, October 2003

 

 

Sheila Petty

 

Never Forfeit the Self: The Art of Zhang Yimou

 

 

_Zhang Yimou: Interviews_

Edited by Frances Gateward

Conversations with Filmmakers Series

Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001

ISBN 1578062624

169 pp.

 

Edited by Frances Gateward, _Zhang Yimou: Interviews_ is intended to introduce the reader to world-renowned Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou. The Introduction itself situates his work within the context of the Chinese film industry and the 'Fifth Generation' of Chinese cinema. [1] Gateward advances a reasonably cogent, but truncated argument for Zhang's inclusion in the ranks of the top directors in world cinema. The Introduction strikes a good balance between providing enough information to orient the reader, as well as raising key issues in brief that stimulate the reader's interest and provide an invitation for continued exploration of Zhang's work.

 

The volume is composed of a chronology of Zhang's life, filmography, and eighteen mostly previously published interviews that span the years 1988-1999, a period that includes many of Zhang's most notable films: _Red Sorghum_ (1987), _Ju Dou_ (1989), and _The Story of Qiu Ju_ (1992). Unfortunately, films such as _Raise the Red Lantern_ (1991), _To Live_ (1994), _Shanghai Triad_ (1995), _Keep Cool_ (1997), _Not One Less_ (1999) and _The Road Home_ (1999) are covered unevenly. Although due in part to the unavoidable restrictions of the book's interview format, it does result in a narrower focus that might otherwise be preferred by readers who are more widely familiar with Zhang's work. This is not to say that the volume fails entirely to break new ground. For example, it was interesting to discover that Zhang rates _Shanghai Triad_ as one of his less successful films. He notes that 'it relied on factors such as monetary investment and societal concerns that forced me to make something I didn't love' (141). Such information is invaluable in coming to a deeper understanding of the production context in which Zhang works.

 

One of the most interesting aspects of the volume's scope is the emergence of Zhang's philosophy of contemporary society and his place within it as a filmmaker. In discussing Chinese society as a whole, Zhang contends that:

 

'if a nation wants to develop toward the future, if it wants to be powerful and prosperous or influential, it simply has to have a vitality and burning passion toward life. No matter how much you suffer and no matter how tragic your fate, you need courage to live' (8).

 

This implies the need to take risks and to challenge established authority, two elements that are clearly articulated in the subject matter of Zhang's films themselves. In addition, the volume offers valuable insight regarding Zhang's production philosophy and narrative approach to his subjects. Zhang, who believes that the terms 'fifth' and 'sixth generation' are too restrictive, advocates a commitment to the 'director's extremely individual point of view' (92). Passionately connected to his subject matter, Zhang creates strong emotional connections with writers and crew members as a means of forging film works with distinctive aesthetic styles. For example, Zhang expresses nostalgia for the early days when he was able to assist crew members with whatever job was necessary, indicating a certain discomfort with the elevated status that comes with being an internationally acclaimed director (80). When asked if such participation is necessary, Zhang replies, 'even if you carry one brick to everyone else's ten, you're still conducting a kind of emotional communication' (80). Such assertions reveal an intriguing paradox given the value Zhang apparently places on the collaborative process of filmmaking while foregrounding the importance of a director's individual viewpoint.

 

Another aspect of Zhang's commitment to filmmaking as an art that emerges from the interviews is his dedication to risk-taking in his narrative and aesthetic approaches. He states that a film's vitality and personality are very important and he decries 'uninspired, overcautious popular filmmaking' (141). Driven to 'make stories live', Zhang argues that 'motion without thoughts can only be dead actions' (113, 117). What emerges from the interviews is a complex portrait of a filmmaker who is devoted to allowing each film 'to find its own means of expression' (5). One of the most interesting aspects of this approach relates to Zhang's use of literary adaptation as a foundation for many of his films. He clearly values literature, but recognises that a filmic presentation of a novel is an artistic expression distinct from its literary origin (5). Zhang's observation that 'film only goes by once, and its form of viewing is compelling', indicates a deep understanding of the two media that contribute to the power of his narrative approach (5). Given this context, Zhang's aesthetic and formal approach involves a mutable relationship with style that demands 'a new approach to the image' in every film he undertakes (89, 62). For example, Zhang describes his early films as having 'more esthetic 'wrapping', closer to painting in some ways' (62). However, Zhang suggests that _To Live_ takes the image beyond this level, making it both more complex and simpler in nature (62). In addition, Zhang states that his early works 'favored estheticism' while his later works focus more on character and the individual story (62). Such information provides the reader with a sense of how Zhang's art has evolved over the course of his career and his statement that he hopes to better incorporate the use of form from his early films with 'more precise and intense work on the characters', reveals his ongoing commitment to artistic growth (62).

 

Zhang's relationship with the camera clearly emerges over the course of the interviews as one of the most critical factors in his filmmaking. When asked if _The Story of Qiu Ju_ was inspired by an image as many of his previous films had been, Zhang replies that he found the best way of adapting the story to the screen was to place the camera at eye level, making it a character in the film itself (15). In another example, the camera in _Keep Cool_ symbolically reflects the 'epitome of the contemporary person, moving restlessly and often reversing roles' (122). In this case, Zhang was seeking to avoid objective distance and create an impromptu freedom through his camerawork that captured the argumentative nature of mainland Chinese people (121-122). These examples demonstrate how Zhang actively incorporates the camera into the ideological and narrative structures of his films.

 

One of the disadvantages of the interview format of the volume is that there is overlap of information between interviews. Furthermore, information must be gleaned across the entirety of the volume. In addition, the interviews are sometimes uneven, certainly in terms of length, but also in terms of the quality of information contained within them. For example, I found the 1996 interview, 'Paving Chinese Film's Road to the World' by Li Erwei (74-98), to be one of the best in the volume because of the quality of questions asked and the interviewer's ability to elicit interesting details from Zhang. On the other hand, the inclusion of the 1995 piece by Renee Schoof, titled 'Zhang Yimou: Only Possible Work Environment in China' (71-73), is a press brief that does not add significantly to the discussion. However, Gatewood's selection of interviews is generally strong and broad enough to provide sufficient new material that sustains the reader's interest over the course of the book.

 

Another shortcoming, albeit minor, is that the book is better aimed at readers unfamiliar with Zhang's work. When I initially began the explore the volume, I was interested in discovering more about Zhang's thoughts on his less prominent works, but found instead, an emphasis on his most acclaimed films. In particular, because I teach _Raise the Red Lantern_ in a film narrative course, I was hoping to find information that specifically illuminated Zhang's narrative and aesthetic choices. To a degree, Gatewood is somewhat restricted by the availability of existing interviews, given the context and timeline of the book. However, I was able to learn a great deal about the general production and philosophical process that underlies Zhang's filmwork. Once again, this information is spread out across the volume and requires patience and close reading to develop a sense of his filmmaking practice. One practical aspect of the volume that really stands out is the excellent way in which the index is organized, especially around thematic issues relating to his works.

 

Overall, I found the volume to be engaging and useful. It is very appropriate for student use and also contains salient insights that will be of use to critics and theorists working in the area of world, Asian and/or narrative cinema.

 

University of Regina

Regina, Canada

 

 

Footnote

 

1. Berenice Reynaud provides a succinct description of this term as referring to Chinese filmmakers who entered the Beijing Film Academy in 1978, when it reopened after the Cultural Revolution. She goes on to argue that:

 

'it is often assumed that the term 'generation' is used to designate the distinct role that each decade's filmmakers have played in the political and aesthetic construction of a national cinema in China. Tony Rayns, however, states that the Fifth Generation directors were simply 'the fifth class to graduate from the school's Directing Department' (Rayns, 1991: 104) while, for Chris Berry, the term highlights the stylistic breakthrough between Fifth Generation films and those which preceded them (Berry 1991: 116).' Reynaud, 'Chinese Cinema', p. 543.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Berry, Chris, ed., _Perspectives on Chinese Cinema_ (London: British Film Institute, 1991).

 

Rayns, Tony, 'Breakthrough and Setbacks: the Origins of the New Chinese Cinema', in Chris Berry, ed., _Perspectives on Chinese Cinema_ (London: British Film Institute, 1991).

 

Reynaud, Berenice, 'Chinese Cinema', in John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson, eds, _The Oxford Guide to Film Studies_ (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

Sheila Petty, 'Never Forfeit the Self: The Art of Zhang Yimou', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 35, October 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n35petty>.

 

 

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