Jia Zhangke In Conversation with Dennis Zhou
Jia Zhangke, a Guy From Fenyang (2014)
No filmmaker has captured the head-spinning transformation of China’s post-socialist period as aptly as Jia Zhangke. Born amid the reforms of the 1970s, Jia came to prominence as part of the loose band of “Sixth Generation” directors, who eschewed the lush, state-sanctioned films of their predecessors in favor of a documentary aesthetic and underground methods. Jia quickly established his penchant for working with nonprofessional actors, utilizing local dialects, and filming in overlooked locations like his hometown, Fenyang, in celebrated early works like Xiao Wu (1997), Unknown Pleasures (1998), and Platform (2000). Over his career, Jia’s films have expanded to incorporate animation, elements of sci-fi, and features drawn from wuxia and other genres; yet what remains consistent is his attention to those blindsided by China’s rapid ascent, whether the migrant workers of The World (2004) and Golden Lion-winning Still Life (2006) or the tabloid figures in A Touch of Sin (2013).
In recent years, Jia’s scope has become ever more sweeping, taking in other continents and spanning decades in films like Mountains May Depart (2015) and Ash is Purest White (2018). He continues to work productively across both fiction and documentary, releasing, in 2020, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, his exploration of modern Chinese history through the lives of three authors. He also remains instrumental in fostering an independent Chinese cinema: opening arts centers, producing the works of younger directors, and founding, in 2017, the Pingyao International Film Festival.
As we were preparing to conduct this interview, Beijing lifted its three-year-long pandemic restrictions, resulting in a huge surge of cases. Jia said that he contracted Covid in December, but has since fully recovered, and was preparing to attend Pingyao. We discussed the genesis of films like Xiao Wu and Platform, the sounds of Chinese cities, his turn toward genre, and his love for pop songs, among other subjects.—Dennis Zhou
DENNIS ZHOU: Your last feature, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2020—one of the last film festivals to take place as a physical event before the pandemic forced many festivals to close. What projects have you been working on since then?
JIA ZHANGKE: The pandemic made it impossible to know whether long-term, large-scale film shoots could be completed smoothly. Even if shooting might have been possible, would there be another outbreak? Would filming be banned again? It was all too uncertain, so I didn’t make any films.
I used this time to do three things. One was to write screenplays; I wrote three scripts in preparation for work after the pandemic. The second was to edit together some footage from 20 years ago, in hopes of putting together a new film. Most of this footage had not been made public, and I hadn’t seen it since filming. When I confronted these materials again, I saw decades pass before my eyes in an instant. The huge changes in society during this period shocked and moved me. Of the past three years, probably one and a half of them were spent in the editing room. The third thing was that, after a disaster that affects human beings as profoundly as this pandemic has, I felt we needed to reflect on society, politics, life, and cinema. I wrote several articles and published them in Chinese and foreign magazines to present my thoughts and emotions from this time.
Still Life (2006)
For a long time, people joked that my feature films were like documentaries.
DZ: Having been a fan of your films for a long time, I’ve been especially drawn to how fluently you work across both documentary and fiction. Often, your documentary projects relate explicitly to your fiction films—for example, the echoes that can be found between Dong (2006) and Still Life, which both feature Fengjie, a city submerged to make way for the Three Gorges Dam—and your narrative films have a documentary sensibility.
JZK: I think this kind of influence comes from the film theories I first developed. I was deeply influenced by Italian neorealism, and French film theory like that of André Bazin. From its invention, the inner driving force of film was to restore the world completely, to realistically depict the natural state of people and spaces, and to present a true, internal, narrative logic. If a film is divided into each individual shot, I would hope that each shot possesses the above characteristics, which form what we call the documentary aesthetic. Of course, this style of film also needs to be organized and structured. That process introduces fictional narratives, and creates the fusion of documentary and fiction. What’s more, I think these two do not contradict or conflict one another, and can even be integrated.
For a long time, people joked that my feature films were like documentaries. My documentaries are indeed very similar to my fiction films, because when I actually deal with documentary, I also need to use many methods to present that internal reality. Fiction is one of the methods.
DZ: Have you noticed a trend toward more hybrid films recently, in which neither documentary nor fiction is elevated above the other?
JZK: This trend has emerged quite unmistakably. Kiyoshi Kurosawa has had such a tendency since his early films, as have many Korean filmmakers like Park Chan-wook. They all search for and observe the essence of contemporary life through genres like thriller, suspense, detective movies, and science fiction. I think this is because contemporary life has become more complicated—especially after entering the information age, when people’s sphere of life includes the emergence of virtual space. Our activities occur not only in physical space, but also in virtual worlds. Under the influence of these worlds, we have to use the experiences and methods formed by genres to depict an ever more indescribable present.
DZ: Since about 2008, you’ve become increasingly attracted to genre films yourself, from the wuxia-inflected A Touch of Sin to the jianghu narrative of Ash is Purest White. What drew you to making these genre-inspired films?
JZK: Using familiar genres can make an effective connection with the history of Chinese cinema, so that audiences can encounter the present moment from a historical perspective. The contemporary, violent stories I dealt with in A Touch of Sin have a high degree of consistency with traditional Chinese martial arts novels. The same is true for Ash is Purest White, which drew on jianghu films, an important genre in the history of Chinese film, for the same reason [literally “rivers and lakes,” jianghu is a term which encompasses gangster films, but refers more broadly to the community of martial artists who inhabit the world of a mythical-historical China]. Genre can give us a method and an angle to understand what is happening today.
These films have been out for several years now. As I write new scripts and prepare new projects, the reason why I made films influenced by genre has become clearer to me. There is a double significance to them: partly they are paying homage to traditional Chinese film cultures, and partly they are saying goodbye to them. Because such traditional genres can be said to be films from a “Newtonian physics era.” That is, the internal relationship and narrative logic is very clear: which events lead to which others, which causes lead to which results. The stories have a mechanical logic to them. I think my films belong, instead, to what might be called the “quantum entanglement era” of film. We can see the mutual influence between two things, but we can’t tell what kind of logical relationship they have. This is the kind of narrative I am currently fascinated by. It seems like the nature of the world, as I understand it at present, is developing towards this new narrative method.
DZ: Metrograph recently screened your debut feature Xiao Wu, which is often considered one of the first major independent films in China. It also happens to be a personal favorite of mine. You completed it in 1997, just as you were coming out of the Beijing Film Academy. Could you speak a bit about how the film came together?
JZK: As you know, before filming Xiao Wu, I hadn’t yet graduated from Beijing Film Academy, and I was preparing my thesis film. At that time, I had written a script for a short film, about the first tryst between a man and a woman—a story about two people, one room, and one night. The great formal interest for me was to shoot in a closed space with rich emotional potential. I was very excited by the possibilities brought about by this limitation.
Wang Hongwei in Xiao Wu (1997)
That was the plan around the time of Lunar New Year. I hadn’t been home for a year. Chinese people have to return to their hometowns for Lunar New Year, so I went back to see my parents, in a small town far from Beijing. I was very shocked by the changes there. One thing I noticed was the transformation of space; because our county town had existed since the Ming Dynasty, it was all old houses, and all of the old houses were to be demolished to make way for urbanization. The second change was in the relationships between people. China’s rapid economic development had brought in a new set of values. Traditionally, people based their emotional ties on kinship, community, and morality, but now, money had become the critical regulating factor.
I won’t judge whether these changes were good or bad, but we had indeed ushered in a new era, and this change was not taking place in a big city like Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou, but a small city with 400,000 residents near the countryside. I could sense that the reforms had already filtered down from the highest levels into the lives of every person. A subject then appeared to me, which was this transformation. I quickly wrote this new script, Xiao Wu; the heart of this script was the issue of identity, and how a person redefines themselves amid societal transformation. The other element was the issue of these emotional relationships. How would these be affected by these changes? In the film, there are Xiao Wu’s relationships with his friends, with the woman he likes, and with his family. These three are basically what everyone has to face.
DZ: I especially admire your collaborations with nonprofessional actors; both those who star in your films, like Wang Hongwei—a classmate of yours from the Beijing Film Academy who went on to play Xiao Wu and several later roles—and those who appear as extras. I’m thinking, for example, of the crowd gathered around Wang Hongwei at the end of the film, or that beautiful opening shot of passengers on a boat in Still Life.
JZK: Since movies first appeared in China in 1905, Chinese cinema has been deeply influenced by traditional drama and opera. Film is a relatively new medium, but Chinese stage performance has a history spanning thousands of years. Since the beginning, generations of directors have been learning from the theater tradition. At the same time, they have been fighting against such influences, especially in the matter of performance, such as the famous actress of the 1920s and ’30s Ruan Lingyu, who was one of the first representatives of a more natural style of performance in China.
Directors still face this problem today. When you want a film to represent humanity in a natural state, it is difficult for us to find suitable actors, because the entire Chinese film performance system is dramatized, and actors are trained in the mode of stage performance. Their voice and body have been well trained, yet this training also presents as unnatural in front of the camera. I personally think the experience of working with nonprofessional actors is worth continuing to learn from. Because they have not had formal training, they have a very lively performative imagination, especially when the film is close to their own experiences and surroundings.
DZ: Over Christmas, I rewatched Platform—which follows a theatrical troupe as they navigate the transition from the Cultural Revolution to the beginnings of pop culture—with my parents, who grew up in Beijing in the 1980s. They’re the same age as the characters in the film, and were amazed by how authentic every detail was, down to the washbasins and bell-bottom jeans, the pop songs and Bollywood films. How important is it for you to achieve this historical authenticity in your films? And how do you imagine, or hope that audiences who might not be aware of this history might approach these films?
A Touch of Sin (2013)
JZK: I’m confident that if we can be authentic in just a few ways, even people who haven’t experienced that period of history can understand it. Especially when constructing the style of a film, every piece of clothing, every scene, down to the way people speak, matters.
When I tried to write a screenplay based on that period of history, the first thing I did was draw on my own experiences. The period from 1979 to 1989 was the period when I was 9-19 years old, the most important time of my youth. I was 29 when I wrote Platform, so still very close to the period depicted in the film. Yet, a very important part of memory is imagination. We often say that we rely on memory to re-experience an era, but after I finished writing that script, I realized the film was more often based on my own imagination. Only in an imaginative state can these memories be activated, so that they come alive and these details return to reality. If a film can give the audience an imaginary experience of life, even if they have not experienced firsthand such a historical period, they can still inhabit the events of the time.
DZ: Pop songs are always very important to your films: in Platform, for example, the characters listen to Teresa Teng on illegal shortwave radio from Taiwan, and in Mountains May Depart, Sally Yeh’s “Drunk for Life” features prominently. What kind of personal meaning do these songs have for you?
JZK: Every year we produce a lot of popular music, some of which will be sung for a long time. The reason why a song becomes popular in China is because the emotional state described in the song captures a mood of the times, a response to collective contemporary life. We often see that it’s not necessarily the beautiful melody or the elegant lyrics that make a song popular, but the theme. Therefore, many pop songs in China have become symbols of their eras. When we hear a certain song, we think about the time that has passed since then. I think it’s the same all over the world.
I was born in 1970. Chinese people my age have a very close relationship with pop music because we experienced years without it. Without pop music, the individual could find no reflection of their emotions in everyday life. There were only revolutionary songs in the 1960s and 1970s, and they were all singing grand themes. From the end of the 1970s, the introduction of pop music from Hong Kong and Taiwan brought a kind of respect for the individual. Because most pop music describes emotions from the perspective of “I,” whether it be love, nostalgia, or homesickness, they are all individual responses. This shift from collectivism to individualism, which occurred as part of China’s transformation, held incredible appeal.
I have always felt that pop music gives me a lot of inspiration, and it is often used in my movies. Sally Yeh’s songs are used in Mountains May Depart, Ash is Purest White, and Xiao Wu. Of course, these songs have a personal meaning for me. I love her songs very much. Most of them are in Cantonese, whereas all popular music in mainland China is in Mandarin. Because China is a country with 61 vast territories with various dialects, we have formed two language systems. One uses Mandarin, because we want to communicate with others, and the other is in our mother tongue, our dialect. Our mother tongue is often able to express our emotions more accurately. For example, Cantonese retains the characteristics of classical Chinese and has its own charm and glamour. Most of the languages used in my own films are also dialects, and I ask actors to perform in their native language in order to obtain a natural form, so this music also has a feature in the sense of language.
DZ: In many of your films, there’s a contrast between characters who are able to adapt to the changing times, and those who are not. I’m thinking of Xiao Wu’s former best friend, for example, who has exchanged picking pockets for smuggling cigarettes and running karaoke parlors; or in Platform, Wang’s character Cui Mingliang, who has adopted the fashion of ’80s rock stars like Cui Jian, alongside his rural, coal-mining cousin. Do you have more sympathy for one kind of character over the other?
JZK: The reason for such a theme is related to the reality of Chinese society. Unequal regional development, unequal education, and inequality between rich and poor have created different living conditions, yet people in these different living conditions reside in the same time and space. Not only do my films depict different classes, they also represent a group portrait, because I try to depict a relatively objective and complete social structure, not just a certain class.
I have concluded that the people in my films all share a commonality: no matter what class they are, they are all powerless in a sense, that is, passive, controlled by the political and economic changes in the outside world. In China, this situation applies whether one is a boss or a thief, a person in a big city or a small town. We all share the same fate.
DZ: In your more recent work, I’ve also noticed a divergence between those who decide to stay in China, and those who leave, as in Mountains May Depart, when the main character’s son and ex-husband move to Australia. What interests you in exploring the experience of Chinese people abroad?
JZK: There are Chinese people all over the world. Many go abroad in order to find greater opportunities or to receive a better education. When I visit Europe, America, South America, or Australia, I meet a lot of Chinese immigrants. Some of them bring their own life experience from China, and the influences of Chinese life into a new environment. For the younger generation, they may feel less of a burden, but they cannot ignore issues like their mother tongue or hometown.
I am very interested in the two migrations of the Chinese people. The first is domestic. Before the reform and opening up period, we were all rooted to the land; afterward, we could move to different cities. In recent years, there has been not only domestic but also foreign migration. The distance between tradition and home, between the environments experienced, has grown farther apart. This has created huge narrative possibilities, of which Mountains May Depart is only one attempt.
Throughout my career, I have been trying to present characters that have never been seen on the screen.
DZ: Your own filmmaking has evolved, too, from having a very small crew and budget to more established, even international productions; from independent features to, since The World, state-approved ones.
JZK: More and more crew members, especially international ones, have joined our team, which allows me to search for opportunities around the world when conceiving and considering the production of a film—I’m thinking of partners like the French cinematographer Éric Gautier, Taiwanese composer Lim Giong, and French editor Matthieu Laclau.
In the past, in order to save on budget, each person took on multiple roles. Although each department is now more specified and the crew more complete, what remains unchanged is the necessity to maintain flexibility, to have a large team that still supports my improvisational techniques. This is one thing I hope to keep.
DZ: The sound design in your films is always extremely rich and multi-layered, allowing the bustle and noise of the outside world to spill in—for example, overheard conversations, traffic, the ubiquitous loudspeaker systems that can be heard in Chinese cities. Has your concept of sound design changed through the years, as you’ve gained access to more controlled environments like soundstages?
JZK: My early films were filled with all kinds of street noises: car horns, radios, TV sounds. This was also the real sonic environment of China at that time. There was a contradiction with what we were learning in film school, though, which was to ensure the dialogue could be audible. The so-called film sound had to be clean, and this cleanliness would filter out a lot of texture. I insisted on sound design based on the real sounds of China. You could say that my first stage was to try to capture this realistic sonic environment.
As time went on, we began to present sound more subjectively, starting with Still Life. With recording director Zhang Yang, I discussed using a process akin to sampling music in order to collect more meaningful sounds from reality: noises and motion effects that spill in from the surroundings, but are at the same time woven together with the dialogue and soundtrack. In this way, the elements of the real sound field are presented, but are arranged by us, like a composition.
DZ: Has the sound of Chinese cities themselves changed?
JZK: Chinese cities have become quieter and quieter, and this is reflected in my films. Today, China has gradually quieted down. In such a quiet world, we need to look for more psychological sounds. These sounds still come from reality, but they may be amplified by us. This way we can bring hidden, subtle sounds to the foreground, revealing the sonic structures of our psychological states.
DZ: You’ve talked in the past about how the most important thing for a film is to create new kinds of protagonists; your films were some of the first that featured characters that spoke dialect, for example. How do you develop your characters? Are they based on people you encounter in your life, or people your create?
JZK: Throughout my career, I have been trying to present characters that have never been seen on the screen. They are characters produced in contemporary circumstances, without much representation in past “classical” films. This is due to the fact that they carry the latest problems, situations, and desires.
If we look back at the history of literature and film, we find that characters like Ah Q and Kong Yiji (depicted by the famous Chinese writer Lu Xun), or the civil servants in Kafka’s novels, all possess a completely new social and political message. When we present a new possibility or situation in life, there must be a vehicle, that is, the people who live in that time. Of course, these people exist in real society, but to create the image of such a character requires fictional methods and imagination.
DZ: What kinds of characters are you drawn to now?
JZK: I am fascinated by the younger generation. For example, there are many young children who were born in China and grew up abroad; they might be American citizens, but their families are Chinese. These “Newcomers” grew up in two different environments, and have been deeply affected by both. Another example is transgender people. They have their own gender orientation, their own relationships to their bodies. Their path from social anxiety to individual identity is a new dramatic tension.
DZ: Besides your filmmaking career, you’re also a great promoter of independent cinema throughout China, from setting up arthouse theaters to founding the Pingyao Film Festival. What are your thoughts on the current state of independent cinema in China?
JZK: It is clear that, after three years of the pandemic, Chinese films are at a low ebb, which is reflected in the closure of many movie theaters, many studios being no longer willing to invest in young directors, and many production companies unwilling to take risks with directors to shoot more challenging works. This is a predicament that we still need to overcome. But on the other hand, through attending the Pingyao Film Festival, I have seen that the younger generation of Chinese directors can still show rich and varied creativity in such an environment. In difficult times, you will find that the desire to create movies is very precious. They will overcome any challenges in order to express their emotions through film.
This interview has been translated by the author.
Dennis Zhou is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.
Mountains May Depart (2015)