HERO - Q&A with director Zhang Yimou
HERO Q&A with director, co-writer, producer Zhang Yimou
Ever since his directorial debut, RED SORGHU' (1987) won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival, Zhang Yimou has established his reputation as one of the most talented and influential directors today.
Zhang Yimou was born in China in 1950 and studied cinematography at the Beijing Film Academy. He became a leading member of China's Fifth Generation Filmmakers, the first group to graduate following the turbulent Cultural Revolution. He is an accomplished actor, starring in RED SORGHUM as well as earning the Best Actor Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival for his performance in OLD WELL (1986). Zhang Yimou is also a skilled cinematographer, with credits including YELLOW EARTH (1984), OLD WELL (1986), and THE BIG PARADE (1986).
As a director, he has received multiple honours. He is the first Chinese filmmaker to receive Motion Picture Academy recognition, being nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Film category for JU DOU in 1990, and RAISE THE RED LANTERN in 1991. He has earned numerous top honors, including the Silver Lion at the 44 th Venice International Film Festival for RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991), the Golden Lion Award at the 45th Venice International Film Festival for THE STORY OF QIU JU (1992), the Grand Jury Prize at the 47th Cannes International Film Festival for TO LIVE (1994), the Golden Lion Award at the 52nd Venice International Film Festival for NOT ONE LESS (1999) and the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival for THE ROAD HOME (1999).
In 1997, Zhang diversified his craft, directing the Puccini opera TURANDOT in Florence, Italy, with the acclaimed conductor Zubin Mehta. In 1998, he and Mehta once again collaborated, re-staging the opera in Beijing's Forbidden City.
You must be very pleased with the film's performance in America?
I didn't think I would get such results, so I'm very happy.
Tell me about the origins of the film?
In the beginning I followed the traditional ways these martial arts films are constructed by referring to the genre of martial arts stories which are very popular in China. Then I discovered most of the good stories have been made not once, twice, but many times by other directors. So, I thought since they have all been created by these famous authors, why don't I write my own version? Therefore I thought I would write my own and picked this very famous piece of history of the emperor and then assassin.
Do these stories originate from ancient times?
Although this genre existed in ancient times, all the films brought to the cinema are based on stories, these martial arts stories, from the 20 th century. According to my research, the earliest source is from the Tang dynasty, 1700 years ago, there was a famous Chinese poet who wrote poems based on the martial arts type of character.
The actual martial art itself comes from that period?
Although martial arts have been practised for thousands of years, these characters, these martial arts, almost samurai type of characters, found in the poem, actually relate to an even earlier dynasty. So already in the Tang poems they relate to earlier dynasties. Unlike in the Japanese films, where the samurai is a historically based class of people, these fighters were very much part of the creation of writers rather than historically based.
What motivated your move from an arthouse sensibility into the martial arts arena?
When I was very young, about fifteen, during the cultural revolution I got hooked on reading these martial arts stories. After the cultural revolution, in the eighties, I graduated from film school and started to work. At that time it seemed that with all my contemporaries the aim was to make artistic movies. The idea of making marital arts films was slightly beneath us. So in the nineties we broke loose, we no longer felt so restricted by this ideal of making arthouse films, all sorts of film arrived, in their own terms. So I began entertaining the idea of making a martial arts film. It took me two or three years from researching, finding the story and writing the script. When the script was finished it was at the height of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON's fame, so I thought about abandoning this film altogether. After a while, I thought about it and persevered, my script was ready, so I carried on and made the movie. In a way I have to thank Ang Lee for beating the path, because with the success of CROUCHING TIGER funding for HERO became easier.
They look enormously complicated films on a technical level, how difficult are they to create?
This was my first martial arts film, I found in immensely complicated. If you see on film two minutes of fighting that would take me two weeks. You find that in creating this film about four fifths of the time I spent filming action scenes. So I spent a lot of time thinking of new angles and new ways to present these fight scenes because there have been at least 500 films like this in China and the East. Through this experience I have learnt so much.
You are also regarded as a meticulous director.
Because I started as a cinematographer, the scenes are so important to me, I have to be meticulous about every single frame. That is how I work. I am the kind of director that every detail has to be in my head before I begin to shoot my film, unlike Wong Kar Wai, for instance, who is completely different in style and works by improvisation. He can't work like that. So in the opening scene where you see some water droplets coming down; something so tiny like how each of those drops of water and where they fall is already in my head before I start. At the same time as filming the fight scene I was filming these drops of water coming down and people were wondering what on earth what I was filming that for when I should be focussed on the fight scene. But it was already in my head, how I would intergrate the fight scene with the water coming down.
Would you liken yourself to Stanley Kubrick?
He is a great director! When I was studying film, he was so important, we learned from his films. He is a master, and again the whole film is in his head. The other reason why I am so meticulous is because it is so expensive to make a film, so every minute is money, so I have to be prepared.
The filmed has been likened to Akira Kurosawa's RASHOMON, was it an inspiration?
Kurosawa is one of my favourite directors, and this story is almost a homage to RASHOMON. So, in fact, in thinking about the RASHOMON type story, it is usually presented in more dramatic types of films. I thought why don't we use this technique in a martial arts context.
What are the themes of the film?
I feel the main theme is sacrifice. In order to achieve peace, you have to have sacrifice; in order to follow a belief in this idea of creating peace. In fact, this is a key film in the history of China, the culture of China, this concept of sacrificing one self for the greater good has been throughout history. This is a very well known Chinese theme. The martial arts fighter is always fighting for the point of good for the country and the human race.
How did you come up with the extraordinary colour scheme?
Actually because I had this idea of telling it in a Rashomon style of storytelling, I woke up and I had this idea, it just came to me. I was thrilled, it is a totally different way to overlay the RASHOMON style of ideas. In fact, when Kurosawa made it in black in white, maybe if he could have made it in colour he might have come up with this idea, and taken my rice bowl away from me! Luckily Kurosawa left us a way forward. Using the different colours I hope will emphasise the different concepts or ideas in the different stories. For instance in the first story we use red because that story is so passionate, it is about love and death. And the second one uses blue because the story is quite sad and melancholic; that the lovers can't stay together. And the third story, because the first two were almost leading you up the garden path, is in white as it is the true story. That is how Chinese people would relate to the contents of the story and the colour. Towards the end, the big fight scene in green, well, I had run out of colours so I used green. There isn't any great relation, it was because green was left over.
Did you always have Jet Li in mind as Nameless?
I have seen every single Jet Li film made. He is a true martial arts actor and is the best in the world. But I felt that his strength didn't lie in intimate scenes, scenes about love, so I didn't give him any of the love scenes, just the assassin. The role of the assassin has no emotion, not to anyone, he has to be completely inscrutable. That is Jet Li's strength. So Jet was also very happy to co-operate because it was not an onerous task to play this role. They were all very good actors.
Did any of the actors struggle with the martial arts?
The other actors were not really experts, so all of them had to put in a lot of effort. Jet Li also gave a lot of ideas, he was around a lot giving a lot of suggestions.
Have you had any offers to direct Hollywood films?
I feel I only know how to make Chinese films. So if Hollywood wants to fund a Chinese film that is great but I am incapable of making an American film.
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