HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS - Q&A with director Zhang Yimou
Earlier this year, 54 year-old Chinese 'Fifth Generation' director Zhang Yimou, hitherto known mainly to arthouse audiences as the filmmaker behind such richly allegorical but visually opulent period films as JU DOU and RAISE THE RED LANTERN, pictures that frequently caused him problems with the Chinese authorities, broke through to the mainstream with the stunning adventure epic HERO. His new film HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS is another martial arts period piece, and reunites the director with his HERO star, Ziyi Zhang. She plays Mei, a blind dancer, suspected by local police captain, Leo (played by Hong Kong superstar, Andy Lau) as being the daughter of local rebel group The Flying Daggers. Leo's colleague Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) poses as a warrior and attempts to trick Mei into leading him to the Flying Daggers' headquarters, but during their journey they develop feelings for each other...
In London last September, the director talked about his career and the genesis of the new film.
It's been quite a journey for you, as well as your admirers, from such arthouse-friendly films as JU DOU and RAISE THE RED LANTERN to massive mainstream success with martial arts movies such as HERO and, hopefully, this film. Can you say something about this journey?
The experience of my generation of Chinese filmmakers, the Fifth Generation was unique, and it was a very unique point of history. We were the first batch of people that graduated from the film academy in China after the Cultural Revolution, so we all had had those experiences of working in the army, in the factory, as labourers; very deep experiences. I was already 28, the eldest in my class, when I began, but there were many mature students at that time. Even people still carrying babies attended school, with their babies, and sometimes they feinted halfway though the afternoon. So, as you can see, we were very, very enthusiastic. We were like sponges; we absorbed knowledge eagerly after the ten-year void. And in the period from 1978-1982, China really opened up and we were so enthusiastic about culture; not only Chinese culture but about Western culture as well. I had never seen so many people queue up in front of an art gallery or a photography exhibition. At that time there was a very common joke that if you wanted to win the heart of a girl you had to make sure she saw you reading some highbrow book by Nietzsche or Freud.
Did that work?
Certainly so [laughs]. Our early films had a very common characteristic: a reflection of Chinese culture and history. For the first ten years there was this astonishing commonality, a very homogenised character that was reflected in those films. Then in the 90s the Fifth Generation began to diversify. This diversity reflected the multi-tiered way that Chinese society was developing. During the first ten years when the term Fifth Generation was coined it seemed a very reasonable way to describe us. Now there doesn't seem to be such a common character, it doesn't exist. It's just a term to me nowadays.
To what extent are there still restrictions on Chinese filmmakers today?
From the very first film I've made even up to today there is still a censorship system. Now the younger Sixth Generation are making a lot of underground films and they too are finding that their films are not allowed to be shown in China. Every director has this standard that they have to comply with and can't go beyond. Whenever a director gets a script the very first thing he asks is, "Will the authorities allow it?" This is the first thing they would have to think about - never mind aesthetic considerations! If they know that it will not be shown, that it will be banned, then there will be no point making it. If it needs lots of extensive amendment and revision then it's just a waste of time and effort.
What made you decide to tackle the martial arts genre?
Since I was very young I'd always liked reading martial arts novels, but in the beginning years of the Fifth Generation, no one wanted to make these kinds of movies; everyone considered them as mere entertainment, as too lowbrow, and lacking in any artistic value. So even though I liked them, I'd never dared to think of making one. Then in the late 90s there were a lot of changes in the film industry and people changed the way they think. And partly because of this social change, I said to myself, "Now I can do what I like, can I realise my childhood dream?" Ang Lee said: "Every Chinese male director has at least one martial arts movie in them."
How did the success of Lee's CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON affect your production?
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON was being made at the same time that I was devising HERO. It was a coincidence, but thanks to the success of CROUCHING TIGER... the market has opened up for this type of film and we can get investments and bigger budgets.
Bearing in mind you now have a huge western audience, what new challenges does this throw up?
To be honest, I don't know anything about the Western market - although Chinese people have always criticized me for making films for foreigners, which is puzzling, as I don't even speak English! And "the West" is such a vast, big concept. Which country do they mean when they say "the West"? I have attended the Oscars twice and on both occasions I felt it had very little to do with me. It was so much about American aesthetic tastes and their standards. So when I heard that HERO was shown in more than 1000 cinemas across America, I was truly astonished. I didn't expect it would receive such a wide acceptance. Now expectations are very high for HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS and we hope the film will have similar success.
Can you talk a little about the inspiration for HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS?
As was the case with HERO I wrote this film in conjunction with Li Feng, a young novelist who writes stories set in ancient times but does so in a very new and modern way. That approach has a lot to do with this film: the concept and the subject matter are very much in defiance of the orthodox martial arts movie tradition. Following the success of HERO, I felt much more accustomed to the genre and braver, so I felt able to take liberties. HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS is much more like a modern romantic story, in which the characters sacrifice every other thing for love. Even though we wrote both films at the time this is, thematically, the opposite of HERO, as the characters in HERO sacrifice love for their ideals. It is very rare that a heroine in a traditional Chinese martial arts movie would give up everything for her love. It used to be that she has to give up her love for the collective well-being. In traditional stories the rule of game, the sense of justice is something that's indestructible; you can't deny that, you mustn't defy that. But here we have.
This is your third film with Ziyi Zhang. Do you consider her a muse?
She is a very talented actress with a huge potential, and she has progressed so much. When I first worked with her on THE ROAD HOME she needed a lot of coaching in her performance and that could be very time-consuming. But in a very short time, she has transformed herself from someone who could do only simple emotions to someone who can express complex feelings, and play very complex characters. Her chief characteristic is that she's a perfectionist. I remember when we were making HERO, she watched Maggie Cheung very intently, and she has clearly learned lessons from the more experienced actress. She is so forceful now and puts in so much effort. You can feel the force in her acting now and it's such a very pleasant surprise. She is what makes HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, the whole film is about her: she represents the younger generation of Chinese people who will give up everything for love.
Your films always feature strong female leads.
The feudal system that has existed in China for 2000 years is very suppressing to women, and so it is very interesting to see a woman who tries to break the mould. And the women in my films often personify a deeper allegorical meaning.
HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, which was photographed by Xiaoding Zhao, is visually very striking. You were a cinematographer yourself. Does this cause disagreements on set?
Before we start a project I discuss everything in detail with every single person in the crew, I explain the angle, the pace, the tempo and the colour, even how to move the camera. I will express my will in detail. They know and respect that. It's an advantage making things very clear beforehand. On set I delegate, but they are already aware of my vision and this clarity ensures a smooth filming.
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