The Price of Knowledge

With Not One Less, director Zhang Yimou calculates the human costs of the new China

ZHANG: It's more individualistic, less generational than when we first started. Each of us is pursuing different dreams. The Fifth Generation began by talking about history and culture, and now, personally, I find that I'm more interested in moving toward a kind of humanism. Of course, as the society changes, the audience changes, too. Their tastes are changing. If we made a film like Yellow Earth now, nobody would go to see it. The audience wants more story-oriented films, and as the market changes, we have to respond to those changes. Certainly, when you look at the progression of Chen Kaige's films, from Yellow Earth to Farewell My Concubine and, now, The Emperor and the Assassin, you can see that he's becoming more interested in stories.

CP: When Chen was in Minneapolis recently, he said: "In China today, filmmaking is different with the market economy. I have to consider both artistic and commercial value. Otherwise you do a pure art-house movie, and maybe you can't raise any money for your next project."

ZHANG: I agree. Each of us is facing this problem. And this is not only true for our generation; it's also true for the Sixth Generation and maybe the seventh. It makes sense to want to account for the larger audience these days.

Teaching to transgress: Director Zhang Yimou on the set of Not One Less
Teaching to transgress: Director Zhang Yimou on the set of Not One Less

CP: You and Chen are responding to those shared circumstances in very different ways, though: The Emperor and the Assassin is a huge historical epic, and Not One Less is a small, intimate film.

ZHANG: It is different. The more films I make, the more I'm interested in making lower-budget films. Because of my name, I can get the money to finance [a lower-budget film] pretty easily, and be able to do more artistic things as well. My next film, The Road Home, is a smaller film. Chen, on the other hand, is looking for bigger budgets, but when you do that, it's not so easy to please people and achieve what you want to achieve artistically. So it's a different path for us.

CP: If the role of a filmmaker is akin to that of an educator, how does the "classroom" look to you at this point? Do you imagine a different kind of audience than when you started your career?

ZHANG: I must say, I didn't think about the audience when I was making films in the Eighties. What concerned me at that time was making an individualistic, personal film--and also considering how to deal with censorship. The audience never entered into it. Now, as I grow older, the audience is a bigger issue. So I can't really compare the present audience to the one of the past. But I can say that, when I think of the audience, I don't think of them as one unanimous group. I think they're divided into subcategories. Most Chinese audiences are interested primarily in Hollywood films. I'm not going to criticize that kind of audience, because those [Hollywood] films have a certain function. But it's a smaller group of people--the thinking person--that will come to see my films.

CP: In terms of themes, it's striking how many Chinese films of the Eighties and Nineties--not to mention the Thirties and Forties--have been focused on the plight of women. Why do you think this has remained such a preoccupation?

ZHANG: You see it throughout Chinese literature as well. China is a very patriarchal society. The films of the Thirties and Forties are interesting because they came during a time of social movements to liberate women--and many of those films are far superior to what we're doing now. In the Eighties and Nineties, I think, there were so many films about women because, even though women were seemingly equal to men by this point, in the men's mind--and especially in rural China--things hadn't changed that much, and they still haven't. Maybe that's why so many of us are making films about the hardships of women.

CP: It's interesting in this connection that you have often described your work as "apolitical." Is that still how you see it?

ZHANG: I think I will go on saying that I'm an "apolitical" filmmaker, only because I think that I live in a highly politicized society. Given my family history, how much we suffered because of politics in China, it is my dream not to deal with politics. But it's something you can't avoid. For one thing, the Western critics look at everything from a political angle. But I still dream of the day when I will not be a political filmmaker.


Not One Less starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.

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