KUSTENDORF 2013 – A TALK WITH ZHANG YIMOU
In anticipation of the 6th consecutive Kustendorf Film and Music Festival, journalist Tatjana Soldat (Chinese Radio International), spoke with renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou in China to whom the Retrospective of Greatness Programme is dedicated. As part of this programme, Not One Less (1999), for which Yimou was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) that won the Silver Lion at the same festival in 1991 and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, will be screened. His most recent film, The Flowers of War will be shown as part of the Contemporary Trends programme, while Zhang Yimou, as a Kustendorf guest, will hold workshops for participants and visitors of the festival following his movies.
The arrival of Zhang Yimou, one of the most popular and most successful Chinese directors, to Kustendorf 2013 and to Serbia was the occasion for the talk, parts of which are below, that Chinese Radio International shared with us.
- Kusturica and I are old friends; we saw each other at numerous film festivals. My films were screened at the Venice Film Festival in 2000, when Kusturica was the president of the jury and when he presented me with the Golden Lion. I was at his concert, because he is also a musician and he told me that music interests him more than film. I like Kusturica as a director; I watched his earlier films such as When Father Was Away On Business among others. I truly admire him. Even though we do not speak the same language, whenever we see each other at various film festivals, we always have a nice talk. He asked me to come to the Kustendorf Film Festival many times, but I had too many commitments and I was unable to attend. Now, I finally have the chance. Part of the festival is dedicated to young filmmakers, which I am very interested in.
Surely you, like most other Chinese, watched Yugoslav films such as Walter Defends Sarajevo and others in your childhood. Now that you have become a world famous director, what is your opinion of these movies?
- Walter Defends Sarajevo is the stamp of an era. At that time in China there were almost no foreign films so Yugoslav films were highly watched. I remember that I knew every word of that movie by heart; we knew all the songs that were sung in Yugoslav movies. It is an indelible mark in my upbringing that has followed me for many years. Today’s generations experience films in the same way, but the idols are different. When those movies were screened, I knew very little about Yugoslavia – I just knew that China and Yugoslavia were allies. Yugoslavia seemed like a faraway land to me, but I like the film because of the story about war and the heroic battle against the German Nazis. The characters were constructed in a very interesting way, and I was a fan of Walter at the time. Knowing about Walter Defends Sarajevo, I learned that there is a city in Yugoslavia called Sarajevo. Of course, I knew that the Yugoslav president then was called Tito, and I knew several songs from those movies.
How well do you know Serbian culture?
- Honestly, I know very little about Serbian culture, but what I do know is from Kusturica’s films. Unfortunately, the majority of the movies shown on the Chinese film market are Hollywood movies. It is rare that we can see good movies from your country in China. That is situation in the film industry: as soon as you mention a foreign film, you think of a Hollywood film. I do not think that that is normal. Young people in China are heavily influenced by American culture, while they do not know enough about the cultures of countries in Central, Eastern, and Western Europe – countries that, like countries from the ex-Yugoslavia region, have excellent relations and a rich cultural exchange with China. I am very sorry about that, but that is the way it is. I also gain some knowledge about your culture through film, and of course, through Kusturica. I met his wife, his daughter, his whole family; I saw his relationship with music. I understood that, like the Chinese, your nation is very warm, you are good hosts, and you highly respect family. I like all of that very much. When Kusturica invited me to come, he said, “Yimou, come. We will eat bread and salt, we will drink wine.” Truly resembling old friends.
The movies you directed are a window into China for us foreigners because many people had the chance to understand Chinese culture through your films. To what extent is film as well as art and culture in general, important for strengthening the “soft” powers of a country?
- I will address film. In my opinion, film is the form of art through which interpersonal communication is most easily created – movies attract an audience. Music also attracts a large amount of people, but music does not have a picture. Film does. Even though we are in the era of Internet and electronic communication, I think that film is still one of the most powerful communication tools. Many of us gained a wealth of information about different cultures through film, and as you said, foreigners meet China perhaps through my films, perhaps through another director’s films. From that perspective, I think that this job is very important. Film is a bridge that connects two cultures, a bridge over which people from different cultures get to know each other better, learn from each other, and trust each other. That being said, the “soft” power of film is highly significant. America is aware of that and through its movies, through this “bridge,” they spread their culture across the world. Many young Chinese know American popular culture very well. I would say that this bridge of culture that connects the entire world is unevenly distributed. There are many American bridges, all of them wide, while Chinese and Serbian bridges are dispersed in fewer quantities. We need to make a balance in that area, to create and guide possibilities for constructing as many cultural bridges as possible.
Hollywood movies have “occupied” the film market of all countries. Why do you think so many popular films are made in Hollywood, and not in China, Serbia, or another country? Is the problem language, money, advertising, or something else?
- It could be said that, in a way, Hollywood is the “enemy” of all mankind. Why is it so powerful and so popular? Why does it attract so much attention of many, especially young people? That is a very complicated question. One of the answers has a historical nature. We started watching movies in the ‘30s. Since the screening of black and white movies, the silent movies and Charlie Chaplin, American movies had that little “something” that was nice in them, with which they attracted an audience. They filmed enjoyable and interesting movies that affected the average person. People at the time did not pay much attention to the attractiveness of American movies, and now, when the whole world entered a new era and when young people want fun, Hollywood stepped onto the stage with its fun. That which was hidden in the past, what no one paid attention to, suddenly became completely obvious and incredibly influential. All young people love it; this is the era of shopping and fun. Everyone wants to watch Hollywood movies because they are fun. Of course, one of the reasons is English, because, for example, a Chinese movie needs to be translated, and already a lot is lost in the translation. English is an international language, and that is one of the reasons, but not the decisive one. For instance, British movies and movies from other English speaking countries cannot overtake Hollywood either. For decades, they have a system that maintains that department and that is why we can only note that the commercial and fun Hollywood movies and Hollywood stars have a huge influence on the world, and that Hollywood has conquered the majority of the film market. Our youth loves them; we cannot do anything about it. All we can do is make more movies that portray our national culture.
Through your movies and the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics that you directed, the world began to view China in a different light. How do you view film its role of spreading the culture and influence of a country?
- In the past few decades, China experienced many major changes. I grew up under different conditions; from when I was 16 until I was 26, there was a Cultural Revolution in China, then came a period of reforms and opening up to the world. My generation grew up with the economic development of China. When I look at these massive changes that are happening in China, it is sometimes difficult for me to believe. These changes have led to a strengthening of Chinese influence, Chinese film, and Chinese culture. These are related processes and that is good for China. China has a long history, but was neglected for a long time because of politics and poverty. China is in a different situation now that allows the potential of a large country to be shown. I highly value the results that China has achieved until now, and I hope that changes in China will occur faster and will be bigger. I hope that China will be even more open to the world because it will have a more significant influence on the rest of the world that way. China wants the world to know it. And not only China, but also Serbia and other countries have a need for the world to know them. I think that it is most important for the need for a greater acquaintance with the world to not be taken the wrong way.
This will be your first visit to Serbia and your first time participating in Kustendorf. Is there a possibility that you will direct a new movie with Kusturica?
- Of course such a possibility exists. I watched Kusturica’s films and in them I saw reality, romance, and beauty. To a certain extent, this greatly resembles Chinese tradition. Even though we do not speak the same language, whenever I see Kusturica, I feel as if I have seen my closest family member. And of course, I want to meet as many people from your country. I think that there is a possibility of making a collaborative film as our two countries have excellent relations, so it is not out of the question that an idea will be born in my head and that I will say to Kusturica, “Let’s do this together.” That would be a childhood dream come true for me – one that was born while watching Walter Defends Sarajevo. That is why I say that there is a large chance that that dream is realized.
Zhang Yimou and journalist Tatjana Soldat (Chinese Radio International)