‘Can’t avoid censorship in China’

Lifetime Achievement Award winner at MAMI, Zhang Yimou talks about making films in China and how his bleak childhood influenced his films

Zhang Yimou, China's most celebrated director received a standing ovation as he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the opening ceremony of the 14th Mumbai Film Festival. His films such as 'Hero', 'Raise the Red Lantern' and 'Ju Dou' were nominated for Oscars.

Born to parents of 'dubious' background, Zhang brought his first camera by selling his blood and the turbulent times he grew in left an impact on him and his cinema. Growing up in a class dominated China made him work in farms and factories before he plotted his way to the university.  Pictures clicked with his camera helped him get an admission in the cinematography department of the Beijing Film Academy. Despite censorship, Zhang has managed to work around it and has gained international acclaim.

Excerpts from the interview:
How did you get into film making?
I grew up in very turbulent times when China was going through a cultural revolution. In the ten years of the revolution, I worked in factories and farms and it was a very difficult life. After the revolution came to an end, I was still doing the same work and was struggling to find an escape route. At that time, the only place of freedom was the University and I opted for it.

The first time you applied to the Beijing Film Academy, you weren't accepted. Did you think you might never become a filmmaker at that point?
Nowadays, things have become way easier for film makers but in my time, having a degree was mandatory. Now you don't need a degree to make films but for us, there was no other way round.  I was five years older than a student should be to qualify for university so I had to write to the Minister of Culture, who was in charge of all the arts and cinema colleges in China. I was given permission.

Your films often explore the dark side of life in small Chinese rural communities. What's the inspiration?
 During the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, I was privy to a lot of chaos and tragedy around me. This made me have a deeper understanding of human life and society and as a result some of it is reflected in my films as well.

How difficult has it been to make films despite the censorship?
Every filmmaker in China knows how far he can go and there is no way to avoid censorship. All you have to do is keep that in mind while selecting a story and work around it. No director there can ever say that I can say what I want in my films. That is not true and you have to face this reality.

I was reading an article about you which said you don't necessarily go for happily ever after endings. But isn't it what the public wants to see?
Yes, the audience prefers a happily-ever after ending especially the younger generation. They mostly want to watch comedies or romances. But there are people who love watching films which have a tinge of reality. For example, 'The Flowers of War' is based on the second World War and it was number one in ticket sale for few weeks.

You work in many different genres and styles, choosing new ones with every film it seems. Is that something you do deliberately, to keep challenging yourself as a filmmaker?
I personally love challenging myself constantly and getting out of comfort zone. More than anyone, I like surprising myself as to how far I can go. There may be a lot of setbacks later but then those are occupational hazards.

All of your films have very strong female characters. Is that something you consciously look for when choosing your story?
Yes and it comes from the long drawn history of the struggle women in China had to go through for centuries. In films, it is much easier to portray the trials and tribulations of a female character.

How difficult is it to balance the real with the commercial when you make a film?
Balancing the two is very important and over the years, the struggle between the two has gained a lot of importance. I feel a film should be artistic and should convey a meaningful and a valuable message. You shouldn't only be concerned about commercialism and what you want to make.

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