INTERVIEW: Real Lives Beneath a Shifting Surface–Director Zhang Yuan on BEIJING FLICKERS

BEIJING FLICKERS director Zhang Yuan explores through film the effect of China’s cultural movement on the subsequent generations.

Rob Avila talks with the legendary director about more than two decades of filmmaking in China, and Zhang’s outsider generation…

A singular pioneer of China’s Sixth Generation of filmmakers, Zhang Yuan graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1989. It was the year of Tiananmen Square and the June 4 crackdown, when China’s budding democracy movement—encouraged by reforms set in motion by Deng Xiaoping—met the tanks and guns of Deng’s resolutely authoritarian regime. Zhang’s first film, made at this time, was an auspicious sign of the life that would continue to find avenues of expression beneath the surfaces of an old order and the roiling changes encouraged by its new economic policies.

Mama (1990), the first film made outside the state studio system, inaugurated a new cinematic underground and heralded a dedication to boldly examining the truth of contemporary China as experienced by everyday citizens.

That low-budget film, built partly on interviews, displayed a sense for “real life” that has colored Zhang Yuan’s work ever since, whether in feature films or documentaries. Zhang soon followed it up with other firsts, including China’s first MTV Award–winning music video with rock musician Cui Jian, who would go on to collaborate on Zhang’s seminal and generation-defining feature, Beijing Bastards (1992). A few years later, in East Palace, West Palace (1996), Zhang boldly offered the first feature film to openly treat homosexuality in China.

In the two decades since Mama (1990) and Beijing Bastards (1992),
Zhang has demonstrated a persistent concern with contemporary
life as it is lived in modern urban China, especially in the political
and cultural capital of Beijing, and especially among those lives on
the margins—at the fringes of society’s norms. That dedication has
not always endeared him to China’s state censors. To date, about
half of his films, including his first two, cannot be screened in China’s movie theaters.

The rigorously researched and rooted nature of his fiction films has led to his use of the label “documentary fiction” to describe them. The term is especially appropriate to films like Sons (1996), which chronicles the disastrous effects of alcoholism in one family, and in which the members of the real-life family reenact scenes for the camera.

Zhang’s pure documentary films include The Square (1994), a meditation on daily life in Tiananmen Square in the aftermath of 1989; Demolition and Relocation (1998), which examines the complexities of the systematic destruction of Beijing’s hutongs, its traditional urban communities rooted in narrow streets and alleys; Crazy English (1998), a portrait of the wildly popular English-language teacher and success guru Li Yang; and Miss Jin Xing (2000), a documentary portrait of an actor and dancer who became China’s first transgendered person.

Among his other feature films are Seventeen Years (1999), about a female prisoner furloughed for the New Year holiday after 17 years behind bars; I Love You (2002) and Little Red Flowers (2006), both adaptations of novels by Wang Shuo; Jiang Jie (2002), a shrewd remake of a revolutionary classic by the same name, whose titular socialist heroine was martyred for her ideals on the eve of the 1949 Chinese Revolution; and Green Tea (2003), a love story and thriller that was a major commercial release in China.

Beijing Flickers, Zhang’s latest film, follows the travails of a poor, despairing, but stubbornly proud, young man named San Bao (played by actor Duan Bowen) and his circle of 20-something bohemians and dreamers. Their stories are set against a backdrop of a burgeoning, materialistic, and brutally unequal city, yet one with an almost ethereal magic to it. The film blends once more a highly cinematic style with a documentary-like devotion to the lives and stories conveyed onscreen. Indeed, the film itself grew out of Zhang’s 2010 photography exhibition, Unspoiled Brats, commissioned by Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, in which he profiled the images and stories of 10 Beijing 20-something nonconformists.

BeijingFlickers2_resizedZhang’s cameo in the film—as a wealthy, inebriated restaurant patron who gratefully offers his support to the young chauffeur who has seen him safely home—acknowledges and even gently sends up his own success relative to this younger generation while firmly underscoring his role as a sympathetic “big brother.”

Through a combination of cinematic theatricality and close-to-the-ground realism, Beijing Flickers registers the ongoing tumult of change in contemporary China while giving voice to today’s new generation of restless, creative seekers. The film received its U.S. premiere on January 10 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where it led off the Global Film Initiative’s 2013 Global Lens series.

A few hours prior to the screening, Zhang Yuan sat at a table in a small room on an upper floor of the Museum of Modern Art’s education department. Facing a plate glass window that looked out on the museum courtyard and the late-afternoon Manhattan skyline, Zhang spoke about his new film and the hopes and surprises it held for him two decades after Beijing Bastards had offered a seminal portrait of his own outsider generation. Assisting with the interview was translator Vincent (Tzu-Wen) Cheng.

Rob Avila: Beijing Flickers is beautifully and also meticulously shot. You studied cinematography as a student at the Beijing Film Academy. Was it images that first attracted you to filmmaking, and are images how a film begins for you? Or is it more often an idea you have that you then translate into a visual language?

Zhang Yuan: Actually, around six years old, I somehow got drawn into painting quite a bit. At that time, I got sick quite often and I couldn’t go to school, so I would stay around the house, and I picked up painting because of that. That was the initiation for me, in terms of this visual component. After that, when I was maybe 15 or 16 years old—I didn’t see myself as a painter in the future, however, when I was in my teenage years I started to pick up some very interesting writings and then moved from literature to films. And eventually I went into the Film Academy for cinematography.

I also mention cinematography because the new film sets out to, among other things, capture the face of Beijing today—a face that’s changed so much since Beijing Bastards and continues constantly changing so much. How did you strategize to capture this on the screen?

I was not only the director, but I also served as a director of cinematography for this particular film. The reason for that was that I wanted to have full control of the visual component. For this film, I’m definitely trying to reflect, in a very realistic way, what’s going on right now in China, in Beijing especially. So everything’s on location. The sites selected were usually places that I’m very familiar with. Places I’ve been to, places that have some kind of emotional significance to me—including everything from the different bars to the arrangement of furniture—and that somehow play out the sense of here and now in Beijing.

Moving from the face of the city to your characters, it seems that they too share a mixture of beauty and resilience as well as a feeling of dislocation or disorder. They are as much remade as remaking themselves (one even goes in for facelifts). Their tumultuousness reflects, and is reflected in, the city itself. I wonder how familiar or how different you found those characters compared to your own generation, the generation of Beijing Bastards and the 1990s? Did you feel an immediate kinship with them or were there things that surprised you about them?

Beijing Flickers' troubled youth.

Beijing Flickers’ troubled youth.

This is a very good question, because when I first started this project I thought that I understood this new generation of youth. Before I did this film I put together the photography exhibition at the Ullens Center [for Contemporary Art] in Beijing. For this particular exhibition, I had a chance to interact with about 200-plus young participants, and not only through interviews. Mostly—before I would even ask them questions—they would just sit down and tell me stories about their lives. So I got to listen to a lot of fascinating stories. And I realized after all these interviews and all these interactions with the 200-plus young people, that I was wrong about my judgment, my assessment of this new generation.

I thought that since they grew up in a very different environment—they were born after 1980, after Deng Xiaoping and after the reforms so they grew up in a very different environment than our generation, which was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution and didn’t have outlets for culture, for film, for different forms of expression—so I assumed that they must be very happy, and have a lot of creative outlets for expression and just culturally a lot of options. But I realized that I was wrong, because they also had a lot of sad stories to share. It’s very interesting. At first I really thought that they would probably be not as quote-unquote unhappy as we were, but in fact they had other reasons to be unhappy.

The challenges they face are distinct from the ones of your generation, in terms of seeking livelihoods and creative expression. You can glean much from the film, of course, but what specifically are the challenges that they face as you see it?

Beijing Flickers suggests that the trials of this generation are not so different from those of the previous.I think one of the major differences I observed through the interviews and interactions I had with them was—I don’t know if this was coincidence or not—that almost 80 or 90 percent of them had parents who were divorced. As a result, they left home quite early, from other provinces and other cities to Beijing, when they were still very young. So I do think that, on some level, there are a lot of similarities among New York, Beijing, Tokyo, for example. Although, categorically, it’s not exactly capitalism in Beijing, but in fact it’s actually the same as Tokyo and New York, this idea of suddenly becoming a mega-city. During my time, there were only about eight or nine million people in Beijing; now you have [over 20 million]. I think just the sheer numbers of people in the same space, trying to survive, that’s where the pressures and where the heartaches are from.

How is the relative opening of China to the rest of the world, and the even more recent ability of masses of people to travel abroad, changing this generation? Is that a big factor in the desires and self-image of the generation you portray in your Beijing_Flickersfilm?

I think that’s also one of the reasons why I was involved not only in this film but also in this art project with Ullens. I do think that when people think about China they tend to think about the growth of the annual GDP, or they tend to think about the mega-skyscrapers and buildings, and the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games—and all these superficial things. But to me, it’s more important to think about what’s beneath that surface and really going on in people’s lives. What kind of real impact has it had on people’s lives, all this superficial growth and progress?

For me, I take it almost like a mission to find something that’s close to reality, what’s really going on. Although I of course know the stories that I put together in the film are so-called fictional, to me these are real stories I want to put together in a so-called fiction film. I want to make sure that all the stories that I put in my films are real stories. And in fact these are the stories that I heard from the people I interacted with and the people I interviewed through this particular art project that I did. I’m a filmmaker; I’m not an economist or a sociologist. The only way for me to do this is to use these real stories to document, to record, and to witness what’s really going on through the economic transformation in China.

We’re still a few hours away from the film’s U.S. debut, but I wonder what the response was from audiences in Toronto. What is your sense of how the film is being received over here? Do people relate to the kinds of stories and experiences described in the film?

In general, the reaction was very positive. A lot of people did mention that they welcomed the opportunity to see a different side of Beijing, something that they hadn’t seen before or had a chance to see before. And of course people are very curious about whether these stories are real or entirely made up. To answer that question of whether these stories are real stories or fictional stories, I think that pointed to the biggest challenge for me in this particular film. My intention is to get as close to reality as possible. As I mentioned, I already had all the photographs for the exhibition, I had all the interviews that I had one, I had all these raw materials. The next thing was to think about how am I going to put this all together to get very close to the truth and to the reality. I had this method or process to put things together, similar to how I put together East Palace, West Palace, how I put together Beijing Bastards or Seventeen Years. It’s almost like documentary, but it’s a feature film with a documentary style to it. To me, this is a continuation of that, but I definitely think this was the biggest challenge so far, that I have to somehow find a way to make every component work together, in a very realistic way, in a very documentary way.

As part of the Global Lens 2013 collection, Beijing Flickers offers a different perspective of China to the American audience. As the film prepares to head across the United States as part of Global Lens, I wanted to ask you about the relationship between China and the U.S. specifically. You’ve been making films for two decades. What does that mean in the context of how you perceive the relationship between China and the U.S. evolving in that time, in the time you have been a filmmaker. What is your perspective on the nature of this relationship and how it’s changed since your films have been showing here?

I definitely think that in terms of films, in terms of culture, this type of exchange is very important and it’s also ongoing. If you look back on how people started to have access to a lot of films from Chinese directors, including Zhang Yimou and Jia Zhangke, also me, and other directors, that gave audiences some sense of what this particular place is about. They learned something from the films that they watch. If you take a look at the Hollywood film industry, there are about 32 Hollywood films in China every year. They take up more than half of the film market there. On some level the exchange is still ongoing, especially this type of cultural exchange. Personally, I learned about the United States through films, at first, and then through literature, novels, and through real stories you get through news and other outlets. And the more you learn through all these different media, the more you realize that human nature is the same everywhere, that there’s some kind of universality to it, that we’re essentially the same on many different levels.

Can you talk a little about casting Beijing Flickers? Did you have people in mind as you put the script together, or was in some cases a challenge to find the right actor for a part?

BeijingFlickers3_resizedWhen we started the script there were definitely certain parts where I already had someone in mind for some roles. There were also people we had to find after we finished the script, for example, the character Xioa Shi, who is the cross-dresser. We actually have a prototype, which is the person who actually shared the story with us. We tried to see if it would work with him playing this role himself. But there was just something that was not quite right about the way he expressed himself in front of the camera, so we needed to find someone to play the role but still keep the sense of reality and truthfulness. That was probably one of the more challenging casting choices that I had to make, to find someone to play that role when in fact we already had the prototype himself try this character.

He’s a fascinating character. He comes across as both very youthful and also somehow very old-souled. There’s a wonderful duality in general to that character, and he’s wonderfully embodied by the actor. Where did you end up finding the actor?

I do think that casting is definitely important. If you have the right cast, you don’t need to do a lot, just a few clues, a little bit of suggestion, and they will find a way. For this particular role of Xioa Shi, [the actor Shi Shi] is not professionally trained as an actor. But he is a model, and he is also a dancer, so he had the quality to play this role and we saw that in him. It took a little bit of guidance, but then he found a way to embody this particular character.

What is the most immediate, or satisfying aspect of the process of filmmaking to you?

To me, the most rewarding part of this whole process is that I do actualize and fulfill the plans that I have for this film, which is to somehow get as close to the reality as possible. The atmosphere, the mood that I created, the inter-personal relationships that the characters have, the quality of how they express that—I do think that all captures the realness, the sense of reality that I wanted to somehow present in the film. That’s probably the most rewarding part, to see that actually happen.

 

Rob Avila is a San Francisco-based writer, and film and stage critic. He is a regular contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, among other publications, and has worked with the Global Film Initiative on a range of projects and programs, including Global Lens educational resources, filmmaker interviews and the Initiative’s Granting Program.

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