zhang yang

Zhang Yang

China's Hottest Young Director Portrays Harsh Realities of Urban life

November 22, 2000

BEIJING -- It's the second-to-last day of filming and Zhang Yang is a vision of calmness and patience. After almost 48 straight days of shooting, he still insists on rehearsing this scene -- a particularly long one involving precise camera work and lighting changes -- a dozen times.

Zhang is China's hottest young director. At 33, he has seen his first two films, "Spicy Love Soup" and "Shower," become huge hits with Chinese audiences. "Shower" also did well internationally, playing in 56 countries and picking up prizes at film festivals around the world.

His newest work, tentatively titled "Quitting," is his most serious yet. It's the true story of one of his best friends, a well-known screen actor named Jia Hongsheng, who plays himself in the film, overcoming a drug addiction. Jia's parents, who are both veteran actors, also play themselves.

Jia's story is extreme but representative of a certain generation of young people in urban China who got into rock music then into experimenting with drugs, said Zhang. The film explores Jia's Hamlet-like search for meaning and self-knowledge in a rapidly-changing society.

"His relationship with his parents is also very representative in terms of the generation gap," he said in an interview later over dinner with Cox Newspapers. "Young people now are influenced by Western things. They have a totally different point of view from their parents."

It's a side of modern China that is rarely portrayed in film.

Zhang and his American producer, Peter Loehr, who has produced all of Zhang's films, decided on one guiding principle before making their first film: namely, that their films would be set in an urban environment and be geared towards the younger generations.

"We weren't going to do films set in the countryside, and we weren't going to do period films or political films," said Loehr, who is fluent in Mandarin and whose Imar Film Co. is the first independent production company in China. "We'd go out and do something Chinese audiences would accept. We're trying to focus on reality."

It was a hard sell. Modern Chinese films have very rarely been about city life. The few that have come out in recent years have been "really fake," said Zhang, with characters who are extremely rich living in impossibly clean and lavish buildings.

"Chinese audiences didn't think it had anything to do with real life," Zhang said.

When Loehr went around the country trying to sell "Spicy Love Soup," a light-hearted but touching collection of five different love stories, "I was told urban films don't sell in China because they've never had it before," he said.

Like Zhang, Loehr and Jia are also 33 years old. Zhang and Jia met while acting together in a movie in the mid-1980s, then later were classmates at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, the country's most prestigious school for dramatic arts. A classmate of Jia's was the actress Gong Li, who was plucked from obscurity by director Zhang Yimou while still a student there, and went on to star in "Farewell, My Concubine."

At college, Zhang met Huo Xin, the woman who was to be his partner in life and work. Huo has been the lead screenwriter on all three of his films.

Zhang is one of the few Chinese directors who is popular both at home and abroad, but he knows foreign and domestic audiences like his films for different reasons.

"Shower," which tells of the relationship between an old man and his two grown sons, appealed to Westerners in large part because of certain cultural aspects that seemed uniquely "Chinese" to them and thus different, such as the old men who gather every day at the neighborhood bathhouse and engage in cricket fights.

It's that phenomenon, the exoticism, that has helped so many Chinese films garner prizes at film festivals around the world, he said.

"If you see it in China it will seem very average, but if you take it overseas, they think it's very different, very special," Zhang said.

Instead, "Chinese audiences were more interested in the father-son relationship" in "Shower," he said.

A lot of Chinese films are either melodramatic or carry a blatant political message. Zhang's success stems from portraying family relationships in a way Chinese people can identify with.

"It's very, very real to the people," said Loehr. "It's something a Western film can't speak to."

The father-son relationship is one Zhang is still struggling with. His father was a director of kung fu movies. After working with him as assistant director on one movie about seven years ago, he decided the generation gap between them was too wide.

"I told him, 'If I'm going to learn anything, I have to leave you and find my own opportunities,"' he said.

Zhang has been wanting to tell Jia's story for many years, but as a first film, he knew it could never have been made; not only for financial reasons, but because of the censors.

"China is very sensitive about film. I don't know why," he said. "It's the only thing where you can't go through the back door."

Going through the back door is the common expression for pulling strings -- even offering bribes -- in order to get officials or someone in a position of authority to do something for you.

The high-level censors in China are mostly old men in their 70s and 80s. Every film made in China must first have the script approved before filming starts. Then, the finished product must be reviewed before it can be released.

His first two movies were made, in a way, to establish his reputation with censors and show them he wasn't a rebellious young director with an agenda. He consciously avoided touching on anything political.

"We thought writing about people's feelings was the best way," he said. "It's something everyone can understand and you can avoid messy political or social problems."

Still, you never know what the censors will object to. A scene ordered cut from "Shower" takes place towards the end, after an order has been issued that the old bathhouse will be torn down to make way for redevelopment and workers come to take measurements in preparation. The imminent demise of the bathhouse becomes clear to the old man and he dies that night.

At a time when urban residents in many cities are objecting to the destruction of old neighborhoods, that sequence was too much for the censors. Instead, the old man just dies rather suddenly and inexplicably.

For "Quitting," which is titled "Zuo Tian," meaning "yesterday" in Chinese, the script passed the censors on the first attempt. Although drug addiction is a problem China admits to, Zhang knew the main constraint was that he couldn't portray people as having too much fun on drugs.

"You can't show it too explicitly, and it has to be more reserved," he said.

It's a limitation he can work with artistically. But what if the censors demanded he cut a scene that he thought was the crux of the film?

"If it's a matter of, 'if you don't cut it, it won't pass,' of course it'll be cut," he said.

Some filmmakers in China in recent years have chosen to bypass the cultural czars altogether by going the underground route, filming on the sly then sending the finished product to film festivals overseas where they often pick up prizes and are touted by Western media. But such a strategy guarantees their films will never be shown in China.

"The main purpose of making films is to show them to an audience," Zhang said. "These modern films especially, I think Chinese audiences are most in need of seeing them."


Zhang Yang's Previous Films:

Spicy Love Soup (1997) -- This fun look at romance in modern Beijing was the top box-office draw in China in 1998. It's a series of five vignettes, each showing upper-middle class people of different generations in their quest for love. A boy tries to save his parents' marriage, an elderly woman meets retirees through a personal ad, a childless yuppie couple fill their lives with toys to pass the time.

Shower (1999) -- This inter-generational family drama set in a Beijing neighborhood bathhouse was the top film in China in 2000, excluding political films. It was also one of the top three foreign films in the United States, according to its American producer, Peter Loehr, grossing $1.5 million. It's a sentimental look at how tensions between tradition and modernity are played out between a father and his estranged son.

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