Truth in the age of film

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The 1980s have been called “the era of Wu Tianming”. in the Chinese film industry and there is a well-known saying which describes with reverence the pivotal role of the director in the Chinese film industry. It proclaims: “Look to the West in the city of Chang’an. There is Wu Tianming.”
Wu’s films such as River Without Buoys, Life and Old Well are well known in China and have also won him many awards worldwide. Much like the man himself, Wu’s films are simple, resilient, and full of humanity. They depict the true fate of a generation which carved out the foundations of life for those that followed.
Wu is not only an outstanding figure from the fourth generation of Chinese film directors (China’s directors are grouped into generations depending on which era they emerged – the fourth generation were most affected by the social upheaval of the 1970s and ‘80s and their films reflect this societal awareness), he is also the youngest person to become Head of the Xi’an Film Studio (established in 1958 it was one of the most important film studios in China). Having lived and worked through China’s Cultural Revolution and been influenced by the emerging art and influx of Western culture in the ‘80s, he has developed a unique perspective in films from his beliefs in life, which has led Xi’an Film Studio to new levels of success.
During his time with Xi’an, he fostered a creative environment for younger film directors. He supported them, explored their potential and nurtured some of the elite Chinese film directors such as Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), Chen Kaige (Farewell my Concubine), Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite), Huang Jianxin (The Black Cannon Incident) and Gu Changwei (Peacock).
Glass is honoured to talk to the man known as the Godfather of the Fifth Generation film directors, about his career, his views on modern China and his expectations of modern film.
How did your dream of being a filmmaker start?
I started performing at a very young age; I was probably only eight or nine years old. It was a time of national liberation in China, when there were quite a few small self-organised performance groups emerging in the region. They performed plays passed down from the Yanan area where the People’s Liberation Army was based. Most of the plays were about revolution, liberation of the poor, people fighting for their civil rights, becoming the master of their land and so on. The first play I participated in, I played three different underprivileged children in one act and I had just two lines at that time. I have to say I didn’t know how to act back then, but my performances were real and from the heart – real crying and really rolling on the floor when I needed. Those six months of my life were the root of my film life – I think that was the beginning.
Growing up in China, which film had the most profound impact on you?
It has to be a film called Song of the Ocean from the Soviet Union. It was released in China in 1959. I was fascinated by it because it was completely different from all the films I had seen. But then I knew it was different because it was made in the style of a prose poem. I didn’t understand it the first time I watched it, because there were no main characters or story lines in this film. I remembered that I had to trade in my cotton socks for some money to buy a ticket to watch it again.
It was winter time and with the money I got from selling my cotton socks, I watched it again and again for another three times sitting barefoot. I loved it so much; I think I have watched it a total of 14 times up to today. In the very same year, Xi’an Film Studio opened to enrol new acting students; I was accepted the first time round. I recited most of the lines from Song of the Ocean for my performance during the entrance exam
Did this film inspire you to become an actor?
To be honest, my motive for studying an acting major was a bit deceptive [laughs]. Look at me – do you really think I can be an actor? Short, dark and ugly. Ha ha ha. Right from the start, what I really wanted to do has always been directing because I believe that the film director is the soul of the film, and the fate of the film always lies in the hands of its director. During the 1970s, Chinese films were going through a difficult time and the whole industry was gloomy. I was rather arrogant and also very determined to make great films for Chinese audiences in order to help change the shape of the film industry. I read a lot of books about film directing and pretty much taught myself.
In 1974, The Central Academy of Drama and The Film Academy in China started a new department together for film directing and you were the first to be admitted. With the Cultural Revolution going on in China, what was it like to be studying art in that particular period?
Funnily enough, Jiang Qing (one of the Gang of Four) was the Chancellor of my school at the time. The directors course was supposed to be for two years, but we only stayed for six months because of political reasons. During China’s Cultural Revolution, Capitalism was harshly criticised, so any education involving elements of Capitalism was absolutely forbidden by the State and because of this, everyone was extra cautious with what they did and said.
The teachers at school stopped lecturing because they were afraid of being classified as Capitalists. Everyday we were learning about Revolution and Communism, nothing about film directing. Later, we decided to go back into society and we started to collaborate with other artists to continue our profession. Eventually, I was lucky enough to be assigned to the Beijing Film Academy.
Who has inspired you the most throughout your film career?
That would be Professor Cui Wei. He is not only a film artist but also an amazing artist in directing films. I was extremely lucky to take part in the process of making the film Red Rain with him. This experience carved the path of my film making and it was the most important period of my film career. Not only did I learn an artistic pursuit from him but also how to behave and grow as a person. He had a significant effect on my development as a film director, inside and out. In most respects, his influence on me has been the most crucial.
If you are asked to pass down the most important thing that you have learnt from Professor Cui to the next generation of film directors, what would it be?
The one most important thing I learnt from Professor Cui that I genuinely want to pass down to the younger generation nowadays is how to be a person and how to be an artist. I always emphasise that we are artists with our art on the surface and the person that we are underneath – who we are is the foundation of our art. Each film demonstrates the director’s style and will also give the audience a sense of his personality and character. If a film director doesn’t believe in the story he is making, with real love and emotions for it, his film will not touch his audience. Real emotions and humanity in a film are timeless.
What do you think about today’s Chinese film?
In Chinese films, and even in society, we are facing a lot of problems nowadays. People are superficial, lacking emotion and trust in each other. Many Chinese films we see today are based on true stories, but they seldom touch our heart and soul. We forget about the films after we watch them. This is because the filmmakers didn’t put their heart and soul into the film during its production. China is a country with 5,000 years of history as a civilisation, and also a nation with great moral traditions. Sadly, what we are seeing today in our society is this sense of nationalism and morality being destroyed. It makes me feel very sad. But it is also because this makes me sad and worried that I feel more obliged as a Chinese film maker to show our true national spirit in the films I make, so that the world knows who we really are. A nation needs its real spirit!
In one of your most famous films, Old Well, you picked Zhang Yimou to be the leading actor. What was it like to work with him at the time and what was your reason for picking him to play the leading role?
Zhang Yimou and I first met when he and Chen Kaige were searching for film locations together. He was still working as a cinematographer at that time. They came to us and wanted to borrow some money to carry on with their search. They both looked like beggars with big walking sticks when we met [laughs]. I got them some food and settled them down first. The next day, I arranged for a Jeep to take them around and complete their outdoor scene search. That is how we met. The second time we saw each other is the time I was making my film Old Well. I asked him to join me and work as the cinematographer for this film.
We were still searching for the leading actor for the film and he was helping. I told him, “The person I want should have your qualities: a Terracotta Army warrior lookalike with a personality as strong as Tai Hang Mountain’s rock.” We were searching for a long time and had a lot of photos, but still without a leading actor. Ten days before the shooting started, I called him in and said, “I found the actor.” He was very surprised and asked me, “Who is he?” I said, “You.”
He was shocked of course since he was initially asked to come in as our cinematographer after all, and he had never trained as an actor or had any experience of acting. The whole crew thought both of us were mad! But I always believed that there was something special about Zhang Yimou that no one else could bring to this film. He is very unique. During filming, he showed us nothing but dedication. He would fetch ten buckets of water every day for the village and the well was dry by the end of it! He lost twenty-two pounds during filming. I thought back then, if all Chinese actors made half the effort Zhang Yimou did, perhaps Chinese films would be at a very different place.
I am not surprised at all for his achievements today. Very few people can achieve what he has achieved. Even today he is very harsh on himself and always tries to do his best. He has very few needs for himself as a person and he is a terrific director without any doubt! He has given everything to his films!
After the release of Old Well, the village where you shot the film changed its name to Old Well Village to remember you. You also donated the prize money that you won for this film to drill the village a new well.
Old Well was based on true stories from the people in this village and it reflected the really poor and difficult living conditions they faced every day. They spend five months out of the year walking two miles every day to get water. I heard a story that a 70 year old man went to get water on New Year’s Eve and when he finally returned home, he accidentally tripped over at his door. The water splashed all over the floor… he cried his heart out. Hearing those stories broke my heart. These stories were my reasons for making this film. When the film won prizes around the world I wanted to repay the people in this village whose stories made this film successful. Without them, this film would never have been made. I heard they used the money for a new well, new road and even a new school.
Do you have any hopes or suggestions for Chinese films?
China’s President Hu once said: “Respect art. Respect artists.” This is very important. Artists need to know where they stand these days. I am concerned and sometimes question what path Chinese films are following and where they are going. I watched more than 900 films when I was living in America. One thing in common I found about these films was that they all brought out the goodness, truth and beauty of human beings. They are about friendship, honesty, true love… these things show the real values of a person, even of a society. It is their soul. Sadly, this is missing in Chinese films. As film directors, we have the obligation to bring the goodness, truth and beauty of human beings back to our society.
 by Yang Yu
Taken from the Glass archive – Issue 11 – Trust

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