The author spoke with the mainland Chinese director Jia Zhangke on April 27, 2004, at his office in Beijing. In the second half of 2004, Jia will release his fourth feature film, The World. This new film marks a turning point for him. His highly acclaimed previous works (Xiao Wu ; Platform ; and Unknown Pleasures ) were all made without the permission of the Chinese government. This lack of state approval meant that, even as Jia’s works scooped up awards at major festivals abroad, they could not be shown publicly in his home country, and as a consequence he has long been counted among the sizable ranks of China’s “underground” filmmakers. The World, however, will be released under the auspices of the state-run Shanghai Film Studio and will represent Jia Zhangke’s entry into China’s “aboveground” film scene.
Valerie Jaffee: Can you tell me a little about your new film, The World? What kind of motives, ideas and goals do you have for the film?
Jia Zhangke: I’ve wanted to make this film for a long time. I came up with the idea for the story in 2000, about four years ago. At that time I had just finished my second film, Platform. The reason I conceived of this story is because at that point I had only made films about my hometown in Shaanxi, and yet I’d been living in Beijing for almost a decade, and I wanted to make a film that reflected my impressions of urban life, of Beijing. So I started thinking about making a movie about Beijing. But later the idea for the film changed, to the point where you can’t really tell whether it’s supposed to take place in Beijing or somewhere else; all that matters is that it’s taking place in a large and ancient city. It’s a city with a lot of artificial landscapes, and people who’ve come from somewhere else, from other parts of the country, play a very important role in the film. More specifically, it’s about people who work in environments like the World Park: the girls who put on dance shows there every day, doing Spanish and African dances and that sort of thing, and then some security guards, all of them working in the park. Both groups are living in the sealed-off environment of the park. Day after day, they’re either performing or patrolling the place. And then they also deal with a huge set of other people, also migrants from somewhere else, who, for example, may have just arrived in the city and come looking for people from their region or village for help finding work. The film is focused on how these groups of people form a community.
VJ: The media has been calling The World a “musical”. Do you think that’s an accurate designation?
JZ: I think that the film has some of the elements of a musical. But it’s not a musical in the true sense of the word, because there aren’t as many song-and-dance scenes as people may think. But the musical scenes that are included are very important, because they are tied up with changes in the characters’ states of mind, with the things they go through. The dancing within the film is very much a hodgepodge, with all kinds of dances included, most prominently folk dances from all over the world. The music is mostly electronic music. We had a lot of electronic music written for the film, by a Taiwanese musician named Lin Qiang. He’s also done the music for and acted in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films (1).
VJ: All your films up until now have been concerned with performance: Platform, of course, and the karaoke in Xiao Wu, and dancing also played a role in Unknown Pleasures. Why do you think you’ve included this element in all of your films?
JZ: I think there are two reasons. The first is my own interest. Back in junior high and high school, I started living that kind of life. I travelled around performing with a dance troupe. I have a strong attachment to that kind of life, and so there’s always some singing and dancing in my films.
The other reason is that I think that in Chinese society today there are a lot of moments where what’s going on could be called a show (2). It’s something I find strange. The economy’s doing very well, and everywhere you look you have these “shows”, sort of like economic bubbles, filling up every sector of our lives. I find I can’t get away from that topic.
VJ: What is the significance of the title The World?
JZ: A lot of friends have joked with me about that; they’ve said, this time you’re shooting “the world”, so are you going to make “the universe” next time? In fact the title has to do with Chinese people’s perceptions and understanding of the world. My opinion is that there’s no such thing as the so-called “world”. People can only see their own lives, and they can only observe life from the standpoint of their own life experiences, so that our impressions of life are really only our impressions of our own life, and our impressions of the world are just our impressions of the environment we live in. At some point I wrote that this thing we call the world is really just a corner of the world; every corner of the world that people live in, like this office we’re in right now, might be the whole world. It’s the same where time is concerned. I think that one day in time and another aren’t necessarily very different. In China we have a saying: “A day is as long as a year”. In fact a day might well be longer than a year, or a day could actually be a year. These are interesting ideas.
VJ: I watched a portion of the filming of The World, in [Beijing’s] the World Park. What do you think about places like the World Park? Why did you choose to set your movie there?
JZ: I think those sorts of environments, those artificial landscapes, are very significant. The landscape in the World Park includes famous sights from all over the world. They’re not real, but still they can satisfy people’s longing for the world. They reflect the very strong curiosity of people in this country, and the interest they have in becoming a part of international culture. At the same time, this is a very strange way to fulfil these demands. To me, it makes for a very sorrowful scene. The World Parks in Shenzhen and Beijing might as well be the same place. Every time I went to one of the parks for the shooting, I saw all the tourists and how overjoyed they were to be there, and for me it was all very sad. How should I put it? This is what Chinese reality is like. And so, in the film, a lot of action takes place under the “Arc de Triomphe”, or in front of the “Taj Mahal”, or in “London”, or in “Manhattan”. Of course all of these landscapes are fake. But the problems our society faces are very much Chinese issues, and I think all this is not unrelated to that. We’re living in a globalised age, in a world saturated by mass media, in an international city, as it were. But despite all that, the problems we’re facing are our own problems. So these landscapes are intimately related to what’s going on in the film.
Also, there’s another reason [I wanted to set the film in these places]: one of the actresses worked in that kind of place in Shenzhen for a few years and was very affected by the experience.
VJ: How long did you spend on the screenplay?
JZ: A year. The idea for the story line had been in my head for four years. During the SARS outbreak [in the spring of 2003], I started writing, since I had plenty of time to write then.
VJ: What plans do you have for the initial release of The World?
JZ: This will be the first of my films that can be publicly shown in China. The other three were all banned from public showings. This is the first time my screenplay was approved by the censors. We’ll have a world premiere, probably at a film festival. Then the domestic premiere will be this October, during the [Chinese] National Day holiday.
VJ: This is your first so-called “aboveground” film. What made you decide to change your method of working, to go from underground to aboveground filmmaking?
JZ: I didn’t change; the environment for Chinese filmmakers changed. Because, starting last year, a group of us young directors communicated with the Film Bureau quite a bit; we were fighting for a freer, more relaxed filmmaking environment. Then this year they’ve announced a lot of new policies. For example, before now, every screenplay needed the censors’ approval; now they only need to approve a 1500-character plot summary [before you start shooting]. Before, films were all censored by the national Ministry of Radio, Film and Television, but now you have six different regional offices with the authority to approve films. There have been a lot of changes like this, and that’s made us eager to become a part of the process. Because, originally, all of us so-called independent directors, or underground directors, were that way because the censorship apparatus was to a large degree restricting our freedom of choice. But now it looks like we’ll have the chance to express ourselves freely, and that’s why I’m willing to give this a try. I’ve been fairly satisfied with the experiment thus far. My creative process hasn’t been markedly different than it was with other films, but there has been one important change, and that’s that my film can now reach a Chinese audience.
VJ: As you made The World, did you notice any differences between the production process for this and for your previous films?
JZ: I think the biggest change has been that the pressure is greatly reduced. Because, before, we were always worried that something would interrupt the shooting, that someone would hassle us, or that we’d be forbidden to continue shooting, so whenever we went someplace to shoot we always had to worry, particularly when we went to livelier, more sensitive places, like public spaces, train stations, bus stations. But because this was an “aboveground” film, that sort of pressure in the production process was reduced.
And now we also have access to the Chinese market. This is a very important market for me. This meant that the film was able to raise more money, which meant that I could shoot under more favourable conditions than before. Most notable was the time we took to shoot. Most of my earlier films were shot within two to three weeks, 21 days or so. But this time I was shooting for eight weeks and so had a lot of time to think things over. My last film [Unknown Pleasures] was shot in only 19 days, because at that time finances were very tight. But, this time, I took 65 days. Of course this is not to say that more time for shooting necessarily leads to a better film, but it does give me more time to consider various problems, and so the level of production has to go up a bit.
VJ: Was the production team this time the same as before?
JZ: The core members are all the same as for previous films. The cinematographer, sound recorder, and producer are all the same. The assistant directors were new; I found some new, younger directors to act as assistant directors.
VJ: Do you expect that your domestic audience will increase with this film? What do you think the results of your move “aboveground” will be on that front?
JZ: I hope that it will increase a lot, because right now the only way to watch my films [in China] is on DVD – on pirated DVD, at that. Now they can be shown publicly, and people can see my movies in theatres, and I hope that, very slowly, if audiences can encounter films like mine in theatres, the reliance on pirated copies might slowly diminish…before, there was a good reason for people to watch pirated copies: since my films couldn’t be shown, people were curious about them, and would then buy the pirated version. Also, right now, because the only foreign films that can be shown in theatres are the small number selected by the officials for import every year, that means Chinese people can’t see a huge number of films they have a strong desire to see, can’t fulfil their desire to understand more about film, without pirated copies. For that reason, it’ll be difficult to control the pirating problem. But maybe, very slowly, I think the problem can be solved if the system becomes more open, if the theatre system liberalises, if people can choose to watch any film they want in the theatres. I think then a portion of people will abandon pirated copies, and this would solve a number of problems with Chinese film, because pirating really is one of the largest problems it faces.
I also believe that it doesn’t really matter how large an audience my film gets; as long as my films can be shown in China, and there can be any kind of real market for them here, that would be hugely significant for me personally and would allow me to do all kinds of other things. For example, I could support other young directors. Before now, I didn’t have that right, because I was a “banned” director. But now we have a plan to work on a series of films by three new directors. We’re going to start on it this year, in six months. Right now I’m working with a collective of filmmakers, about ten people – directors, cinematographers, art directors, sound directors and a few people who handle the business side. I think we could accomplish a lot together, not just me but our whole group.