Cannes Q&A: Chinese Actor-Director Jiang Wen Talks 'Bullets,' Booming Box Office

Emperor Motion Pictures

Shortly before Cannes, THR sat down with the star in Beijing to discuss the rapid changes underway in Chinese cinema, his hopes for "Gone With the Bullets" and the impossibility of predicting whether you've made a hit.

Expectations are high in China for actor-director Jiang Wen's 3D epic Gone With the Bullets. After the previous installment in what is planned as a loose trilogy of historical action movies, 2010's Let The Bullets Fly was a record-breaking hit at the local box office.

For many years, Jiang had a bad boy image for his roles in movies such as Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum, then later as a director on critically adored, but shunned in China, movies In The Heat Of The Sun (1994) and Devils on the Doorstep (2000).

He reemerged as a director with The Sun Also Rises and then blasted onto the national stage with Let the Bullets Fly, which took in $110 million at the Chinese box office, earning him the success with Chinese audiences that he had craved for so long.

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Buyers are being given a look at Gone With the Bullets at the Cannes market. The film is expected to open in December. In the movie, Ma Zouri, played by Jiang himself and Xiang Feitian (Ge You) start a beauty contest that ends tragically, and the story runs from there.

Shortly before Cannes, THR sat down with Jiang in Bejing to discuss the rapid changes underway in Chinese cinema, his hopes for Gone With the Bullets and the impossibility of predicting whether you've made a hit.

Where did Gone With the Bullets come from, and what are your hopes for the project?

Where it differs from Let the Bullets Fly is that Gone With the Bullets is based on a true story. In the last century, in the 1920s, Shanghai hosted a beauty contest, but the winner of the contest died by accident. These two things together shocked the whole of Shanghai.

Let the Bullets Fly indeed attracted an audience, but how it did this is also a question for me. I've asked others too. It's not that I, as the director, am any more qualified to answer the question. Seriously -- I really can't answer this question.

I've also shot plenty of films with very small audiences -- The Sun Also Rises. I love that film, but I didn't capture the imagination of the audience. I don't know why. If I can't answer that, then I don't have an answer about Bullets either.

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How hard is it to balance the demands of art and commerce?

No matter how lofty a film is, it becomes a product after entering the market. It has a price. I think no matter what your purpose of shooting it, it has to have artistic value and then sell. But you can't make money if it doesn't have artistic value.

What do you see as the big recent changes in the movie business in China?

I think for a lot of young moviegoers, it is fun for them, and the desire to go to the theater is increasing. I think this is the most basic thing. The cinema is newer, and the audience is constantly changing. There is a new generation of moviegoers. Ten years ago, some people said they couldn't afford to go to the movie theater because the ticket was too expensive.

You are both an actor and director. Which do you prefer? Or do you find it easy to switch between the two?

Yes, indeed, I am a director, actor and also a scriptwriter. But I don't switch among these three intentionally. It's very simple. When I meet a good actor, I would like to be a director. When I meet a good director, I would like to be an actor. When there is a good script, I would like to be both a director and an actor. The switch is very natural, not intentional.

Do you foresee more cooperation between China and Hollywood?

I think cooperation is good -- it gives you an opportunity to get a win-win situation. If you don't cooperate, you will never get a win-win. Throughout history, humans are always cooperating. What we are now is the result of the cooperation among our ancestors, before there was even a mention about film.