Director Zhang Yimou Talks Chinese Box Office, 'Coming Home' and the Upcoming 'Great Wall' (Q&A)

Zhang Yimou talks "Coming Home" and "Great Wall" with THR.

THR sat down with the legendary Chinese director to discuss his plans, the success of his artistic return to form in "Coming Home" and his coming big-budget movie about the building of the Great Wall.

No one could ever accuse China’s most famous director Zhang Yimou of being predictable. In the past decade he has directed Christian Bale in the war movie Flowers of War, he's choreographed the awesome opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, and he has just scored box-office success with period drama Coming Home, which takes the country’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution as its backdrop.

From being banned in the 1980s and 1990s for Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern to becoming a popular figure for his martial arts epics Hero and House of Flying Daggers, he is now working on Great Wall, a big-budget fantasy epic about the mysterious reasons why the Great Wall of China was built, for Legendary East. The project is a personal favorite of Legendary CEO Thomas Tull and marks a departure for Zhang.

Zhang said the time was right to take on a blockbuster, and he calls the ability to move between small art house movies and big blockbusters "walking with two legs."

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Is it difficult to find a film that works in both overseas and domestic markets. Is that something you look at in your next film [Great Wall]?

The next film will be for the whole world and will work for both markets. This is a big co-production with Hollywood. I look forward to it, and it is also a challenge for me. It’s an English-language film with Chinese elements in it, and the main story happens in China. You can see how it is something very different from Coming Home.

Do you see a common theme running through your films?

Simply speaking, it is the feeling of being a human being. I don’t think that any story can be separated from feeling, from emotion. This is a fundamental theme and a big theme. My common theme is people’s feelings, their stories and their fates.

How would you describe the development of the Chinese film industry since Red Sorghum till now?

The Chinese film market is growing fast. Now it is the second-largest film market in the world. Nobody expected that. In seven or eight years it might become number one. This is the market aspect. The market decides everybody’s thoughts. Today, many Chinese directors talk about box office and business. It is completely different from the time when we made Red Sorghum. We didn’t even mention business and box office. We talked only about politics and art. Now we are still talking about politics and art, but also we talk about business and box office. This is the biggest difference. You don’t know if it is a good thing or bad thing. But you know that for the directors, we always prefer talking about art more. It is a matter of balance. Now the factors affecting the balance have increased. In the past there were two words. Now there are four words.

When younger filmmakers come to you, what advice do you give them? Do you tell them to be more balanced?

In China, you can’t completely break away from reality. So for any young film directors, they have to consider all of these four words I mentioned earlier [politics, art, business and box office]. It is their choice which aspect they want to focus on more. But you must face all these four words.

What will Chinese films look like in 10 years? Will there be a lot of blockbusters or smaller movies?

We all emphasize the diversity in the Chinese market, a healthy market suiting different tastes and audiences; this is the healthiest market, and the best example for the whole world. But we don’t know whether the Chinese film market will be healthy and diversified or paralyzed. Everybody has a space to survive. Every director thinks like this. I am worried because I don’t know if the market in the future will be this healthy or diverse. Who will be the audiences of the future? We don’t know yet. Today we can say it is people born in the 1980s or the 1990s, but in 10 years, we don’t know who will be the main audience for films, because the Internet effect is huge. It changes.

While you were studying, how did you get access to other people’s works? Were there any particular names who influenced you?

I studied from 1978 to 1982 at the Beijing Film Academy. Back then, films were very rare, and we called them “internal films,” as you could only see them in the school. The films were very limited, and we were hungry for it. We didn’t have the Internet, and there was no other channel. We had only two films a week, with no choice for our study. So there were not enough movies. No choice; we just watched what was there. Many were useless, but to have one was better than none at all. It was a luxury to see a foreign film, I felt like a rich man, and couldn’t have dreamed of the time today that I would watch whatever I want. So I don’t have any favorites from that time I liked anyone I could watch. American directors, European directors, Japanese directors every film we could get our hands on. Since the Internet came in and developed in 2000, there are too many movies for me to watch from all over the world.

Are you strongly influenced by literature?

Yes, very much. I often choose stories from literature or novels; it’s been my habit for a long time. Americans are the same. They adapt from literature or comics.

How would you define recent developments in your career, such as signing on to become creative director at LeVision Pictures? Does it give you more freedom?

What’s very interesting is that almost all the Chinese directors have signed contracts with film companies and formed a team. [Directors] Feng Xiaogang, and Chen Kaige have signed up with a production company. It’s a system, so I followed this system and signed with LeTV. I have my own team, and it is more regulated. Not like the past, when one or two people formed a team. This is more scientific and regulated. I also hope this system can provide me with a better environment to create.

Do you prioritize the visual or the story, or is it just one package?

I think both are important. They are not in confrontation. But for me, story is the first. All the films must tell a good story, and then comes visual effect. Visual effect plays the coordinating role.

China is a big country, with 1.3 billion people. Are you trying to give voices to individuals through your film?

It doesn’t matter if the theme is big or small, it has to be expressed through a family or an individual. This is the direction of my storytelling. I never change this direction. You can’t imagine too big; otherwise it will be lack of humanity. When a director tells a story, no matter how big the theme or the background is, it has to be expressed by the individual. This is the main direction.

There was a period when your films were not shown in China, where you were only seen at overseas film festivals and on the art house circuit. Did you make an effort to make movies that would be shown in China?

Restrictions and censorship exist for all the directors. Every director must consider this reality. They have to decide what kind of film they want it to be. If they want the audiences to watch it, we call these above-ground films. If it doesn’t matter whether the audiences will watch or not and they just want to make it, we call it underground films. The director must choose which type they want.

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Do you watch a lot of movies? How much do you keep up with what’s out there?

I watch films every day. I go to sleep around 4 or 5 a.m. and get up around 10 or 11 a.m. This is a very bad habit. Most of the time I watch films. I watch two or three films a day. If it is not good, then I change to another. But for good films, I still prefer to watch it in the cinema. I am a director who always watches films.

American TV shows have also started to change people’s view on films. Do you think this will happen in China?

I also watch American TV shows. But you can see that the effect in China is not too big yet. More movie theaters are still under construction and increasing. The number of people who go to the theaters is also increasing. There are a lot of people here. There is not yet the kind of impact that TV shows will start emptying the theaters. China is still developing rapidly, and so far the impact is not serious. But I’m not sure about the future.

Are you optimistic out the outlook for the Chinese film industry?

Right now I am pretty positive. There has been rapid growth, and becoming the biggest market is something to look forward to. But whether it will remain healthy or diversified is a big issue. Every director talks about it, but we will have to see how it develops. So I am positive, but also anxious. If you ask any Chinese filmmaker this question, they will all talk a lot, but still nobody knows. We will see in 10 years.

How much do the directors in the film business in China stay in touch? Many of you studied together, worked together as students.

I don’t know about the directors in other countries, but here most of the time we are busy with our own things these days. There are some small parties, but it's very rare because we are all very busy. We have some events or dinners, but mainly we are caught up with our own things. Maybe because the market is growing fast; everybody has many projects in hand and can’t stop.

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Is there enough talent coming through in China to match the growth of the market?

There are not enough actors and actress, especially good ones. The market is big, so it needs more actors. I train some new talents, and I am one of the few directors who does that. I do it purposely because the market needs to see new faces all the time. Since the market is that big, we need more good actors.

What did you think of the reaction to Coming Home?

I thought of it is an artistic film for a small audience, and I didn’t expect the reaction to be this good. Of course, I’m very happy. As a director, we all look forward to this outcome. It also means that the audiences’ taste is not dull.

The film is called Coming Home. Did you make a conscious decision that you are also coming home as a director?

Coming Home is similar to my films in the past, a small production, very human. From this aspect, coming home is this type I used to be very familiar with. Even though the Chinese film market is good, as a director I actually try to walk with two legs. For me, I like doing some commercial big films, but I also make some artistic films, telling some culture. I think walking with two legs is very important for me, and I try to do both.