Top-Earning Chinese Director Cites Martin Scorsese as His Only Influence

Craig Blankenhorn

Jiang Wen met 'The Departed' director in New York in 1980, according to English-language newspaper China Daily.

BEIJING – The maker of China’s biggest-ever homegrown box office hit said that Martin Scorsese is the only director who ever influenced his work behind the camera.

Jiang Wen, the once-blacklisted actor-director of the Eastern Western Let the Bullets Fly, cited the American directing icon’s influence in a rare interview published Wednesday in the state-run China Daily.

 After watching a string of Scorsese movies in his youth, Jiang asked to meet the American director on a 1980 trip to the United States arranged by the U.S. Embassy, film critic Raymond Zhou wrote in the English-language newspaper.

“Scorsese has acted like a mentor, sending [Jiang] detailed materials from his production,” wrote Zhou, who will publish a longer Chinese version of the interview in the March issue of Harvest, a Shanghai literary magazine.

In the China Daily version, 48-year-old Jiang told Zhou: "When a director sees a story or a script he's crazy about, he does not have any towering figures in front of him. He must feel he himself is the greatest. It is nonsense when people say they are paying respect to this or that predecessor. If anything, it should be an apology for throwing those masters behind you.”

In China, Scorsese is among the best-known American directors, not least in recent years because his only Academy Award, for Best Director, was won in 2006 for The Departed, a remake of the Infernal Affairs crime thrillers by the Hong Kong directing team of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak.

As a director, Jiang himself has made five films in 16 years, starting with In the Heat of the Sun in 1994. Hong Kong-based production powerhouse Emperor Motion Pictures backed both Bullets and Jiang’s 2007 drama The Sun Also Rises.

Bullets, a Christmas 2010 release had by Feb. 18 grossed 664.7 million yuan ($101 million) in China, according to data from industry research firm EntGroup, edging past the previous homegrown record-holder, Aftershock, the July 2010 earthquake drama from fellow Beijing-based director Feng Xiaogang.

Jiang went on to tell Zhou in China Daily that, “if there comes a day when Scorsese cannot obtain funding any more, [Jiang] would be willing to raise funds in China for the American master - much as Scorsese and Spielberg did for Akira Kurosawa.”

Scorsese might not be all that welcome by China’s media monitors. His 1997 film Kundun, about the current Dalai Lama’s exile to India after the People's Liberation Army's occupation of Tibet, briefly was a source of turmoil for distributor Disney, then planning a push into China’s then burgeoning market.

Like Scorsese, Jiang is no stranger to conflict with China’s censors. His Devils on the Doorstep got him barred from film work in China for a time after he sent the film about the Second Sino-Japanese War (a.k.a. WWII) to the Cannes Film Festival in 2000 in defiance of the Film Bureau in Beijing.

Devils won the Grand Prix at Cannes that year and although it never has screened commercially in China, it appeared in 2005 in a legal DVD edition that tones down the original film's frank portrayal of China's sore relations with Japan.

Jiang, an acting graduate of the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, perhaps is best known in the West for his leading role opposite actress Gong Li in director Zhang Yimou’s 1987 debut Red Sorghum.

In 2008, Jiang joined in cinematic tribute to the city that made Scorsese famous, contributing a short segment to the film New York, I Love You, which also took contributions from directors such as Mira Nair, Shunji Iwai and Brett Ratner.