Zhang Yimou on Why India-China Collaborations Should Increase (Q&A)

Nyay Bhushan

The acclaimed Chinese director of “Hero” and “Raise the Red Lantern” talks with THR about exploring common historical and cultural links and reveals why he thinks India could stage a better Olympics Opening Ceremony than China.

Zhang Yimou was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the 2012 Mumbai Film Festival on Oct. 18. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the acclaimed Chinese filmmaker and creative director of the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony discusses how India-China film collaborations could increase by exploring common historical and cultural links. 

The Hollywood Reporter: What are your views on India, given this is your second trip in ten years?

Zhang Yimou: After my first visit [to Delhi], which was 10 years ago, I can see a difference, even though this trip to Mumbai has been short, just two days. I can see the country has developed considerably, especially in the film industry.

THR: What is your perspective on Indian cinema?

Zhang: My understanding of Indian films started quite early when, as a young child, I saw Awaara (the 1951 classic starring Bollywood icon Raj Kapoor) and everybody including me could sing the song from that film. So I have always considered the song and dance in Indian films quite beautiful. In recent years there is a growing awareness for Indian cinema in China. Last year, 3 Idiots (a comedy caper starring top actor Aamir Khan) was released in China, and I found it really interesting as it presented a fresh perspective on Indian cinema. As a director, I have had a lot of discussions about Indian films with fellow directors from China and other countries. I am aware that there is also a new generation of independent filmmakers coming out of India.

THR: How do you see the role of India and China in shaping world cinema?

Zhang: Generally, I see both India and China as the next superpowers. But in films, the reality is that Hollywood dominates the global business. Indian and Chinese films still have limited appeal [outside their traditional markets]. The key now is for both countries to really develop their film industries by increasing quality and utilizing their own unique characteristics. I also think that India has an advantage over China because Indians are more conversant in English, and that helps when you are marketing your films worldwide.

THR: Considering your film Hero was promoted in the U.S. by Quentin Tarantino, what is the potential for marketing Asian films in the American market?

Zhang: There is a long way to go for Asian films to crack the American market. It is very hard to get distributors, and there could be various reasons -- maybe it’s a lack of audience interest in Asian films, or maybe there’s a lack of funds. Traditionally, its mostly kung fu movies that have done well, but maybe Asian movies haven’t been good enough to expand the market.

THR: Hollywood studios are getting more active in Asia, and we are seeing various East-West collaborations such as your latest The Flowers of War, starring Christian Bale. How do you see this trend developing further?

Zhang: There has been a growing trend in Asian actors -- both from India and China -- performing in Hollywood. Again, Indian actors have an advantage [over Chinese] because they speak English. These collaborations are great, but it’s a long process. There is an old Chinese saying: You cannot become fat by having just one bite. So East-West collaborations are going to happen but in a gradual way, one step after another.

THR: Another possibility is collaborations happening within Asia with global appeal, the best example of which is Ang Lee directing Life of Pi, which partly filmed in India featuring Indian actors.

Zhang: Of course, the film business in general has become very global. But between India and China, there has been a lack of collaborations, and this should increase. There can be a common subject between both cultures which could inspire a project. For example, one topic I can think of is a well-known Chinese story that happened thousands of years ago about a Chinese monk who came to India to get the Buddhist scripts. He managed to get the scripts and hence spread Buddhism in China. Now this could be a great movie project for India and China to work on together, adding magical, mythical elements along with action, stunts and state-of-the-art 3D effects.

THR: Your films are known for their sheer visual appeal, and India is also considered a very visual country given its diverse cultures. How does India inspire you as a visual artist?

Zhang: I am just amazed at how colorful everything is in India. I just love the huge contrast of colors. Growing up in the north of China, I am used to seeing the contrast of pure colors -- pure red with pure green and so on. I was raised in a city that is located on the ancient Silk Route, so I wonder what kind of deep exchange existed between India and China in history because I find both countries very similar in their use of colors.

THR: What kind of projects are you working on next? And will you consider a project related to India?

Zhang: I am reading a lot of scripts at the moment. I am thinking of some projects which could include collaborations with the U.S. As for India, while my trip here was quite short, it has still left a very deep impression on me. There is a definite possibility to incorporate Indian elements in the future. I would love to make a movie with the color contrasts.

THR: You are known for your historical epics. India has its own rich heritage of mythology and history. Would you look deeper into Indian history as an inspiration even if it's for a Chinese film?

Zhang: An interesting thing happened during my visit here. I have been randomly asking people how old is Indian history in their opinion. And after talking to various people, I didn’t get a common definite answer until a waiter at a restaurant told me that he thought Indian history was about 7,000 years old. In China, whoever you ask, everyone will answer that Chinese history is 5,000 years old. India is obviously more ancient, and through history, India has had a lot of influence on China, especially in Buddhism. If you go to a Buddhist temple, you see a lot of Indian characteristics. I don’t know much about Indian history, but I would love to explore it. And for the right story, it can definitely be a great source of inspiration.

THR: The Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, which you directed, showcased Chinese culture in a way that dazzled the world. How different was it to direct a live event compared with an epic film production?

Zhang: I borrowed a lot from my film experience. Technology and visual aesthetics are the two important elements for such a project. The key to an Opening Ceremony is to be aware that more than being watched as a live event, it is being seen on millions of television sets worldwide. As a film director, I have the advantage of knowing how to use the camera. When the London Olympics Committee visited Beijing in 2007, they asked me for advice, and I only told them one thing: Use a film director. And they listened to me as they chose Danny Boyle -- one of my favorite directors -- and it turned out very well. If India got an opportunity to host the Olympics, I am sure India would do an even better job as it has an older history than China. And India has a rich tradition of song and dance as seen in Bollywood, in addition to having an advantage in technology. I hope I can live long enough to one day see India hosting its Olympics.