Compiled by: Jack Foley
EARLIER this year, 54-year-old Chinese ‘Fifth Generation’
director Zhang Yimou, hitherto known mainly to arthouse audiences
as the filmmaker behind such richly allegorical but visually opulent
period films as Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, pictures that
frequently caused him problems with the Chinese authorities, broke
through to the mainstream with the stunning adventure epic, Hero.
His new film, House
of Flying Daggers, is another martial arts period piece, and
reunites the director with his ‘ Hero’ star, Ziyi
She plays Mei, a blind dancer, suspected by local police captain,
Leo (played by Hong Kong superstar, Andy Lau) as being the daughter
of local rebel group The Flying Daggers.
Leo’s colleague Jin (Takeshi
Kaneshiro) poses as a warrior and attempts to trick Mei into
leading him to the Flying Daggers’ headquarters, but during
their journey they develop feelings for each other…
In London last September, the director talked about his career
and the genesis of the new film.
Q. It’s been quite a journey for you, as well as
your admirers, from such arthouse-friendly films as Ju Dou and
Raise the Red Lantern to massive mainstream success with martial
arts movies such as Hero and, hopefully, this film. Can you say
something about this journey?
A. The experience of my generation of Chinese filmmakers,
the Fifth Generation, was unique, and it was a very unique point
of history. We were the first batch of people that graduated from
the film academy in China after the Cultural Revolution, so we
all had had those experiences of working in the army, in the factory,
as labourers; very deep experiences.
I was already 28, the eldest in my class, when I began, but there
were many mature students at that time.
Even people still carrying babies attended school, with their
babies, and sometimes they feinted halfway though the afternoon.
So, as you can see, we were very, very enthusiastic. We were like
sponges; we absorbed knowledge eagerly after the ten-year void.
And in the period from 1978-1982, China really opened up and we
were so enthusiastic about culture; not only Chinese culture but
about Western culture as well. I had never seen so many people
queue up in front of an art gallery or a photography exhibition.
At that time there was a very common joke that if you wanted to
win the heart of a girl you had to make sure she saw you reading
some highbrow book by Nietzsche or Freud.
Q. Did that work?
A. Certainly so [laughs]. Our early films had a very
common characteristic: a reflection of Chinese culture and history.
For the first ten years there was this astonishing commonality,
a very homogenised character that was reflected in those films.
Then in the 90s the Fifth Generation began to diversify.
This diversity reflected the multi-tiered way that Chinese society
was developing. During the first ten years when the term Fifth
Generation was coined it seemed a very reasonable way to describe
us. Now there doesn’t seem to be such a common character,
it doesn’t exist. It’s just a term to me nowadays.
Q. To what extent are there still restrictions on Chinese
A. From the very first film I’ve made even up to
today, there is still a censorship system.
Now the younger Sixth Generation are making a lot of underground
films and they too are finding that their films are not allowed
to be shown in China. Every director has this standard that they
have to comply with and can’t go beyond. Whenever a director
gets a script the very first thing he asks is, 'Will the authorities
This is the first thing they would have to think about –
never mind aesthetic considerations! If they know that it will
not be shown, that it will be banned, then there will be no point
making it. If it needs lots of extensive amendment and revision
then it’s just a waste of time and effort.
Q. What made you decide to tackle the martial arts genre?
A. Since I was very young I’d always liked reading
martial arts novels, but in the beginning years of the Fifth Generation,
no one wanted to make these kinds of movies; everyone considered
them as mere entertainment, as too lowbrow, and lacking in any
artistic value. So even though I liked them, I’d never dared
to think of making one.
Then, in the late 90s, there were a lot of changes in the film
industry and people changed the way they think. And partly because
of this social change, I said to myself: "Now I can do what
I like, can I realise my childhood dream?"
Ang Lee said: "Every Chinese male director has at least one
martial arts movie in them."
Q. How did the success of
Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon affect your production?
A. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was being made at the
same time that I was devising Hero. It was a coincidence, but
thanks to the success of Crouching Tiger… the market has
opened up for this type of film and we can get investments and
Q. Bearing in mind you now have a huge western audience,
what new challenges does this throw up?
A. To be honest, I don’t know anything about the
Western market - although Chinese people have always criticized
me for making films for foreigners, which is puzzling, as I don’t
even speak English!
And 'the West' is such a vast, big concept. Which country do they
mean when they say 'the West'?
I have attended the Oscars twice and on both occasions I felt
it had very little to do with me. It was so much about American
aesthetic tastes and their standards.
So when I heard that Hero was shown in more than 1,000 cinemas
across America, I was truly astonished. I didn’t expect
it would receive such a wide acceptance. Now expectations are
very high for House of Flying Daggers and we hope the film will
have similar success.
Q. Can you talk a little about the inspiration for House
of Flying Daggers?
A. As was the case with Hero, I wrote this film in conjunction
with Li Feng, a young novelist who writes stories set in ancient
times but does so in a very new and modern way.
That approach has a lot to do with this film: the concept and
the subject matter are very much in defiance of the orthodox martial
arts movie tradition. Following the success of Hero, I felt much
more accustomed to the genre and braver, so I felt able to take
House of Flying Daggers is much more like a modern romantic story,
in which the characters sacrifice every other thing for love.
Even though we wrote both films at the time this is, thematically,
the opposite of Hero, as the characters in Hero sacrifice love
for their ideals.
It is very rare that a heroine in a traditional Chinese martial
arts movie would give up everything for her love. It used to be
that she has to give up her love for the collective well-being.
In traditional stories the rule of game, the sense of justice
is something that’s indestructible; you can’t deny
that, you mustn’t defy that. But here we have.
Q. This is your third film with Ziyi Zhang. Do you consider
her a muse?
A. She is very talented actress with a huge potential,
and she has progressed so much. When I first worked with her on
The Road Home she needed a lot of coaching in her performance
and that could be very time-consuming.
But in a very short time, she has transformed herself from someone
who could do only simple emotions to someone who can express complex
feelings, and play very complex characters.
Her chief characteristic is that she’s a perfectionist.
I remember when we were making Hero, she watched Maggie Cheung
very intently, and she has clearly learned lessons from the more
experienced actress. She is so forceful now and puts in so much
You can feel the force in her acting now and it’s such a
very pleasant surprise. She is what makes House of Flying Daggers,
the whole film is about her: she represents the younger generation
of Chinese people who will give up everything for love.
Q. Your films always feature strong female leads...
A. The feudal system that has existed in China for 2000
years is very suppressing to women, and so it is very interesting
to see a woman who tries to break the mould. And the women in
my films often personify a deeper allegorical meaning.
Q. House of Flying Daggers, which was photographed by
Xiaoding Zhao, is visually very striking. You were a cinematographer
yourself. Does this cause disagreements on set?
A. Before we start a project I discuss everything in
detail with every single person in the crew, I explain the angle,
the pace, the tempo and the colour, even how to move the camera.
I will express my will in detail.
They know and respect that. It’s an advantage making things
very clear beforehand. On set I delegate, but they are already
aware of my vision and this clarity ensures a smooth filming.