Zhang Yimou Interviewed – ‘Curse of the Golden Flower’

     December 20, 2006

It’salways a little difficult to do an interview when there is a translator in theroom. Not only due to the language barrier, but due to spending half your time waitingfor the translator to repeat your question back to the person you’reinterviewing. So if you’re given twenty minutes, it’s really more like ten.

ThankfullyZhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) had plenty oftime to talk about his newest work which is about to open here in the states, Curse of the Golden Flower.

Curse is not your typical Asian export.Most of the Asian films that appear stateside are usually more action oriented,and while this film has plenty of that, it’s more focused on the inner workingsof an imperial family and what’s really going on behind the scenes. Chow YunFat plays the Emperor and Gong Li plays his wife, the Empress.

The filmspends a great deal of time showing things that we normally don’t get to see inan “action film” like how the emperors palace really worked and something whichI found fascinating to view – the unbelievable opulence that the rulers had allaround them in their daily lives. The film really does an amazing job ofcapturing the lifestyle of the leaders in the Tang Dynasty of 10th CenturyChina.And while I could go on and on about the visuals and costumes I would justrecommend you watch the trailer so you can see what I’m talking about. They’re onthe level of Lord of the Rings.

Theinterview was done in roundtable form but there were only four of us, and everyoneasked great questions.

While Inormally recommend downloading the audio of an interview, in this case youmight want to just read the transcript as I didn’t cut out the Chinese that isspoken back and forth. But if you can speak Chinese, you’ll really love thedownload. If you want to listen to Zhang Yimou then click here, otherwise hereis the interview.

Andremember Curse of the Golden Floweropens this Friday.

Question:The scale of this movie is overwhelming I think to the audience the brillianceof the color and also the scope of the environment where the story is takingplace in. How do you choose to use that as a character at that scale?

Zhang Yimou: The film actually has its origin with a early modern drama calledThunderstorm which is set during the 20’s and 30’s. This is a very famous work that even dramaticart students in Chinaare required to perform as part of their repertoire. So it’s almost a household name type of play.Everybody knows the story. Several yearsago I decided I wanted to make a film based on this. But the twist is I wantedto take this modern drama and set it the Tung Dynasty which has what you referredto as this kind of massive scale, this opulent, splendid backdrop with which toplace the story. The reason I did that was that the original story is really acritique of futile society and the way it twist and impresses human naturebeneath the weight of its tradition. Ithought by taking that theme and placing it in the Tung Dynasty where you haveall this riches and splendid visual kind of access and the power and theluxury. All it does is add to the impressive feeling of this story because itcreates this very strong dichotomy between the beauty of the inside and theinner darkness that’s going on within the story, within this family.

Where didthey shoot it and did they do a lot of dressing? Obviously the interiors aredressed but for example that big circular staircase. Is that art department orjust questions like that?

Zhang Yimou: So the film was primarily filmed, the exteriors where we shotHero. And at the time we were shootingHero they were building a new studio there an external palace and it wassupposed to be a one-to-one scale of the Forbidden City,a massive palace they were building. I remember when we were shooting Hero andI said to one of the guys who worked there, “what are you building thisfor” he said “for this movie”. I said “who can use somethingso large, this is immense”. He said”I don’t know we’re just building it”. In the end it turned out itwas too immense because when it was finished two years later nobody usedit. The scale was too awesome and nobodyknew what to do with such a huge place.It was about that time that I finished the screenplay for this currentfilm. I decided we should use it. That’show we got that location in Hung Dien and once we had the location we took iteven further. We went and bought tens of thousands of chrysanthemums. Most ofthem are real chrysanthemums and some are artificial made from silk. We coveredthe entire square in this palace with these chrysanthemums. It was really ahuge effort to do that and then the interior shots were shot in the studio in Beijing.

Becausethis is so brand and so beautiful, so creative and everything, I was just wonderingwhere does he get his creative fuel from?What sort of things inspire him or where does this vision come from?

Zhang Yimou: I’m not sure where my inspiration comes from. It’s hard to pinpoint just one place. I’ve always had a very strong attachment andsensitivity to these aspects of visuality especially colors. In several of myfilms colors are so important. I think stylisticallythese all become a major voice in the dramatic world that you keep seeing recurringover and over again. As for this particularfilm, I think a lot of inspiration just came from the setting of the Tung Dynastyhad read a lot of historical books about the history of the Tung, the history,the culture, literature, art and we looked at a lot of Tung painting. All ofthat gave us a great amount of inspiration. Especially the fact that we weresetting this film, not in a public house, this isn’t about emperors sending outedicts to generals and such. It’s about the inner palace where the emperorlives with the concubines and a few eunuchs and a very private world. This isone of the first films that deals with that private world of the inner palace.That was incredibly inspiring, getting to deal with that aspect of the imperiallife. One thing I wanted to make surewas in the middle of this splendor the details never got lost. We always wentto great extent to pay special attention to all the details. I’ll give you one very clear example duringthe big battle sequence that takes place as the palace is being stormed. Thatwas shot over the course of 20 days or actually 20 nights. We shot from sunsetall the way until dawn the next day 20 consecutive days. For the first time inmy career what I actually did was split my crew up into 2 units. A unit and Bunit. A was responsible for taking allthe macro shots and getting all the big battle sequences mostly longshots. And B, I gave them about 20 soldiers,these were all extras from the People’s Liberation Army, and they were onlyshooting close-ups, of details, of chrysanthemums and swords, of carnage on theground and that’s how we worked every day for 20 days with group A on the macroshots and the other one really talking into account the details. Then in theend we edited them together and that’s the kind of balance we tried to maintainthought the film.

Whatabout reuniting with Gong Li and how has she changed as an actress over thepast 10 years? Or has she changed at all?How have you changed as a film maker?

Zhang Yimou: When I decided to cast this film and thought about the role of the empress,there was just one person that came to mind and that was Gong Li. I thought she was the perfect choice. Icouldn’t think of anyone else I’d rather have play that role. There was no other choice. She was it.I was so happy that she was willing to take on this role. Working with her again after all these years,I really feel she’s matured incredibly as an actress. She has this newemotional reservoir she’s brought to the table this time. She’s also willing to explore differentaspects of the character that in the past I just hadn’t seen. She really broughta whole new sensibility to this character. At the same time overall herapproach to film making has changed as well. In the past she’d basically justplay the role and she didn’t raise too many questions. She always did awonderful job, but it was pretty straightforward. This time she paid incredibleattention to the characterization. Not just her own character but othercharacters, to the screenplay, to the overall cinematic vision. She gave me advice about dialogue. She wasvery much more hands on than she had ever been in the past. That’s just a signof her maturity and where’s she is now as an actress and it was wonderful towork with her.

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How openare you to those ideas coming from people on your crew or in your cast? Sometimes we hear directors have a very clearvision and they want it their way and sometimes we hear directors are verydemocratic and ask for ideas. Where doesyour process fit?

Zhang Yimou: I think throughout my cinematic career I’ve always been a rather democraticdirector and I’m very open to actors giving me feedback about their roles theirlines and even more so about other characters.If they tell me some line that another character has in the script isn’tquite right, I’m always very open to that.I enjoy this very collaborative form of filmmaking. Having wants and the dialogs, not just withthe actors but with my crew, the cinematographer, with production designers,the art designer. I think it’s throughthese different prospectives that we really can make progress and really createsomething very beautiful. Of course, I don’t just accept all of thesewholeheartedly. I make my own decisions,whether it works for the film, sometimes I’ll have the same conversation with 3other people and everybody seems to be on the same page we’ll go with it, butif its one lone voice and everyone else seems to think the film should go in adifferent direction, I take that into consideration as well. I think I’m pretty open to this collaborativetype of filmmaking.

There’s aquote here about your desire to make a movie about your experiences during theCultural Revolution. I’m curious as towhat are some of those experiences and can you talk a little bit about theimmediate years after Mao when you guys were beginning the 5th generation. Wasthere fear? Any trepidation about thesubjects you might cover and how difficult was it test some of those movies?

Zhang Yimou: The Cultural Revolution was an extremely important era for me. Thatbasically was my childhood from the years of 16 to 26. For me those 10 years had an incredible effecton my life. The first 3 years I spent in the countryside with the peasants, thelatter 7 years I spent working in a factory.That was a time where I experienced so many things. I met so many people,and so many stories. Not just my story, but stories that came from otherpeople. I’d love to tell those storiesone day. That’s something I’m waiting for.Unfortunately the climate in Chinaright now is such that it’s still not completely open to telling these stories,especially about the Cultural Revolution. There’s still a taboo about that. I reallyhope in the future things will thaw even further and I’ll be able to tell a lotof these stories. But for now I’m just waiting for the right time. As for afterthe Cultural Revolution, when I first went into the Beijing Film Academy. That was anincredible era. That was during Dung Chou Ping’s open door policy. Everythingseemed possible and everything was just a vibrant time with all kinds of foreignliterature, movies, just flooding into the country. All kinds of native Chinese things that hadbeen banned. All of a sudden they wereback again. It was a very exciting intellectualtime for us. I remember how excited Iwas about seeing so many foreign films that we had never seen before. Iremember hearing about a certain foreign film that had just come in and theywere going to be screening it. We were justshaking with excitement about the prospect of going in. I remember taking noteswhen we were watching it and just sucking in everything. I felt like a spongejust talking in everything around me. That was a grand time for us. It was notjust a time to learn about cinema but to learn about life.

Many ofyour films, in fact I think all of them include the relationship between menand women as the central element. Didyou see that as a political relationship?Is it metaphor for politics? Isit a way for you to make statements about society in general by focusing on anindividual relationship?

Zhang Yimou: I’m not sure how political those relationships are really. A lot of them are really tragic tales ofwomen who are oppressed and struggling under the shadow of futile society. Ithink most recent films is another example of that. It’s really that struggle that resistanceagainst the darker aspects of Chinese futile society that I m trying toexpress.


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