Director Jia Zhangke tells all

Soho Xiaobao

Jia Zhangke belongs to the "sixth generation" of Chinese directors. His most recent film, Still Life, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was the subject of a bit of controversy during its mainland release - Zhang Weiping, producer for fifth-generation director Zhang Yimou, accused Jia and his producers of buying off the Venice jury to obtain the Golden Lion.

And earlier this year, Still Life was criticized by SARFT official Zhang Hongsen as an artistic failure that "lacked warmth" and insulted the Chinese people.

In the most recent issue of Soho Xiaobao, a privately-published newsletter for inhabitants of Pan Shiyi's Soho real-estate developments, Jia Zhangke writes of another time that one of his films was targeted for criticism by film makers and film censors alike.

A Record of Confusion

by Jia Zhangke

On 13 January 1999, I was called in for a chat by the Film Bureau. I was 29 that year - I'd just graduated — and I'd hardly ever crossed the threshold of a government agency. My heart was thumping as I traipsed back and forth, and I finally saw the black-on-white sign for the State Administration of Radio Film and TV in a hutong off Dongsi. As I looked it over and prepared to proceed, suddenly seven or eight middle-aged men poured forth from the door. One seemed familiar, so I immediately got up against a wall to look at them. Sure enough, he was a fifth-generation master. I saw him buddy-buddy with those genteel officials, shoulder to shoulder, followed by a crowd under the eaves before the foyer, Such an enchanting classical charm that complemented the aura that has filled the hutongs since the Ming and Qing. This threw me into a daze. The master whom I had imagined to be a heavenly immortal unconcerned with affairs of the flesh looked so at ease before the gate to the halls of officialdom, as if it were the door to his own home.


The crowd dispersed like the soot beneath the wheels of the master's Jeep, and in the stillness of the hutong I cursed myself for my inexperience. Those officials were no monsters of evil visage; they had the air of books about them, like an elderly Zhao Wen.

I entered to find that this was a large complex of buildings. The gatekeeper uttered a short cry, cutting short my interest and adding a few measured of anxiety. I reported why I had come and was pointed in the direction I was to go. I crossed the columns of the walkway and, before entering the door ahead, I raised my hand to knock. Unexpectedly, it was the elderly Zhao Wen who came out. Life is full of coincidences; truly, it was ordained by heaven. It turned out that he was the official who had arranged on the phone to meet me. Lao Zhao was not in a hurry to discuss with me the purpose of my visit; he just led me into the hall. This was the former residence of minister Liu Luoguo; I thought of the antics of Li Baotian and couldn't help chuckling.

As I took a seat in the room, Lao Zhao offered me tea and told me that he had to go out for a moment. He asked me to wait alone for him in the office, and to make myself at home. After he left, my gaze scanned my surroundings like a roving camera lens. On the table, a photocopy caught my eye, for the document appeared to have my name on it. With the excitement of Jiang Gan stealing the letter, I made sure that there was no one around and then picked up the document to have a look. Photocopied on the front was a report from the film pages of Taiwan's Great Daily News (大成报) on my movie Pickpocket. This was unsurprising. What made me catch my breath was the fact that to the side of the main text were a few hand-written lines: Would the bureau leaders please attend to this matter and not let this type of film influence our country's normal foreign cultural interchange.

Intense anger swelled within me after I read this. It was only after I had calmed down that I read the name at the bottom of the report: XX. XX was the associate screenwriter* for that fifth-generation master. I could not believe it - what am I to you? We're both in the same field, so why are you so eager to turn on me? People should be decent, so why speak maliciously about a colleague? Confused, so confused! I returned the document to its original position and sat dumbly in my chair. I heard myself let out a long sigh, and tears welled up in my heart — not for myself, but for the snitch. I thought of the words of Romain Rolland: Today I had for him only infinite compassion and pity! But in this world, I felt that I had an ethical advantage.

Lao Zhao entered, smiling. He said, you know why I've asked you here. I said, I know. Lao Zhao took up a sentencing declaration: From this day forth, Jia Zhangke's right to shoot filmed dramas is suspended. He and I were both silent. Lao Zhao took the informer's letter off the table, hesitated for a long moment, and sighed: We didn't want to punish you, but your colleague, your elder, reported you.

I left the office as if in a dream, my hands clutching the letter of punishment. One man walking through the hutong cut by shadows. How mysterious are men's hearts, how unfathomably complicated. In my confusion I thought, retaining this confusion would be a sort of equanimity.

On his blog, columnist Wang Xiaoshan commented on the identity of Jia's "XX":

Jia Zhangke was quite decent: in his article, he used "XX" in place of the name of the informer. Many people are guessing at who it is, and even more people know. I am not decent, so I'll say it: this "XX" is Zhang Yimou's associate screenwriter Wang Bin, who designed Hero and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.

A CSOnline reporter later contacted Wang Xiaoshan, who said: "The only two fifth-generation masters are Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, but Chen Kaige doesn't use an associate screenwriter, so there's only one choice left."

The CSOnline report notes that several years ago, Jia Zhangke revealed in an interview that he had paid a fine of 10,000 for Pickpocket's infractions and had written up a report admitting that he seriously interfered with China's foreign cultural interchange.

Wang Bin denies that he is "XX". From The Beijing News:

Wang Bin first denied that he was the "XX" mentioned in the article. He said, "When he filmed Pickpocket, Jia Zhangke was an unknown director, and while we were in the same field, there was no competition between us in that realm. He and I are not connected in any way, so I never had any motive to inform on him. I have always believed that reporting secrets is a bad characteristic of the Chinese people. Zhang Yimou's films have always contained portrayals of this poor habit, which I use to discuss this truth." He also put up a request for Jia Zhangke: "I hope that Jia Zhangke can reveal to us all as soon as possible who "XX" is, to publicize the true name of this individual." He said that he would not rule out taking legal action against the columnist [Wang Xiaoshan].

Afterward, the reporter contacted Jia Zhangke's assistant, Ms. Dai, who said that this article was indeed written by Jia, but it was just a casual essay and not carefully targeted. Jia Zhangke himself hopes to leave the matter here, and he does not wish to reply and further.

Note: 文学策划: Wang Bin has filled this role for Zhang Yimou's films since To Live in 1993. What's the corresponding title in Hollywood filmmaking?

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There are currently 4 Comments for Director Jia Zhangke tells all.

Comments on Director Jia Zhangke tells all

Jia Zhangke - 加油!

Maybe 文学策划 could mean something like 'editorial screenwriter'?

interesting question, with an assumption inside...

however accurately one might translate what Wang Bin actually does, there is no Hollywood equivalent for '文学策划'.

this is because hollywood screenwriters (and many other functions on a film) are guild/union-driven.

the credit assigned is typically either 'screenplay by', 'story by', or some variation thereof. but 'associate screenwriter' doesn't exist, and because it has no professional meaning in terms of remuneration or industry recognition, it is not likely to appear even on non-union American pictures.

furthermore, it is not uncommon for several writers (say, a dozen or more) to have worked on a script during its development -- but usually very few will get a credit of any kind.

there are disputes of course. i can think of at least one oscar winning screenplay that was sued by and lost to another screenwriter...

the Chinese industry on the other hand, has its own conventions -- 文学策划 is a perfectly respectable title in its own right.

Jia's article had revealed that the film industry like any other industries in China was being taken advantage of by a few oligarch. In the process of their taking control, the authorities, who were being occupied by their mentality of political correctness, were being used and/or 'bribed' commercially and politically. Thus the two spiritually and administratively formed an interest-alliance which set standards to protect its supermacy and hence ruled the realm for more than a decade.

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