Tian Zhuangzhuang: The film world as mafia and commerical models of film


Tian Zhuangzhuang's earlier films, including The Horse Thief (盗马贼), On Hunting Ground (猎场札撒) were well received and put him in the category of "ethnic minority" film directors. However, after making The Blue Kite (蓝风筝), which dealt with the Cultural Revolution era, he was forced to stop making films for ten years. He headed back to the Beijing Film Academy, his Alma mater, where he remains a professor.

Tian's new film, The Warrior and the Wolf (狼灾记) is based on a short story by Japanese writer Yasushi Inoue (井上靖), part of the collection Tunhuang, named after China's western region.

Yasushi Inoue wrote from a deep interest in China and its ancient history, creating fiction that stemmed from his knowledge of the country. He also participated in national level Sino-Japanese events. Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien (侯孝贤) suggested The Warrior and the Wolf to Tian Zhuangzhuang, but it took ten years to complete his thought processes on the film; it wasn't political like The Blue Kite, but it was erotic. The protagonists, a war general of the Warring States period, and an ethnic minority widow, engage in seven days of sexual passion until they turn into wolves.

Time Weekly interviewed Tian and wrote about the film before its release last month and ran an interview with Tian, in which he talked about the commercial aspect of film in China and the film industry as a kind of mafia.

Not only was The Warrior and the Wolf discussed, but so was Tian's position as one of the least commercial directors in China and whether this was undermined by his new film.

The interview is translated below.

Time Weekly: You have constantly talked about your “changing directions” but the actors and the storyline of The Warrior and The Wolf feels a little like a commercial film, how do you see this drop between the production and the audience?
Tian Zhuangzhuang: The ideas of the person making the films and those watching the films are different, the former is about making films in a very professional way. Filmmakers have to keep their individuality as much as possible within the confines of the profession, examples are Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Jia Zhangke’s Still Life, these two films are completely different, but both directors were very professional, so investors will approve, and the market will also approve. If Jia Zhangke used the budget for House of Flying Daggers to make Still Life then it’s obvious that the money is dirty money, but if Zhang Yimou used the money for Still Life to make House of Flying Daggers, I think he'd only be able to make a knock-off version. The profession of an investor is to find the best combination for attracting an audience, complete the film within the budget and then realize anticipations in the market. So Old Jiang (Jiang Zhiqiang 江志强) set out the team and actors for The Warrior and the Wolf from the position of an investor; he has his own ideas.

TW: You once said that “whatever the subject matter, if I do it I can't make it commercial.” Won’t investors get nervous?
Tian: Actually I was too simple in my discussions about commercialism, I was simplifying too much. Commercialism is something that can be professionalized, and this
kind of “professionalization” can have many, many forms. If you dissected Hollywood's commercial films, it depicts emotions, history, and inspiration. If we analyzed carefully it’s easy to see that there aren’t too many commercial factors there, and there isn’t a lot of technical skill, for example, in The Bridges of Madison Country, Pulp Fiction: how could they be counted as commercial films? They’re so against the norm! There aren’t any huge stars, or a structure, but why did so many people watch it? Why did it sell so well?

TW: At the moment we are beginning to copy the commercial model found in Hollywood, for example in Kungfu Cyborg and Sophie’s Revenge.
Tian: Kungfu Cyborg claims a lot from films like Transformers, Spiderman, The Terminator in terms of production, structure, story. But no matter how good it is at claiming this it won’t be a good movie. It isn’t because Chinese filmmakers aren’t good, but because it’s not what the Chinese mainstream markets want. Why? On Transformers, the Transformers cartoon entered the Chinese market twenty years ago, after a while, Transformers toys were released, and an Optimus Prime toy cost around 180 yuan. In the end the China version started to appear… After Transformers brought so much to China, the film arrived after a very long time. In these twenty years it has already concerned so many people, how many people are still chasing after them? A friend of mine is a successful businessman, he’s really into Bumblebee, when he heard the film had Bumblebee he wanted to see Transformers straight away.

TW: Is it because the history of the film market has been short that there are so few films like this one?
Tian: I don’t think the market of Chinese mainland cinema has completely formed, even now. When there isn’t even a bit of law, what kind of market can it have? Isn’t this speaking nonsense? Only after there is law, can the production and selling of products be guaranteed, otherwise you can get a product to halt at any point, you can stop the selling of a product at any point. If there was law, then from the beginning I can register, then produce, and in this process decide what kind of movie to make according to the requirements of the market. And as I go through a quality authentication process I have the right to survive. Instead no-one will, after spending one more ten million yuan, say, “Sorry, it won’t sell,” making everything done in vain: this isn’t reasonable. I think this law thing is too big and we're the ones who can control it, maybe in China you’ll talk about it for a hundred years but still it won’t be clear.

TW: At the same time as accelerating the market-orientation of film, the artistic masters that people recognize as accomplished will become fewer and fewer.
Tian: Intellectuals hope that at some stage a master will appear, they even hope to discover a master, or be in the same generation as a master: this is actually really interesting. Masters are like accountants, the sums which are wrong have to be canceled. When everything is waiting to be improved is when a great master should emerge to tidy the ideas, just as Chairman Mao did. But right we're at a time when a master isn't needed, because everything follows a process. From liberation up until now, if a good maker can appear in this high level process, that’s be very strange. Perhaps you wouldn’t agree, but I think that since the fifties, there have been many good films, but mainland films that can really be passed down, I don’t think there are that many.

TW: In the last few years, have there been any mainland films that you’ve really liked?
Tian: It’s really hard to find, there really hasn’t been any that I’ve thought were really great and could be used in a textbook. There are some that I think are OK, but there are also a lot of impurities in the films.

TW: Do Mandarin films that have won international awards over the past few years count?
Tian: Do you think international film festivals now are the same as before? I think after the 8th session of some festival, everything changes, after it changes president it changes, if you count all the films in the Cannes festival, in every six or seven years something amazing would emerge. You don’t even want to look at Venice or Berlin, it’s all the same. So don’t take film festivals seriously, I think festivals are a stage for popularizing films, it becomes about popularizing a group of films, in reality all the international film festivals are just about making an inventory of the films from each country in the world.

TW: Your Blue Kite, Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine, Zhang Yimou’s To Live, Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu: aren’t these classics?
Tian: They’re still not good enough. A classic film is judged from the point of view of historical value, another is the judged from the story's refinement. Some of these films could be glorious at a certain period in history, but after eight or ten years you might spot some problems. For example, at the time when Yellow Earth was at its most popular, somebody wrote a review and said when he watched it a third time he suddenly denied the beliefs that he had about the film the first time, because the first time he watched it he was completely bowled over by its innovative form, but when he watched it a second and third time, he calmed down and saw many problems to do with the film. Many films in China have a certain potential, but that’s only a “Zisha teapot.” From the realms of philosophy, a timeless “master” films that is noted down in history has not been achieved here yet. Including Xiao Wu, it’s also the “Zisha teapot” of that era, but it’s not the epitome. Wang Xiaoshuai’s The Days, Gu Changwei’s Peacock are the same. The real master films, the power that it gives off, fuck, isn’t something that you can recover from in three or five days, you can’t watch that kind of film all the time, it’s bad for you health. You have to eat well, drink plenty, and then find some time to watch one; you won’t be able to stand it if you watched every day.

TW: A little while ago, Wang Xiaoshuai said that it was as if the whole Sixth Generation has been ditched by the market. What do you think?
Tian: There is a problem of choice here: if the director has chosen to join the hundred million yuan box office club, he needs a good producer and a good system that’s backing him, because they'll have to spend a lot of money to cooperate, then you will float to the top; otherwise choose something that is important to a few people, but once you have chosen then you can’t say to the market, "Why aren’t you showing my films," because you have already abandoned the principles of the market; another situation is that you put one feet here and the other over there. If both these boats are sailing parallel then it can take you along for a while, but if it separates, then you're going to fall. Of course this is largely related to the system for film in China and the film industry, if we’re being more precise then you have to more self-regulated. It’s enough for you to try your best, and not have so many complaints. If in this life you want to live in a nice house, and have clouds of beautiful girls follow you, then use film to make money, and don’t take yourself so seriously. If you don’t want to use money to make money, then don’t complain that no-one will invest in your film. You can find a DV and go film something, you can record you great ideas, after eight or ten years perhaps someone will discover that you were a great master and that we didn’t discover.

TW: It would be impossible for someone to want to make a good film, think about how to attract people to come and see it, and make sure money is still in their pocket.
Tian: I heard a little while back, someone talked about fights at the Shanghai Film Festival, this and that. I'm not blaming anyone but I think everyone chooses their position well. We're already at the top of a mountain, but then think that someone else’s mountain is higher. If you really don’t think yours is very good then take a stroll to theirs, when you come back you’ll see that your mountain has disappeared, or that it’s full of people, and you can never come down again. I don’t like people in the circle being competitive like this, the easiest principle is this: one chopstick is easily broken, but a bunch of chopsticks is not easily broken.

TW: So you chose to go back to university and teach.
Tian: Going to a university was a very personal idea of mine. At that time all the film directors in China, the ones who even had a little influence, didn’t want anything to do with each other, unless they were insulting someone, they didn’t want anything to do with anyone. When they see each other they say hello, and they act really well. In reality they’re not really supportive of one another, and they don’t contact each other very much. Then they live on a mountain themselves, not bothering to improve themselves, supporting a whole group of people, who treat them like God, praising them day and night; this is a bit of a boring gang-formation, it’s like the mafia.

TW: Even though you don't like the film world, but you have helped Wang Xiaoshuai, Jia Zhangke and other Sixth Generation directors to do a lot of work.
Tian: The first reason I went back to teach was I wanted to know what young people were thinking about, because I would be fooling around at university every day with the students; secondly you might get to know some things on the front line of film; thirdly I have been around for so long, I should know the distance between production and teaching. The level in between has become like a ditch, and I have been thinking about whether I could build a bridge.

TW: What is it like being at the front line of teaching?
Tian: Being at the university is really important, as it’s responsible for the popularizing of film, but it's not responsible for the future, especially those studying to be a director. I now hope that there will be more teaching methods, for example they should study planning, assistant director, logging, editing, the software that you need for editing, which means that it would be a problem if you didn’t understand English. I think you should learn these things if you want to be a director, at least when you graduate you’ll have proficiency in a certain skill, and can at least earn some money to live on. If anyone asks if you could keep a log, then you can say that yes, you can, and you know what kind of log sheets Americans use and which ones Chinese people use. You can work, and others will say that they can use you. If you stay in the crew and find some time to write a script, then you might meet a good friend who might get together with you and slowly you might have an opportunity to make it, then you might become a director.

TW: It’s hard nowadays compared to how it used to be and make a film after studying for four years.
Tian: No-one in the world can make a film after studying only for four years, there was only one such example in the Fifth Generation, which cannot be copied. In my time, I made three films in two years, but the society I was living in at that time, I was slicker than my teachers, my social experiences were a lot better than my teachers’, so my judgment on many things, my way of solving them was also more varied and stronger than my teachers. For the fourth generation they need even less time, because they are confused between the emotional and rational, our generation has developed by trying to help support our family, I know how to work, if you gave me a job I can do it really well. If I do it well then next time I’ll still have work to do.

TW: You have to live in a society for a long time before you can become a director?
Tian: I have counted: it takes at least five years. Before Xiaoshuai graduated, Qi Shu wrote to me from Hong Kong to say that the director of The Days was really good, and asked if I could help him. So I asked him to come see me. At the time he was good friends with Lou Ye, and they came to see me together. There was a friend who wanted to make a film, so I asked the two of them to get together a script. They came to live at the hotel at China Film Studios and spent a long time there on the script. When it was ready my friend was bankrupt and didn’t have the money to make the film anymore. If the script was actually realized it would have been a piece of dog shit, completely fabricated. After four or five years, I went back to the China Film Studio, saw that Xiaoshuai was making So Close to Paradise, and Lou Ye was also writing something, afterward he went to Shanghai to make it, and it was called Don't Be Young. That was after five years, what they had was completely different: they had entered and completed a period of internal struggle - you have to be assistant director, do a bit of this and that, then you have the experience to do something. There is, after all, a process.

TW: I remember that in 2002 in an interview you said that in the next five years the Chinese film market was going to get more interesting. It’s been seven years.
Tian: You are a knowledgeable person, if you want some knowledge, you need deep films such as A City of Sadness by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, but thinking about it objectively, I’m not the same as you; I hope that there is a really good film market in China. When we have this market, perhaps we'll have something like A City of Sadness. When I said “a very interesting five years” I meant the period between the two centuries, from adjustments in the leadership of the government, to China’s economy getting stronger, and the gradual revival of Chinese film. Gradually in the Chinese film circles there was a sprout of the market, then afterward during the explosion period in 2005, ticket sells grew by 25% each year, and large scale cinemas started to appear all over the country. In fact, over a dozen years ago we were planning whether we wanted a summer holiday grade of films or a New Year grade, at the beginning of the ‘90s I had already been to different places designing large-scale cinemas.

TW: You’ve done all of this?
Tian: I’ve done everything, including one time I was also initiating a digital center, and talking about why we had to make a high definition Delamu. It wasn’t about wanting to direct the documentary, but more of it was to understand what was going on with digital film. In the end they gave me a Huabiao Award for “Outstanding Digital Film.” It wasn’t because the Film Bureau liked the film itself, but because it had become the standard for digital film, and it was also the first time the government gave me some recognition. Now there is something to talk about with the Film Bureau. The officials only think that my stuff is a bit extreme, but they know my words are kind and I won’t lie to them.

TW: What kind of suggestions have you made to them?
Tian: When Zhao Shigang (赵实刚) first became the head of the Film Bureau, I said to him, whilst you are in office you build student theaters in universities then that's an achievement. The reason is if you can cultivate a huge group of audience from in the university's fourth years, when they graduate all of these university students will become white-collar workers, and they will go and watch films in the cinema. The number will also be doubled because you need to include a boyfriend or a girlfriend. I said that every year SARFT earns six hundred million yuan, which is then given to different crappy organizations; you might as well make a dependable theater. I got the permission for this but couldn’t carry it through. One reason was we got stuck at the source of the films: what films could we use? Use what you call “Outstanding Domestic Films?” I can’t do this even if you killed me. If we wanted to apply for more foreign film quotas, then we also have to consider whether we want to broadcast it commercially. Also another problem is, this might become a really commercial theater. When we began we needed to have 150 theaters simultaneously, without so many we can’t really begin. But with the facilities and the environment, we calculated that the least we would need was 300,000 yuan per cinema. Who has nothing better to do that put 45 million yuan into an initial investment?

TW: When you think of the film market like this then…
Tian: Yes, all things are proceeding in a process of progress and limitation. It’s the same as pushing a huge rock up a mountain: you’ll be very tired, but when you're pushing this rock, perhaps it goes up a bit, then comes down a bit. But in the end it's going up, before you’ve pushed it up to the top of the mountain, the film industry has already disappeared, the whole world’s film industry has already disappeared. But it will become a different form, in your subconscious you have already accepted it, which has transformed from film. So, none of us should worry what the film market will become.

Links and Sources
China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
From 2008
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!
Danwei Archives