'The Current State of Chinese Film is Very Dire'
Web-only interview with director Jin Chen
By STEPHEN SHORT
October 26, 2000
Web posted at 7:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 7:00 a.m. EDT
TIME: You're very young and very handsome, and you're a rebel, yes?
Jin: I am very young. I am part of the generation that is thought of as following Feng Xiaogang and directors his age. [Jin is 30 and Feng is 42]. At school, I originally studied theatre directing and often did filming exercises that were quite rebellious. But now that I direct films for the general market, my work is much more restrained. Have you heard of a Chinese phrase "the golden mean" [a Confucian concept about balance and order and avoiding extremism]? I think this is the state of Chinese film right now -- taking the middle path and not addressing any political problems. What I basically wanted to do -- and couldn't do completely -- was to make films that had absolutely nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with socialism, nothing to do with the Communist Party. What I mostly wanted to show was the different kinds of lives that people have in China. That's all. In reality, everyone knows that our country has a lot of problems. But personally, I'm not interested in producing anything political. I'm more interested in communicating with people's hearts and spirits. I want to talk about issues of the heart, not issues of society.
Jin: An English director called David Lean. He's the director I most admire and the one who has left me the deepest impression.
TIME: Anyone else?
Jin: Of course, there are many modern American directors [that I admire]. Stephen Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino, for example. But the major one is definitely David Lean. I remember very clearly, I was eight when I saw my first Lean film, Oliver Twist. That movie made an extremely deep impression on me.
TIME: Some parts of your movie had the same kind of feeling as a Lean film, so I think you already have the potential [to produce a great film].
Jin: (laughs) Maybe someday. But the current state of Chinese film is very dire. For example, the government forces directors to seek funding for their projects, as though China were a completely capitalist society. But then, when it comes to managing directors, the government doesn't see film as an art form, they see it as a way to practice an ideology. That is really tragic.
Jin: These huge companies have [had] a great influence on my generation. When these companies first came to China, it appeared as if they were just another type of restaurant or store. However, in reality, these foreign companies gave us an opportunity to experience a different culture, to experience foreign concepts. I think this influence is 90% good. It helps us understand another culture, one that is very beautiful. It doesn't matter whether America is really so wonderful or not, but it gives young people an impetus to pursue a rich, beautiful life. It's just like the concept of heaven in a religion; it doesn't matter if heaven really exists, but it drives people to pursue their ideals. The negative effect these companies have had is that they have been more successful than local Chinese businesses.
TIME: Has this exposure to all things Western caused you to lose any of your own Chinese identity or values? Do you feel any kind of self-contradiction?
Jin: Chinese society stresses the importance of the entire country, the entire society, as opposed to the individual. The most important thing I've learned from the influx of Western companies is that self-thought and self-development is very important. This idea of the individual helped me to direct my movies and develop my films around the concept that it is people's unique characters, each person's unique life, that is most important. So, this type of contradiction exists, but it is a good thing, forcing us to emphasize the importance of people's inner feelings.
TIME: Do you use the Internet?
Jin: I used to go on-line all the time, from 5 p.m. right through until the morning --18 hours in a row! I did this everyday, all night. I read all the news, especially news about mainland China that we couldn't find because it was not allowed, or had been censored. But now I don't go online often, because the Web has come to the attention of the government and now they censor it. The government is scared; they don't want people to have this information. On the surface, the government seems very open, as though they can accept everything, but in reality the government is very scared. Maybe it's the idea -- and I've talked with my friends about this -- of individual thought and freedom that it's worried about. Right now Beijing is quite developed as a city. In this way it's very open, but in other ways the government doesn't have long-term vision. This is really a great pity. This disappoints us a lot, especially those of us who used to spend so much time online with access to all that information.
TIME: How much has Japanese culture -- and the country's strange entertainment industry -- influenced you?
Jin: Several hundred years ago China used to influence Japan, but now it's the other way around. New Japanese and Korean movies have great influence in China. Only these two countries' movies have higher box-office receipts than American movies in the PRC. Have you seen my movie? You will see that it has been influenced a great deal by Japan.
TIME: Whom do you consider the two most exciting Chinese actors?
Jin: If I had to choose an actress I would say Zhou Xun, from the film 'Suzhou River.' For an actor I would say Wang Zhiwen from 'The Emperor and the Assassin.'
TIME: Do you know Zhang Ziyi?
Jin: (makes a face)
TIME: No, you don't like her? Why not?
Jin: (picks up a flower vase) I think acting should be natural, springing from the person's natural character. If you like the person, you should like her acting. But Zhang's natural character and her acting seem to present two totally different characters.
TIME: But do you think she will be successful?
Jin: Maybe in a little while.
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