June 21st, 2019
Zhao Tao opens up on acting technique,
women in cinema in showcase interview
By Rebecca Davis, Variety
Zhao Tao is one of the most recognizable faces in Chinese art cinema thanks to her longtime collaboration with director Jia Zhangke, whom she married in 2012. From 2000’s Platform to last year’s Ash is Purest White, her work has plumbed the moral depths of modern China and brought stories of the country’s drastic change to global audiences.
Though often described as Jia’s “muse,” it’s a term that she is uncomfortable with. “I don’t accept it or reject it. It appeared, and I’ve heard it,” she shrugged. “It isn’t a term that I’ve come up with for myself — it’s one the media has come up with for our relationship.”
Currently, she is at work as a producer on a new literary documentary about the works of Chinese writers Yu Hua and Jia Pingwa that her husband began shooting in May to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Zhao was refreshingly candid about the situation facing women in the Chinese film industry in a Kering Women in Motion talk on the sidelines of the Shanghai International Film Festival.
Variety: You often portray strong female characters trying to make their way in a man’s world. How do you prepare for these roles?
Zhao: When I receive a role, it’s really script that gives me the basis I need to envision the character. I don’t think directly about how to make her a strong one. My method is that I get a script and read it through many times, writing down in great detail the feelings it evokes each time. I then love to write a biography for the character. With Qiaoqiao [from “Ash is Purest White”] for example, I began with her kindergarten years. I even knew the exact name and address of her kindergarten and middle school, because I’m familiar with Datong [where it’s set]. I went on to write when she met her first boyfriend, what kinds of fights they had, when she graduated from college, what problems she faced — all the way up until she’s 60. In that process, I found the character was telling me that step by step she had transformed from a very simple girl to a very strong woman.
How do you collaborate with Jia Zhangke? How involved are you in developing your characters?
After so many years of collaboration, we have an unspoken agreement that I won’t interfere with his creative process or put forward any demands. We don’t discuss anything during the script development phase, and only talk once he’s communicated with his creative team and decided that I’ll play the role. If he doesn’t give it to me, I would not ask about it: I’m not dead-set on playing anything, because it’s not important that I’m in it — for us what’s most important is the values our films depict.
What kinds of female characters resonate with Chinese audiences? You’ve shot a couple of foreign films — is it different from what resonates in the West?
Chinese audiences need characters that suit their sensibilities and act in ways that line up with how they’d manage emotions. An example that made a particular impression on me was in Italy on the set of Shun Li and the Poet. The director needed me to express extreme joy at being reunited with my child and wanted me to go into the sea for a swim. I said, I can do it, but from a Chinese woman’s point of view, I don’t think she would deal with happiness that way, putting on a swimsuit for a swim. He thought about it for a long time, because he really wanted that swim, but in the end, we decided that when I was at my happiest, I could instead write my dad a letter.
No matter whether my character is in China or Italy, Fenyang or Beijing, I think the problems people encounter, especially women, remain the same. We women will certainly face first loves, and the responsibility of caring for family, for children — there’s no nationality to it. Everyone is the same, but women’s burdens and responsibilities are very much the same.
What do you bring to your craft now as a more mature, experienced actress that you couldn’t at a younger age?
When I first starred in Platform in my early 20s, I didn’t have a script, so I just did my best to follow the story the director explained to me before every scene. Back then, I was acting. Now after so many years, after I get the script, analyze it and write my detailed backstory, when I’m in the midst of the pleasure of creation, I feel I no longer need to act. Instead, I feel I should be living this character.
What challenge does age pose to Chinese actresses?
It’s a big obstacle. Our current standards of beauty here only appreciate pretty girls in their early 20s, and after Chinese actresses reach a certain age, the roles they get naturally fall into the categories of mothers, grandmas and elders. But it’s actually only by the time you’re 40 that you’ve accumulated a wealth of work experience. At that point, you could not just play a mother or a lawyer but all sorts of crossover roles, because what audiences are looking at is the richness of your inner emotions, and that’s something that only accumulates over time.
You’re the only female member of the jury for the main competition. Why is there under-representation of women in such positions?
This is something we really need to talk about. I think that out of respect for women and their independence, we must judge them and their work by the same standards we use for men. So, in the Shanghai Festival, we can be happy to see that there are two works by female directors. I believe in Chinese cinema, and I believe that Chinese women can shoot exquisite movies.
What inspires you?
In life I’m actually not someone who really likes to socialize. I’m really quiet. Especially when we’re in the midst of a shoot, I like to just stand or sit in one place, to enter an environment and observe the people in the place where I’m shooting — what kinds of lives they lead, how they eat and play and live. I really like to observe other people. I’ve realized over so many years of observation that each role I play is inseparable from the real problems people are facing in life — emotional dilemmas, family or money troubles. For me, what’s important in cinema is not just telling a story. What’s more important is to use the story as a vehicle to see the person it’s about, and through that person, witness the changes of an entire era.
Turkish Director Ceylan’s Creative Processes Driven by Instinct
By Joyce Xu
With the unique melancholy, artistic renderings and a sharp observation for character portraits, Nubri Bilge Ceylan, a Turkish Director, confessed with a laughter, “My works are instinctive and reflective. I don’t know how to make others.”
Ceylan, head of Jury for the 22nd Shanghai International Film Festival, was addressing to an inspired group of young filmmakers at the Masterclass that there is a Conversation with Nubri Bilge Ceylan at the Crowne Hotel Shanghai.
Photography was a hobby for Ceylan when he was young. But he graduated professionally as an engineer, and found himself lost on that path soon. He pursued photography, but the static form was not enough to meet his needs. Literature and cinema became the next obvious choices for his storytelling.
As a self-described anti-socialist, Ceylan believed he had no future in literature but was scared to get involved with film.
“That fear makes you film something you know very well,” he recalled, and the safety of familiarity led to his first film, “Cocoon,” with his parents as actors and his hometown as the location and scenery.
As a mature director, Ceylan owed his progress to his chance and spontaneity. He doesn’t believe that inspiration and ideas could be sought after.
“I didn’t search for them, but they came to me somehow. I have a lot of time to wait for ideas.” he explained.
He waved his hands in the air to describe a metaphor for his creative conjuring. “It’s like drops of water coming together … sometimes they are collected and make streams.” The drops are ideas, and the stream are his films.
Ceylan plays the most major role in creating his films, directing, producing, and writing. And he tries to capture life through all the production processes..
“Life is surprising and surreal, and real life is more surreal than film. We always have to add something new,” he said when talking about his film philosophy.
Being more and more confidence, Ceylan said he was more willing to portray complex characters to resemble life these days.
“I was so rigid before, but now I work with others on the scripts,” he told about the creative process of cooperation with his wife and a third person, which enriched his film with the diverse perspectives.
Ceylan admitted that he shot a lot of scenes in the filming process, of which sometimes the same scene was filled with opposite emotions. “Our behaviors are strange; we attempt to hide them sometimes. We want to show it, but we can’t,” he said like this when he talked about observing characters.
“Style is a director’s language. I know the details of Turkey very well, so I always shoot there,” he told about his attitude towards to films and his unwavering love fro his country. It is noted in silence that he has enjoyed many films from this year’s nominations.
Celebrities Attend Film Festival
By Joyce Xu
A number of new movies are debuting at the 22nd Shanghai International Film Festival which opened over the weekend.
Among them are “Shanghai Fortress,” “The Climbers” and “SkyFire.”
A total of 3,964 films from 112 countries have registered for the festival, which coincides with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, an important theme.
Directed by Teng Huatao, “Shanghai Fortress” is expected to follow the success of “The Wandering Earth” earlier this year.
Based on a novel by Jiang Nan and starring Lu Han and Shu Qi, “Shanghai Fortress” tells the of mankind’s joint efforts to fight alien invaders, set in the city of Shanghai.
“The Climbers” is about the first Chinese mountaineers to conquer the world’s highest peak, Mount Qomolangma. It will hit cinemas across China on September 30. Many of its scenes were shot on locations on Qomolangma.
The film stars Wu Jing, Zhang Ziyi, Jackie Chan and Hu Ge.
Li Shaohong showed up with her latest offering “Liberation,” a tribute to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The war epic revolves around a group of ordinary people who witness the liberation of Tianjin in 1949.
From a unique perspective, the film explores humanity, human relationships and the destiny of ordinary people in wartime. Architecture of old Tianjin was recreated for the shooting.
The crew of big-budget disaster movie “SkyFire,” featuring a volcanic eruption, showed up to promote the film which features around 2,300 special effects shots.
Explosives used in shooting the explosion scenes had a total weight of more than 500 kilograms.
“China is one of the few nations that cinema is really alive, still,” said Rajkumar Hirani, film director and screenwriter from India. “I couldn’t believe that sometimes my films do better here than in India. The Chinese people really love their cinema and film.”
Despite a growing box office, Ren Zhonglun, chairman of Shanghai Film Group, emphasized the importance of quality over quantity.
In 2018, box office in China reached 60.9 billion yuan (US$8.8 billion), making the country the second-biggest movie market.
Jiang Ping, general manager of the China Film Group, said the industry has reached a new high and the next few years are predicted to be revolutionary.
Edward Cheng, vice president of Tencent, said it is the perfect time for the industry to build a strong foundation and nurture young talent.
Filmmakers want to inspire people’s lives and make films with a distinct Chinese cultural undertone.
With an initial investment of 1 billion yuan, the Shanghai Film Fund was also set up during the film fest to incubate promising film projects and boost the city's film industry.
Taiwan cinema stars at film festival
By Joyce Xu
Filmmakers from Taiwan shared their new productions at the ongoing 22nd Shanghai International Film Festival.
It took director Shen Ko-shang nine years to make the documentary “Love Talk.” He spent seven years following the relationships of eight newlywed couples. The film tries to explore the meaning of marriage and life.
Documentary “A Decision” looks at patients facing death.
Feature film “Stand By Me” is a romantic comedy about campus love.
This year, a total of 76 Taiwan films and projects in various genres are seeking possibilities for distribution and cooperation. Among them are suspense film “49 Days,” drama “Because of You” and animated film “Deus ex Baryon.”
“Full Cover,” a heart-warming drama film by Canadian Chinese director Fan Qing, was screened on Monday.
Starring Lin Peng and Li Dongxue, the realistic film is about a village woman’s growth and redemption in face of a series of challenges.
A forum on the future of the film industry in the Yangtze River Delta region was also held.
Film cooperation will be strengthened in technology, education, distribution and public screening of art-house movies.
More technical professionals of high-end cinema will be nurtured through regular training to introduce advanced film projection technology.