Jia Zhangke is a petite, unassuming man who speaks quickly and briefly. The iconic “sixth-generation” Chinese filmmaker is in India for the first time and is “eager to try out as many curries as possible”. He’s a man of simple pleasures, not unlike the characters in his films, who are constantly seeking a place in a world that is moving a pace faster than them. From his first feature film, Xiao Wu (1997) to Mountains May Depart (2015), Zhangke has explored the lives of Everyman and Everywoman, with a quiet dignity that illuminates the screen. Now, he’s ready to embrace virtual reality to tell a love story. Excerpts from a conversation with Zhangke, who received the award for Excellence in Cinema in international category at the Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival:
Are you surprised to have won the award?
I’m thankful to the festival for this kind of appreciation for my work; especially since it means that the Indian audience has understood and appreciated my films. I would like to point out that India and China have a lot in common, culturally, and so I’m happy my films, with their simple characters, are being understood here.
When I was very young, Raj Kapoor’s Awaara had a great impact on me. He was a fabulous actor, and the movie to me, was about equality; the respect it shows to the poor moved me. As you know, the main character was a thief, and my first film, Xiao Wu, is about a pickpocket. This is my first trip to India and Mumbai, and throughout my way here, I was singing the title song from Awaara (laughs).
Will the award encourage you to explore a China-India co-production?
There are a lot of possibilities for movie tie-ups. I’ve heard of collaborations between Salman Khan and Zhu Zhu (Chinese actress) and it’s a good thing. I’ve watched 3 Idiots; it’s very popular in China. I’m going to produce an adaptation of Journey to the West (based on the 16th century Chinese novel by Wu Cheng’en), where India is the “west”.
But I hope we can have more realistic and contemporary movies about Chinese and Indian society. Development has affected China a lot. East China is progressive but the western part is still not as developed. This leads to many differences in our society; it gives rise to many stories. I am looking for these stories.
How did you finance your films in the beginning of your career, and how did you find an audience, since your work was not sanctioned by the Chinese government?
In those days, we just had universities and coffee shops, where we could approach an audience to watch our film.
Everything was state-owned before the 1990s, and it was very difficult for independent filmmakers before digital filmmaking entered the scene. Shooting became much simpler, and it was also easier to collect content for film. By the end of the ’90s, a lot of young Chinese directors started coming up, who were expressing themselves through their films.
I was lucky because individuals started investing in films. I could contact financiers from Japan and France and collaborate with them. Having said that, A Touch of Sin (2013) is still not screened in China.
Isolation and alienation loom large in your films, often leading to violence. What compels you to look at these themes?
When I set out to make A Touch of Sin, there was a lot of violence in Chinese society, and I wanted to capture that. The characters did not have a channel to express their frustrations, and there was no solution they could arrive at. They ultimately express themselves through violence, when they come to a breaking point.
You’re making a visual reality (VR) film now. What is it about? Do you think VR will give the filmmaker more control over their perspective than before?
It’s a love story about youngsters in China. The world of VR is the framework of the director; he contributes to it
the most. But at the same time, every viewer can relate to the aspects of VR. They have the option to decide what appeals to them, so they’re still communicating with the film. There are many possibilities with VR, I’m still figuring it out.
You’re also starting your own video streaming service, Jia Stream, this year. Is this a response to the kind of government control you faced when you were starting out in your career?
This is more to give a platform to young filmmakers all over the world who don’t have a platform to showcase their work and introduce them to the audience. The main motive is to introduce them to each other. There is a department that curates the best films in the world and prepares a list. Each day, every film on the channel will come with a trailer, a director’s note that explains why they made the film, and then the next day, the movie will be available. It’ll be like an online film festival.