2010/09/01

Once-banned, Jia Zhangke seeks wider audience in China

SHANGHAI, September  1, 2010 (AFP) - China's Jia Zhangke has been hailed abroad as one of the most important living directors but his films have had little impact at home. The once-banned filmmaker hopes the World Expo can help change that.

Jia -- whose award-winning work on life in modern China is characterised by long scenes and lush cinematography -- has recently been living a whirlwind existence.

At 40, he became the youngest recipient of the Leopard of Honour for life achievement at Switzerland's Locarno Film Festival in August. Organisers called him "one of the major revelations of the last two decades and one of the greatest filmmakers working today".

New York's Museum of Modern Art organised a retrospective of his films in March and in May his latest effort -- the documentary "I Wish I Knew", an oral history of Shanghai -- premiered in Cannes. In September, he'll be in Toronto.

But amid the avalanche of foreign acclaim, Jia said one breakthrough stands out for him -- "I Wish I Knew" is being screened at both mainland cinemas and at the Expo in China's most cosmopolitan city for 100 days.

"The movie touches on sensitive issues. Once we deal with these events that influenced Chinese people's destiny, we can start to form collective memories, and we can form a common sense of Chinese society," Jia said in an interview.

"By the end of October, when Expo is over, at least 200,000 people will have seen the film. This is a very good opportunity."

Few Chinese saw his gritty first film "Pickpocket", which led censors to slap Jia with a lifetime ban at age 30 for portraying the country in an unflattering light.

But he continued his work in secret, becoming a leader of China's "sixth generation" of filmmakers, making independent features outside the state system.

International fame earned Jia another chance -- the ban was rescinded in 2004 when censors approved his film "The World", his first to be distributed to mainland cinemas.

He pushed boundaries with his 2006 "Still Life" -- set amidst the demolition for the construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam -- which won top prize at the Venice Film Festival.

But he fanned fears he had lost his indie credibility last year by  withdrawing from the Melbourne International Film Festival to avoid appearing with Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uighur leader branded a separatist by Beijing.

The state-owned Shanghai Film Group Corp partly funded "I Wish I Knew", which focuses on the parts of Shanghai being rubbed out by the gleaming modern buildings that government-sponsored films usually spotlight.

Even now that he is operating within the system, Jia is still seen as unpredictable.

"I Wish I Knew" was due to debut in China at June's Shanghai International Film Festival but was pulled at the last minute because much of the dialogue was in local dialect and the required Chinese subtitles were not ready.

"The next day, lots of (Chinese) media reported that the movie may have been banned," he said, chuckling.

He dismisses comparisons to Zhang Yimou, another former outsider who found official favour by working on the Beijing Olympics, which, like Expo, was seen as a projection of China's growing global clout.

"This movie is not made for Expo. It is not made to serve Expo," Jia said.

"I Wish I Knew" tackles a theme that is present in much of Jia's work -- global forces turning individuals' lives upside down.

He relies on the power of the words of his 18 subjects -- from painter Chen Danqing, 57, who describes life during the Cultural Revolution, to 28-year-old author, blogger and race car driver Han Han -- to explore twists in China's history.

His slow narrative pace contrasts with his personality, Jia said, describing himself as a bundle of energy who was obsessed with breakdancing as a teen.

In his films, he forces himself to slow down in response to China's rapid transformation, he said.
"When you are observing a fast-changing society, you need to pay full attention," he said.

After a decade of fly-on-the-wall films -- and criticising others for escaping into the past -- Jia's next project is a martial arts epic with Hong Kong director Johnnie To set a century ago.

"I used to think China's modernising reforms started in 1978, but then I realised ever since the late Qing Dynasty, China has been chasing and longing for modernisation," he said.