By Paolo Bertolin
is a respected author of prize-winning novels and short stories in his native land of China. A mainlander of Sino-Korean descent, Zhang ventured into filmmaking first as a screenplay writer and then as a director, completing his first short film in 2001.
"Eleven" was invited to several international film festivals, among them Venice, Toronto and Pusan, and paved the way to Zhang's first feature, "Tang Poetry" (2004), an intimate film whose style was influenced by the metrics of Tang dynasty poetry. Produced during the SARS epidemic, the film was financed with Korean capital and had a limited run in Seoul earlier this year.
Zhang's second feature "Grain in Ear
" screened in Cannes Film Festival at the Semaine de la Critique, and won wide respect from international critics. Once again the film is a Sino-Korean co-production and the story focuses on a single mother of Korean ethnicity making her living by selling kimchi on the streets of a small town in Northern China.
The following is an excerpt of an interview with director Zhang that took place last week at the 41st Pesaro Film Festival in Italy, where a wide selection of recent Korean films and a full retrospective of Jang Sun-woo
Question: How did you start making films?
Answer: Before devoting myself to filmmaking I was a writer. Actually, before the year 2000, I was not interested at all in film. Then a director, who's a friend of mine, and whose name I don't want to mention here, asked me to write a screenplay with him. We did it and he submitted the script to the Beijing Film Bureau, but this first draft was rejected.
He asked me then to work on a second draft in order for the project to be green-lighted, but he also promised me that once he'd have the authorization to make the film, he would actually shoot the first draft.
Agreeing on that we worked on this second version of the script, which was approved by the Film Bureau, but then I discovered my friend did not keep his promise and actually shoot this second version not to incur in censorship or banning of the film. I was mad at him, so one night, when we were out drinking together, I said to him that rather than writing for him again I would have made my own film. He dismissed my claim saying making films was not easy and required the due training, but I challenged him on that, and swore he would have been the first to see my film when completed.
The morning next, once sober, I decided to start working on my own project. Although it was obviously difficult for me I met with the support of, among others, Lee Chang-dong
, who is a good friend of mine. I ended up completing a short film called "Eleven". As promised, the first person I showed it was my friend the director, who was impressed and had to admit I achieved an excellent result. The short film was even invited to Venice Film Festival, and starting from then I got involved into filmmaking.
Q: How did you come to know Lee Chang-dong
A: Before becoming a filmmaker Lee was a writer like me, and I had the chance to meet him in China at a writers' conference, where we became good friends. He has been very supportive towards my attempts at filmmaking.
Q: When you started your career as filmmaker were you influenced by any specific author or film?
A: I didn't know much about cinema before the year 2000, but then I started watching as many films as I could through VCDs and DVDs. I tried to watch everything, from Tarkovsky to Chinese directors, to learn as much as I could.
When I discovered the work of Robert Bresson I really learned what a good film was. A good film is one that totally involves you into it with your eyes, ears and all senses. With a bad film instead you can even answer the phone, or go to the restroom while watching it, and lose nothing of it.
Watching a good film is like falling in love, because it totally absorbs you.
Q: Can you Tell Me Something
about your first feature film, "Tang Poetry", a Korean production which was released earlier this year in Seoul?
A: In 2003, when the SARS epidemic was striking, the streets of Beijing were totally deserted, and everyone was staying at home. Loneliness was afflicting everyone, and the only safe way of communicating with other people were telephone calls. I used to go out drinking with the cinematographer and sound technician of my films, and there we had an idea of making a feature film based on the feeling of loneliness.
Since all shops, restaurants and public venues were closed and no external shooting was allowed, we decided to shoot the film in interiors. "Tang Poetry" was just shot in a room, a corridor and an elevator to convey the feeling of loneliness and claustrophobia. The formal pattern of the film follows the rules of Tang poems that prescribe verses of only seven or five characters; this is mirrored by the pattern of use of the three different location in the film.
The film was shot without official permit from Beijing Film Bureau, and the budget was offered by a Korean company. For reasons of mere promotion the Korean company actually declared higher figures than the budget we really spent, but apparently that was just for publicity.
Q: How was it that you came to be funded by Korean investors?
A: At that precise moment in China nobody was willing to produce films. Korea is the closest country, and I have friends there, plus many Chinese directors these days tend to work on post-production abroad, as in Australia or France, for the better facilities offered there. I shot my film in Beijing but then editing and sound mixing were done in Korea.
Q: What about your new film, "Grain in Ear
", once again a Sino-Korean co-production, which screened in Cannes meeting with positive response from international critics?
A: After having completed a short and a feature film without having a screenplay, I was suggested to raise my ambition and try to write a script. I then did that, and came up with the screenplay for "Grain in Ear
". I submitted my work to the Pusan Promotion Plan (PPP), and won a grant. I shot the film in an area surrounding Beijing, but my intention was not to create a thoroughly identifiable place.
I would say my film is set in a non-identified small town in Northern China equally blighted by industrial and agricultural depression. And, as displayed by the official checking people's temperature at the railway station, the times are still those of the SARS fear.
Q: The film is centered on the sad story of a Sino-Korean woman who sells kimchi on the side of the street and who raises her child alone. Why did you chose to tell the story of a Korean woman in China and does this story bear any resemblance to those of people you know or met?
A: I am a Sino-Korean, too. You can find these women selling kimchi along the roads all over China, especially in the North. When you see them, you know they're Korean, and you know they live on the lower edge of society.
In China, Koreans are about 2,000,000, a sizable number, yet a small minority if compared to the whole Chinese population. Usually they're not physically recognizable, but those women who sell kimchi are easily identifiable as belonging to the Korean minority.
As for the vicissitudes of my character, I haven't taken inspiration from one precise story, but just took details or episodes from many bitter realities I might have come in contact with.
Q: After some dramatic vicissitudes the protagonist of the film escapes through the railway station towards an open field. What does this ending mean to you?
A: I don't really know what destiny will bring to the protagonist. What it is clear is that she is leaving one space, one that is full of bad experiences and memories, and she is entering a new, broad and flat space that looks like an open field.
What I care most, though, is that when the image disappears and the credits start rolling, audiences should pay attention to the sound and notice that something is still going on. Most people leave the screening as soon as the credits start, so they lose a key detail: while at first the sound of the woman's steps is growing distant, at once it starts getting closer.
Q: What about the woman's insistence on having her child learning Korean?
A: The mother does not want her child to lose his roots, his Korean identity. It is of course a very difficult task to preserve a minority culture when the dominant cultural and linguistic environment is different. I myself was brought up like this, but of course I speak worse Korean than my parents did. And my daughter too speaks Korean that is worse than mine.
Q: The protagonist lives in what appears a forsaken mansion, along with a group of prostitutes. Where you trying to stress her lower status?
A: The main character lives back to back with prostitutes because they're all sharing a life at the lower edge of society. I was not willing to signify anything specific, but just registering a social circumstance.
Q: Once again this film is a co-production between China and Korea.
A: Yes, as for "Tang Poetry" the actual production of the film, the shooting took place in China, while the postproduction process was done in Korea.
Q: Do you know if the film already has a deal for Korean distribution?
A: After the good response in Cannes, I know the film has strong chances to be released commercially in France. As for Korea, the film is invited to screen at Pusan Film Festival and hopefully then we'll find a Korean distributor.
Q: Do you have any new project now? Do you intend to keep focusing on Korea-related subjects and resort to Korean funding?
A: Currently, I am developing two different projects, and one of them has once again something to do with Korea. I am certainly planning to submit the script I will complete to this year's PPP.