Jia Zhangke: Life and Times beyond the World

By Shih, Alice | CineAction, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Jia Zhangke: Life and Times beyond the World


Shih, Alice, CineAction


The following article has been assembled from material gathered during three conversations I had with Jia, between September, 2004 and August, 2005. The interviews were conducted in Chinese and I'd like to thank Winny Zhang for transcribing the Chinese text.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

ALICE SHIH: Jia, I know that your career started with shorts. Can you tell us about your first short, Xiao Shan Going Home?

JIA SHANGKE: That was in 1996 when I was still at the Beijing Film Academy. About 10 of us in the class formed the "Independent Experimental Film Group". We gathered a little money, and started making very low budget shorts. At the time, our first project was Xiao Shan Going Home, which I wrote and directed. After the film was completed, a fellow classmate from Hong Kong told me that The Hong Kong Arts Centre was hosting an Independent Shorts Competition and wondered if I would be interested. I said yes and he submitted the film for me. It was selected for competition and went on to win the first prize in the narrative film category. I was then granted the opportunity to go to Hong Kong.

The real prize of my Hong Kong trip was not the golden award; it was the friendship that I found in my three long term working partners. My cinematographer Yu Lik-Wai is from Hong Kong and had just finished his studies in Belgium. He was impressed by my film and we decided to team up. Li Kit-Ming was another one. He was a producer for my three films: Xiao Wu/Pickpocket (1997), Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002) The third one was Chow Keung who helped produce Platform, Unknown Pleasures and The World (2004). Our Hong Kong-China team formed a strong bond. We made six films in seven years: four directed by me and two by Yu Lik-Wai. We almost had one film per year, and we complemented each others' job. When I made a film, Yu would shoot it, and Li and Chow would produce. Whereas when Yu directed, I would act as his producer. I found this an invaluable working relationship, as I got to learn what was involved in the process, and appreciate the tremendous help that they offered me. In the past, people from mainland China like me had the wrong impression of people from Hong Kong. We thought of them as busy gold-diggers who couldn't care less about culture. After knowing these Hong Kong friends, my feelings turned around completely. They taught me so much! From them I learned fundamental things like, "Solve your own problems".

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

AS: You are from Shanxi, and your previous films were all about this rural province. Yet the background of The World is "World Park", a theme park in metropolitan Beijing.

JS: Yes, there are two theme parks. The other one named "Window of the World" is in Shenzhen, and both are large.

AS: Since your earlier stories were about backward and desolate places, what made you switch your interest to tell stories of a big city, which surprising enough, turned out to be just as devastating?

JS: I haven't abandoned stories about small towns, but this time I wanted to focus my viewpoint on big cities. Since the early 1990s, after Beijing succeeded in winning the Olympics bid, China has been urbanizing at a tremendous speed. I feel that Beijing is undergoing massive changes everyday, to the point of absurdity. I could come home at night and see a building outside; then the next morning when I stepped out, that building was gone, demolished overnight! Or I would come home after two weeks on the road and find bus stops had been relocated or had ceased to exist. These constant changes made me really want to shoot a film about Beijing. I left my hometown Fenyang, a small town in Shanxi in 1993, to attend the Beijing Film Academy. I've lived through the changes in Beijing for more than a decade, adjusting to city living and urban interactions that had been all new to me.

I also find that there are lots of migrants in Beijing. …

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