From Sea to Sky:
KL: Are there any directors who particularly influenced you?
ZW: Many directors gave me an influence. Before I made films, when I watched films, I didn't think about the director. But after I started, it became something I thought about. But there are no directors who had a real influence on me.
KL: What about among Chinese directors?
ZW: Bu cuo ye bu hao. Not bad, but not great. I think many directors are successful, but they are still not good directors.
KL: What do you mean by this, successful vs good?
ZW: Bu tong de biao zhun. It's just a different standard. When you watch a movie, you don't care which prize it gets. A movie is just a movie. If you feel it, just look at it, then maybe, you might think it is not good enough.
KL: I'm still not sure what you mean by this.
ZW: In Chinese film, give me an example.
ZW: Jia Zhangke is my friend. I think his films are the best. I think his first film, Xiao Wu  was his best film. I think Platform is good, but not as good as Xiao Wu.
KL: Can you explain why?
ZW: Xiao Wu is very natural, and has many new things that were never before seen in Chinese film. It was a new experience. Platform to me seems to repeat some things in Xiao Wu. And also I think with Platform, Jia Zhangke wanted to tell the story of our generation. But I think we are still young, after only ten years, I don't think one can make such a film that says everything about our lives.
KL: Do you think you would want to make an epic?
ZW: I'm not interested in this. I don't want to make it important or large. I'm more interested in small things, intimate things. A small film is enough if it's good, if it's pure.
KL: What do you think of the Fifth Generation of filmmakers?
ZW: I have no real interest in them. Jia Zhangke and other filmmakers, perhaps they are more interested in them, because they trained to be filmmakers. I am occasionally interested. But for me, I am someone who happened to be a filmmaker, it was an accident. Perhaps one way to say it is that filmmaking itself is simply not important to me. I only want to express myself, whether it's film or fiction or poetry.
KL: I think with Seafood you expressed yourself quite differently from any other Chinese filmmaker. Because of some of the things you showed in the movie, like rape, the murder of a police official, and prostitution. Were you afraid of the consequences?
ZW: I don't care. When I was a writer I didn't care if people would criticise or censor my work. I would just do it.
KL: So you had no expectations from an audience?
ZW: I do care about the audience. But ultimately I don't think their reaction is anything I can control. I can only express myself honestly. Perhaps in some ways it's better if you don't care.
KL: I think the idea of freedom is very strong in both your films. And this idea of the lead characters in both films, how they both must go away from their home in search of freedom.
ZW: Just like me in my real life. I like to travel because when you travel you can get some fresh ideas and renew your imagination. Just like when you're a child and discover something new.
KL: So you think in regular life you cannot find this kind of freedom?
ZW: Never. I know how to live a regular life. I know how to be a useful man, an honest man. But I think this cannot be enough. It's boring, it's unfulfilling. That's why I think art is important, why it's necessary.
KL: When you worked with the actors, what was your approach?
ZW: I don't know, I just did it. I can control it. I think it's just like in real life. Like with this interview, if I want you to understand something, I'll do what it takes. I think it's quite simple, and is not a professional matter. It's just like life. You just try to make people understand you.
KL: The ending of Seafood is very
ZW: Sudden. It's a joke. It's to let people know that I'm a new hand. I'm not a master. I treat it as a joke. I think the film gets a bit heavy towards the end, so I wanted to do something to change the feeling. It's not my job to tell people how heavy our lives are. That's silly. I think it's more important to keep things interesting, to give people something new. People think it's about just telling the truth. Jia Zhangke, I think his films have a lot of truth, but I think maybe this is like a documentary, not a fiction, not a film. Perhaps with art, we expect more than truth.
KL: So how did you feel after Seafood was finished?
ZW: After Seafood, I got a strange feeling, because the film couldn't be seen in China. Perhaps I could get prizes and flowers from the West, but for me, a man who is 35 years old, I can't do that again. It felt like nonsense. So I wanted to make something that I could show to my parents and my friends in China.
KL: Did you feel you have to compromise your vision in order to make a film that could be seen in China?
ZW: No, not at all. I think sometimes you have to work within limits. You have to push against something to make something new and interesting.
ZW: It is one of the first independent film companies in China. This is their first feature.
KL: Did you work with them because they would help you with potential difficulties with the government?
ZW: We didn't have any difficulties with censorship because we did everything according to the rules. The production codes dictate what to do and what not to do, so you work with them as best you can.
KL: The police in the film are not presented in a positive way; their treatment of the main character is cruel and oppressive, though not in a brutal way. Concerning the depiction of the police here, is there a potential for running into any difficulty with the authorities by having this scene in the film?
ZW: Perhaps in the production. Real police uniforms are not allowed in Chinese films. So in the film the police characters don't wear a real police form, it's a security guard uniform, or civilian volunteer militia. It's okay to use those uniforms.
KL: How did the idea for this film come about?
ZW: I visited Yunnan province [the setting of the film] many years ago. I was astonished by the beauty of it. And I also wanted to make a film about my parents and their generation, and dedicate it to them. I didn't feel I understood them. Before I was a filmmaker, I was a writer. All six of my novels are in the first person. But in my films, they are people who I don't think I am immediately close to. In Seafood the lead character is a prostitute, in South of the Clouds the character is an old retiree.
KL: Since you wrote the story and the characters are yours, did you put your own emotions and perspectives into it?
ZW: I'm more objective. Though sometimes it's hard to separate myself from the story.
KL: How so specifically?
ZW: Sometimes you think you're the person you are writing about.
KL: Why did you end the scene/movie on Xu Daqin's face? Why did you not go on and continue with the story?
ZW: It was a particularly interesting moment to end. I felt it was appropriate. I wanted to freeze it so it will stay in time, into a picture. A teary smile is the quintessential Chinese parent, Chinese person, Chinese father, especially from that generation.
KL: Why do you have this perspective? It seems sentimental, which I don't think of you as being.
ZW: Concerning Chinese society, I'm more of a pessimist, but that doesn't mean I won't do my best to change society's problems. But in this scene, it's very natural. It's like how you express your feelings toward your parents. Like how you express to other people. Like how all people express themselves. It's just a way of communication. You say what you feel.
KL: Perhaps you're using a younger generation's perspective to view the older generation. You also had just said you want to overcome emotions so you chose to not be judgmental.
ZW; No, I think all artwork is judgmental. It contains an element of judging the way things are done in the world. But because it all contains such an element, there isn't a reason to emphasise it anymore. Concerning the younger generation, I don't really make a distinction between the older generation and the younger generation. I think it's a never-ending chain or circle.
KL: The main actor, Li Xuejian, tell us something about him.
ZW: He's a very famous film star in China. He always plays the role of the very simple Chinese man, so he's very loved in China. He's known for playing a working class everyman type of character. Sadly, a few years ago he suffered a heart attack and retired from the entertainment business. But one day I heard he had recovered and was planning to resume his career, and right then I knew that he would be wonderful as my lead, because of his recent hardships.
KL: Can you say something about the northern city where the first half of the film is set?
ZW: The film plays in a mid-sized northern city, but it has no name.
KL: And how about the beautiful place where Daqin travels? Does this place really exist, and do the Moshu people really exist in this kind of place? You film it as if it was a fantasy.
ZW: This area for many years was not developed, and at that time I got to visit it. Now it is very well known but I still visit it often. One thing about this area is that it is a matriarchal society. In North China, or in other parts of China, it's patriarchal. But in this matriarchal society it is better.
KL: The male character is weak and everyone else is strong.
ZW: When men reach that age they are very pitiful.
KL: It seems to me that in the film, whenever Xu Daqin tries to do something good, he is punished. But when he decides to do things his own way, those are the moments in the film when he is happy. It struck me that in this world, the selfish get what they want and the selfless are victimised.
ZW: I think that reading is too simple. I think that people will go through happiness and sadness regardless of whether they are selfish or selfless. Everyone must go on their own path.
KL: My impression of your work is that you want to keep changing things in order to make things new and interesting. This is true of your career, and I think it's true of your films. Seafood and South of the Clouds are very different from each other, and even within each of them there are radical shifts in the story. You said with South of the Clouds you wanted to do everything you didn't do in Seafood. What do you think you want to do differently from South of the Clouds?
ZW: I don't know. Perhaps I'll become a painter.
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