'Flowers of War's' Zhang Yimou: Censorship limits Chinese films
When director Zhang Yimou's "The Flowers of War" opened in Beijing earlier this month, star Christian Bale had to answer questions about whether the movie set amid the 1937 Japanese occupation of Nanjing is an anti-Japanese propaganda film -- an assertion he firmly rebutted. But perhaps a bigger question surrounding the movie, or any mainland Chinese production for that matter, is how much of an influence government censorship has in its making.
During a June interview on set, Zhang told the Los Angeles Times' David Pierson that while he expected total artistic freedom during the making of the movie, he also felt Chinese censorship limits filmmakers' options.
"In China there is a censorship system; directors don’t have 100% space of freedom," Zhang said while on location in Lishui County, southeast of Nanjing. "In fact, it’s more often the case that many stories cannot be made into film. I wish there would be more space given to artists with the development of the Chinese market. I wish there would be many good stories available for film directors."
Adapted from the novel "13 Flowers of Nanjing" by Geling Yan, "The Flowers of War" features Bale playing an American mortician who arrives in Nanjing to make a quick buck. But after seeing the horrors of war, he dons priest’s robes to try to protect schoolgirls and courtesans. The film, China's submission for the foreign-language Oscar this year, opens Dec. 23.
For more about the topic of Chinese censorship from Zhang, the director of films such as "Hero" and "Raise the Red Lantern" and the 2008 Olympic Games' opening ceremony, read the transcript below. Or watch the video above, with Zhang speaking in Mandarin (and with English interpretation provided by Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing bureau).
Chinese films have struggled a lot in the international market, and the U.S. market specifically. What do you think is holding back Chinese films today? Is it scriptwriting, piracy or even censorship?
It is a complicated problem. There isn't a very good prescription for it right now. I personally believe the most important thing is there are not many good films. By definition, good films mean good stories that people all over the world can understand and be touched by. These kinds of powerful films are very few. Often there are films that are very regionalized or simplified that people don't understand or aren't moved by.
Chinese films need good stories, so our films won’t be limited to action movies. It’s going to take a long road to make a good film. It’s easier said than done. Everyone in the film industry still needs to invest great efforts.
Would you say that your view now has changed from earlier in your career, when you made movies that were critically acclaimed [and] even got you into some trouble with the government? Is your goal now to have the biggest audience possible?
Actually my view has never changed, but the stories available for us to choose are very few. In China there is a censorship system; directors don’t have 100% space of freedom. In fact, it’s more often the case that many stories cannot be made into film.
I wish there would be more space given to artists with the development of the Chinese market. I wish there would be many good stories available for film directors.
In my case, every time I choose a story, I just read the story; I just want to find something that can affect people. So I don’t have a rigid standard of what type of stories I want to work on. But not many opportunities come up like that. So it also happens that, during some periods, I feel like I have to work on anything, otherwise I will be doing nothing for too long. So I'll just improvise a movie.
Do you think you had total artistic freedom on this project?
Yes, this is what I’ve been expecting. I read this story in 2007. I was touched by its uniqueness, because it is very different from the previous Nanjing-themed stories; it is very unique. It tells the story from an angle I am good at, a woman’s angle, a child’s angle. I really like it.
But at that time we had to wait because of the Olympic Games; and after that I shot two small films in between, and these were all in preparation for this film. In fact, I’ve always been expecting this film.
Check back on 24 Frames for more excerpts from the interview.
-- Scott Sandell
Video: Zhang Yimou on the set of "The Flowers of War." Credit: Benjamin Haas