'Flowers of War's' Zhang Yimou on China's future — and Tom Hanks
"The Flowers of War" director Zhang Yimou says China's rapidly growing film market will necessitate bringing more foreign films into the country and, he hopes, more actors from the United States. Could Tom Hanks be one of them?
In an interview on the set of "The Flowers of War" — which stars Christian Bale as a heroic figure during the 1937 Japanese occupation of Nanjing — Zhang told The Times' David Pierson that China's film market will soon be the world's second-largest. Because Chinese filmmakers cannot meet the increasing demand, Zhang expects the country's quota system — which officially limits the number of foreign-made films to about 20 per year — to be softened.
"I think the quota will be relaxed and the number will be increased, definitely," Zhang said while on location in Lishui County, southeast of Nanjing, in June. "Because the audience and the number of cinemas are increasing, the market is increasing rapidly, so we need lots of good films. I personally believe that the Chinese cannot make that many good films within such a short period of time."
In addition, after his experience working with the Welsh-born Bale, Zhang hopes that more Western actors come to China. "Many of them are my idols," Zhang said. "I really like their work."
Apparently among them: Tom Hanks, to whom Zhang said he told the "Flowers of War" story. "But unfortunately his schedule didn’t fit," Zhang said.
For more of Zhang's interview about "The Flowers of War" — which opened Dec. 23 and is China's entry in the foreign-language Oscar race — 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).
Are you optimistic that one day Chinese films will rival Hollywood films on the international market?
Truthfully, I think that day is still very far off. We often hear that the Chinese market will quickly approach the size of the U.S. market and become the second-largest market. It is concluded from calculating the number of new screens and cinemas per year. But it will still take a long time for a Chinese film to create international influence.
Having the film ["The Flowers of War"] 40% in English — was it clever marketing too?
No, it’s based on the story, because the story needs it. Sometimes I myself was so curious after watching the edited film clips. I often asked the editor, "Did I shoot this film? It looks like a foreign film!"
Do you expect that any time in the near future the foreign film quota will change?
I think the quota will be relaxed and the number will be increased, definitely. Because the audience and the number of cinemas are increasing, the market is increasing rapidly, so we need lots of good films.
I personally believe that the Chinese cannot make that many good films within such a short period of time. The market is definitely growing faster than movie quality is and faster than a good director is able to grow. So we need to have foreign films to satisfy the demand, to enhance exchange with others and to learn from them too. So I think it will be relaxed.
What are the Hollywood stars you would like to work with?
Many! I met Tom Hanks for this film. I like him very much, and I told him about this story. But unfortunately his schedule didn’t fit.
There are many very good actors in the U.S. It was beyond my expectations that Christian, such a young actor, had done such an outstanding performance.
We often say America has so many excellent actors, but there are not so many excellent Chinese actors. So there is still a very big gap between us. Christian also makes us realize that excellent Hollywood actors are not limited to just being good-looking; their professionalism and great acting abilities are worth learning from.
What would you tell other A-list Hollywood actors, accomplished ones who have won Academy Awards, as to why they should work in China?
First of all, I think they are all great actors. I really hope one day I can work with them. Many of them are my idols; I really like their work.
I wish they would pay attention to what is happening on Chinese soil; the Chinese film market will become the second-largest soon. So we welcome them to come here to work and to bring their films, to let younger Chinese audiences appreciate their acting.
— Scott Sandell
Video: Zhang Yimou on the set of "The Flowers of War." Credit: Benjamin Haas