Shanghai Film Fest: Q&A with director Jean-Jacques Annaud
SHANGHAI — Fifteen years ago, Jean-Jacques Annaud was demonized by the Chinese Communist Party for his film “Seven Years in Tibet” — the cadres were unhappy with his cinematic portrayal of the People’s Liberation Army’s invasion of the region in 1949 and his casting of the sister of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
A decade and a half on, the 68-year-old French director is being welcomed here with open arms.
On Saturday, Annaud will arrive in China to chair the jury of the 15th Shanghai International Film Festival, which kicks off this weekend with 17 films from around the world in competition. And he’s preparing to make a $30-million Mandarin-language drama with the state-run China Film Group.
The film is based on “Wolf Totem,” the biggest-selling contemporary novel of all time in China. “Wolf Totem” follows a Chinese student from Beijing who is sent to Inner Mongolia in 1967 for reeducation at the height of the Cultural Revolution. By living with the nomads and among the wolves on the steppe, the protagonist builds a deep respect for freedom and nature, themes Annaud has explored before in his films “The Bear” and “Two Brothers.”
The nearly 600-page semi-autobiographical novel was written by Jiang Rong, the pen name of Beijing political scientist Lu Jiamin, who was detained without trial for more than a year following his participation in the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. His first book, it shot up China’s bestseller list in 2004 and was widely translated after celebrities such as former NBA star Yao Ming praised the messages between its covers. There are many, including praise for the complementary individualism and teamwork of nomadic life, the destructiveness of breakneck modernization and the importance of environmental conservation.
The fact that censors allowed the book to be published in China surprised many, given that the protagonist expresses contempt for the group-think that China’s majority Han ethnicity forces on ethnic minorities and disdains the Confucian principles that the Communist Party has recently revived in its political rhetoric even in the 21st century. Which messages Annaud and his partners will highlight on screen remains to be seen.
Annaud spoke by phone from his country home in France about his second chapter with China.
I try my best to see that winners reflect the democratic taste of my jury. I am not a dictator. I am here to chair, I’m not here to decide alone. I’ve been to most of the festivals in the West. I will come to Shanghai with the most open mind and open heart. I am honored to chair this festival. One of the things that excites me is to get closer to members of the industry. It’s a good occasion for me to meet again the producers, directors, actors. It’s important for my next project and for my interest in cinema in general to be closer to Chinese cinema.
Did you first read “Wolf Totem” in French or English?
I read it in French. I was approached by the writer, Jiang Rong, who became a wonderful friend. I spent three weeks with him in Inner Mongolia. He knew my work, and some of his friends at the production company also knew my work. They came to me, and I found it was right up my alley. It has been my conviction to find true stories about the environment. I was very excited to see that one of the bestselling books in China was precisely about something that everyone in the West is unaware of — that China has a deep movement that understands the need for the conservation and protection of nature and promotion of environmental issues.
Did you and Jiang Rong ever talk about his anti-Confucian themes?
Of course. What I have done so far is write the screenplay with the same freedom I would for a Western production. Probably I’m naive, or possibly not. I came to China with the first draft of the script a few weeks ago, sharing my heart’s desires to emphasize the book’s different themes. I didn’t get any negative comments. I’ve heard so many things, but I am among those people who must see for himself. I went with my instincts and my sincerity, and for the moment I don’t have any limitations. In the cinema today, even in Los Angeles, this is very rare these days. I’ve always been a final-cut director, a big privilege.
You started this film with the Beijing Forbidden City Film Co., right?
Yes, but now the movie has migrated with Mr. Zhang Qiang, the president of Beijing Forbidden City, who recently became the vice president of the China Film Group, so now the movie is being produced by the China Film Group. At least that’s the impression that I’m given, because the last trip I did, a month ago, I could see that the same people from Forbidden City plus the people from the China Film Group. I am seeing the same people, including Mr. Han Sanping, who is the CFG chairman. Very important to me is that one of the producers is [“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” producer] Bill Kong, a man I adore who’s been a friend for 35 years.
Talk about the idea of shooting in Mandarin.
It’s going to be made in Mandarin, possibly with an English version, but that’s still a question mark. It’s going to be 85% Mandarin and some Mongolian and the rest in wolf language.
The story’s protagonist grows fascinated by wolves and tries to raise a pup. Tell me a bit about raising and training wolf pups for the film?
We went to different zoos in the country. Wolves in Mongolia are very different from North American wolves. They are brown with bright eyes. They are more the color of lions. We acquired young wolves from those different zoos with all the proper authorization — I insisted on that — and we have the very best wolf trainer in the world, Andrew Simpson, a Canadian from Alberta, who is working at a ranch that we built specifically for our wolves. We had 11 of them and have acquired five new ones. They are quite remarkable. We are making sure they will remain wild wolves, but not too frightened by human presence.
What’s the next step?
We’re starting storyboarding. Three weeks ago I went up north looking for places with access and good roads and some hotels, not too far away. I decided we’ll shoot in Inner Mongolia [a region of China]. It has all the beauty and remoteness that is described in the book and is more accessible and reassuring than Mongolia [which is a separate country]. Hopefully, we are going to start shooting this fall. There are a number of scenes that require early snow. We will have access to those places in March or April. I was up there in late May, and we had to stop and sleep in a yurt because the wind was so strong, and we were caught in a snowstorm in May.
Who’s your Chinese co-writer?
I did the first outline with my usual writing partner, Alain Godard, who recently died suddenly when we were toward the end of the story. Then Chinese screenwriter Lu Wei (“Farewell My Concubine”) wrote the second and third drafts. Now we’re working on the next draft together, what I consider the real first draft. Lu has worked with directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, but he also experienced the same sort of story as Jiang Rong in the 1960s. He was sent down to the countryside as a student to the mountains of Yunnan. I wanted someone who could capture the spirit of that moment.
How do you address “Seven Years in Tibet” when in China today?
When I did “Seven Years in Tibet,” I was not aware of the Chinese point of view. I was convinced that so many years after, it would not be a problem to talk about a period in the early 1950s and late 1940s. I thought it would be like France and the war in Algeria. We had this war when I was a teenager, and for years now we’ve been speaking very freely and admitting that we had different points of view than the people in Algeria. My mistake was to think that it was the same in China regarding Tibet. I realize now that it was seen as something very intrusive, which was not my intention. I am a man of peace and I like bringing people together and not pitting people against each other. People in China have not seen “Seven Years in Tibet,” and in a sort of natural way, it’s a movie that people avoid mentioning.
Did you have to apologize for “Seven Years in Tibet” to work in China?
No, absolutely not. In order to be positive and constructive you have to make sure you don’t antagonize your guest. I think it’s more constructive. I think that many mistakes have been made in the West which do not contribute to something positive. What would we think in France if the Chinese were interfering with Corsica? Or what would Americans think if the Chinese were interfering with Puerto Rico?
Are you motivated to work in China by its new movie business boom?
Fortunately, I’ve not built my career by thinking this way. I did my first film in Africa, which was not a growing market, not in terms of money. I’ve been fascinated with the Oriental world for 30 years, not knowing it would become such a commercially appealing market. I see it more as a personal enlightenment to a great opportunity to understand a country from the inside. I’m not planning to build a studio in China. I’m just hoping to have a great human adventure for me, and for the moment, it’s started out this way. I’m very French, you see. I went to the film schools in France, where you never learn about the box office or the importance of commerce. I am still a product of that system. I’m probably a dreamer. I like the experience of filming. I like to be immersed in another culture with friends that do not speak the same language. That’s my pleasure. That’s what’s made my life so far. It’s frankly this that excites me most.
-- Jonathan Landreth
Photos: Jean-Jacques Annaud on the set of his family adventure "Two Brothers" in 2004. Credit: David Koskas / Universal Studios