Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Jia Zhangke, Filmmaker

For the book MAD Dinner, Chen Shuyu and I interviewed Jia Zhangke, one my favorite Chinese filmmakers. His films include Platform, The World, and Still Life. We talked about utopia, the combination of technology and autocracy, and Louis Vuitton.

Brendan McGetrick: One of the topics we’re exploring in the book is utopia and ways to inject utopian ideas into realizable projects. It seems that your films combine very pragmatic, realistic portrayals of life with occasional moments of fantasy – either through music or surreal events like a building lifting off into space. Could these fantasy elements be considered utopian?

How should I put it into words? For a long time, I focused on feature movies. From the fourth movie I directed, I began to add some surrealistic elements because I can feel such a surrealistic atmosphere in my life in China, which, however, is only a part of the real life. The surrealistic parts in my movies, first of all, are designed for the present, not the future.

I have to face two things when directing a movie: one is people and the other is space. In the space, buildings are a very important part. For example, in Still Life, the building [you’re referring to] is very surrealistic itself. The designer, with the agreement of the local county government, designed it into a form symbolizing the take off of the Chinese economy. In fact, it takes the shape of the traditional Chinese character “華” [“China”]. But when I first looked at that building, I felt it unsafe as the base was too slim for the broad upper part of the building. It seemed that a space ship had landed there and might fly away at any time.

As a matter of fact, the distortion of Chinese society is displayed subtly in space. For example, a city with a history of 2000 years can be demolished in two years. The high speed provides a kind of force to create a surrealistic atmosphere.

As for me, utopia may mean what will happen in the future, but now China is in a state where people do not look back to the past nor look forward to the future, but only focus their attention to the present because most of their memories are related to politics. For example, people become more and more indifferent to significant moments such as the Cultural Revolution and the July 4th Movement in 1989. Due to the intentional deceit and obliteration, people do not live for the future now. That’s why I said China was actually living in the present.

Maybe there is transient utopia existing in the field of art which is of some significance. I think movies are a kind of free medium and I put emphasis on its function of memorizing the past. What we are now doing is to fight against the loss of memories. Maybe many experimental art works and buildings are created to struggle with the reality that we lack an imagination about the future. However, all the social backgrounds are the same. In the spiritual life of the 1.3 billion Chinese people, neither the past nor the future can be ignored. It is a pity that in our spiritual world we only live in the present for most of the time.

So you are trying to find the possibility of memorizing the past through your movies and your attention to the present. Is your intention to remind people that utopia is not a future-oriented idea and that the worst and best possibilities are capable of happening at this moment?

In our real lives, there is a thing we cannot avoid – that is individual differences and regional differences and the gap between the rich and the poor. The unbalanced reality results in our frightening enthusiasm about occupying the resources, which is spiritually wrong to the whole culture and the whole nation. People’s crazy seizure of the resources and materials and wish to lead a happy life symbolizes their fear about happiness and fear about their inability to be happy. I think there may be a spiritual space divided into various levels that you should be able to discern. I find there is a feeling of depression arising from development and at the same time there is an impulse stimulated by development. The two are mixed with each other, which makes China a colossus hard to interpret with words.

I find Chinese society is short of common understanding. That is to say, people lack a common idea about basic values such as the most primitive value, the value of freedom – people’s freedom and national value. All these values fail to be realized due to the lack of a common standard, which explains why utopia comes into being at a small scale in different fields. For example, I once saw a girl in Chengdu who wore Louis Vuitton products from head to toe. Maybe for her, LV was her utopia. Fortunately, her utopia was realized. Last year the largest exclusive LV shop was established in Chengdu.

Were the LV products the girl wore genuine?

She said so. Previously she had to buy LV in Hong Kong and now she can get it at home.

My earliest utopian idea was related to politics. In education, we refer to it as an ideal world. In politics, utopia was the common value of the society. Realization of communism was a utopian ideal which many Chinese people held during a particular period of time. When this utopia melted into thin air, people had no new value to support their spiritual world. The concepts proven during the revolutionary time, such as the concept of democracy and the concept of liberty, failed to find their way deep into the hearts of the people because they could not be accepted by the majority.

I feel the cultural work in our country has been based on nothing in spite of years of efforts. Actually the problem facing us is just like that of 1979 and 1989. Although you can buy LV products and anything else in China and it seems people lead an easy life, utopian dreams of various kinds may appear in people’s minds when the common values are not observed, which is not just related to politics or a nation, but has something to do with the individual ideal. That LV girl is related to utopia as an individual.

Another example: the Roman Garden [residential complex] in Beijing is a utopia of the community. Although we live in the Roman Garden, actually around us there is Taiyanggong area and the fourth ring road. We are still in China. So, as I said, the utopian ideals can be at various levels, such as the individual utopia reflected in the LV girl or [the utopian communities of] the Roman Garden and Venice Garden. When the individuals’ material needs are satisfied, their illusions of the greater ideals and values are forgotten.

Would you consider the World Landmarks Park that you featured in your film The World an extension of these individual and gated community utopias?

In the movie The World, we can see there is instantaneous utopia besides people’s individual utopia. That is, people can get to a remote country with no effort made, stay there for a while and then return to their own worlds.

Like many other people, I visited the World Park for the first time when I accompanied my parents there. They never thought they would have the chance to go abroad, as people were restricted to a sphere and it was hard for them to get a visa.

I was quite sentimental when I first stood in the World Park due to the sudden realization of one’s dream of traveling abroad, the virtuality behind it, the serious deceit, and my parents’ excitement and pleasure. Indeed, a sense of space controlled my mind when I directed the movie, which, actually, had puzzled me for a long time. Now I know it is nothing but an issue of common standard. For example, the World Park appears to facilitate people to realize their dream of traveling around, but it brings me a sense of ignorance as it reflects Chinese people’s ignorance about the outside world.

Take the decoration of the houses for instance. When buying a new apartment, every family needs to decorate it and every family wants to make its home unique. When the project is completed you will find every home is almost the same and each is the other’s duplicate, which, in part, reflects the paradox between uniqueness and generality and also shows that we wish for a pluralistic society compared with the unified one we lived in. A pluralistic world calls for some fundamental principles, while ours has no such principle.

In fact, all I said above comes down to a fact that we have become very selfish and egoistic after our original dream of communism was shattered. Until now, people’s private interests are not yet respected. This is a complicated problem. Therefore, the current situation is completely divided into many mini parts. Later when I directed movies, I emphasized the fact that movies should reflect the complexity of the society. I object to any attempt to simplify the Chinese society.

In China, what can we learn from the failure of utopian dreams?

I think the ideal of communism is well-intentioned. In ancient China, people harbored the utopian ideal of bringing about universal harmony in the world. The problem is that people resorted to improper means, such as violent revolution, to realize their ideal, and this was against the primary intention. As a matter of fact, communism was taken as a necessary means to realize the ideal. The violence and wars since the Revolution of 1911 [led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, which overthrew the Qing Dynasty] put China in a cycle of violent social transformation.

Now people realize that social transformation may be realized through non-violent means. In my opinion, there are many ways to remold a society and people should not have paid so much for that. Maybe we needed violence, but people should have not shed so much blood. The famine in the early 1960s, the Anti-Rightist Campaign [from 1957-1958], and the Great Cultural Revolution should not have deprived so many people of their lives.

Of course, there is nothing wrong in the ideal of remolding a society and changing people’s lives in the society. In Chinese culture there is one thing I feel quite ambivalent about, that is the national consciousness. In the final analysis, as an individual, or rather as an artist, what we should face in the reality is the relation between individual and collective and the relations between people. But the national consciousness can sometimes become quite terrible. For example, you can find many people in online forums saying that we should fight with Taiwan and recover Taiwan with military force, which may be reasonable to a great extent because they think they should safeguard the unification of their country. But I cannot help asking these people why we should get Taiwan back at the expense of the people living there. Is the so-called unification the ultimate value? Isn’t the life and rights of people the respectable value?

I find that we have been under some kind of influence so that we fail to respect people’s values. For a long time it has been regarded as a right to sacrifice people’s lives to realize some aims. For example, we often hear people say, “I’ll make contributions to my country and the Party at the expense of my youth and individual rights.” It will take some time to eradicate the influence of such negative values.

This may be a little far from the topic, but take the Three Gorges Dam project for instance. Chinese people have always had the dream of rebuilding the world and conquering nature, which is, in fact, a utopian ideal. The project is the typical reflection of people’s wish to conquer nature and their belief that man’s will, not heaven, decides. Is it necessary to start this project? Is there any other way to realize our goal? No one seems to consider these questions because they only want to realize their ultimate goal of conquering nature.

The unification of a nation is also a utopia, and this is many people’s dream. But few people are willing to think about the cost we should pay for such a dream. People often mention the phrase “national calamity” when referring to matters in China. In other words, we always resort to calling for the maximum sacrifice instead of the minimum sacrifice when advancing to an ideal. Due to the large population, they may think they adopt a way of calling for the minimum sacrifice. In fact, this is completely wrong.

You grew up at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution. In one of our other interviews, the architect Ma Qingyun described the freedom he felt as a child growing up in a condition of equality, where there wasn’t the sense of competition or expectation that exists today. What was your experience during that time?

I was born in Fenyang, Shanxi Province, which is quite a small inland town. The so-called county town is an area connecting the city with the countryside. The city here is Taiyuan. Fenyang is a middle part among the vast expanse of loess plateau, countryside, and Taiyuan City. It is hard to say whether it is a town or something else. It is a county town, which has existed since ancient times.

I still have a very clear memory of the Cultural Revolution from when I was six years old. I can clearly remember the social turmoil at the end of the Revolution. My deepest memory from childhood is the day that Chairman Mao passed away. Later I read from literary works and memoirs that people looked frightened out of their wits and cried their hearts out. But in my memory it was another story. My mother was attending her friend’s wedding when word came from the radio that Mao departed this life. Hearing this, people drank and ate as usual, which left a mark in the movies I directed. As for common people, the death of Mao was quite remote from them and what they were interested in was still the food and wedding.

Actually I grew up during the time when China adopted the reform and opening up policies. The period from 1978 to 1989, namely from grade one of primary school to the year when I graduated from high school, was the period when I grew from a child into a teenager. During this period, I witnessed a gradually developing China.

The most unforgettable thing for me was a boom in philosophy throughout China when I went to primary school and middle school. Books written by Nietzsche, Sartre, and Schopenhauer could even be bought in the bookshop of our small county town. I, like other teenagers, also bought these books although I could not really understand them. But still such experience also exerted a great influence upon me although I could not even sort out the logics in the books. I learned to respect thinking and respect the habit of thinking. Now it is my habit to do so, and this is rather important to me.

After I got my first job, I had to face a time of consumption, which also exerted a great influence upon my work. At that time, money was almost the only way to judge the value. Yesterday someone called me for an interview, saying the idols of people have changed from Zhang Haidi and Lei Feng to the current entertainment heroes and heroines like Super Girl [pop idols], which was their selected topic. I answered, “Your topic is based on a wrong idea.” In fact, Super Girls are not really cultural heroines. Maybe teenagers like them and laud them to the skies. But it is impossible for adults to do so as the real value in their minds can never be those girls. They maybe admire Bill Gates.

In this case, there are more challenges facing culture. I don’t know about architecture, but from the angle of movies, the challenges facing us come from the combination of new technology and autocracy. The current inventions, such as new ways to watch movies – like DVDs, computers, the Internet, and cell phones – divide the mass into small groups. Previously movies gathered people in a cinema. Usually a hundred or even a thousand people gathered to watch a movie. Now all the new inventions are trying to make people watch the movies individually, which is to the taste of power as power does not like people gathering.

During the Cultural Revolution and even until a few years ago, life was highly restricted and almost no private images were taken. Now, many young people live their lives online and upload almost every action they make – including sex or violence – onto their blogs or sites like Flickr. As someone involved in recording life, how do you respond to this sudden explosion in self-documentation and display?

In my opinion, it seems that people have entered a time when they can display their things and opinions freely. For example, you can air your opinions freely on your blog. The pictures you took can be easily uploaded online and appreciated by others. But I don’t think you can find equality in the online world, although you may think you do. I believe it is still a question of power. That is to say, one cannot optimistically get more freedom online with the help of some technology. The only way to get real freedom relies on the system.

Do you think this online life is the extension of people’s individualist utopian ideals?

Absolutely. For example, people’s identity in a blog may be different from his real self in daily life. Many people are like this.

A network provides a new space, but I am worried that blogs will take the place of the diary. Chinese people have lost interest in keeping diaries and now those interested in writing turn their attention to blogs, which means people have few chances to learn about their own psychological worlds. Blogs are written for the public, so the blogger’s aim is to share his ideas with many people. So I cannot help doubting the authenticity of the articles – how many people are courageous enough to face up to their real inner thoughts? I think writing and words, unlike buildings and movies, are the best way to learn about a person. It is a pity that people have become more and more indifferent to keeping diaries. Now few people resort to pens to express their ideas, which is really an upsetting fact.

Previously the standard of evaluating an article was whether your feelings could be felt by the readers. Now the standard is the click rate. The digital way of evaluation may affect writing to a great extent. In the past, when a novel was published, no one would calculate how many people bought it or even care how many people read it as numbers are of little importance to the value of novels. But at a time when the blog is prevalent, the click rate is of vital importance. About 10 million people clicked Xu JingLei’s blog and the statistic is quite important to Xu.

In this sense, the same problem is facing movies, which are judged by either box office performance or the support of a few influential people.

Neither of the two is the important standard to judge my movies. I think the most important thing for me is to have the movie completed. When I began to work, China had entered the epoch of consumption. From the very beginning, I insisted on principles. I have never cared about how sensational my movies may become, how much influence they may exert upon culture, or how much economic benefit they may bring to me. The most important thing is that you should express your feelings in a very direct and honest way. You should especially stick to this in fields that are in close relation to industry.

Many architects are interested in film, because it provides the opportunity to script people’s lives in a highly controlled way. In this way, could you consider the world you create in your films a form of utopia or dystopia – a vision of reality perfectly tailored for a certain message or philosophy?

If you were free from the moral requirements of the real world, you would feel extremely happy in such a utopian world.

How do you balance the moral requirements from the real world and the moral requirements from your inner world?

I have written many surrealistic movies because I like the Strange Tales from a Lonely Studio [a collection of about 500 stories by Pu SongLing of the Qing Dynastry] and I think all the fantasies stem from reality. The problem is that I have never directed such a movie up to now as the reality itself arouses my enthusiasm for producing movies in a realistic way, instead of an imaginary or illusionary way. To me, it is a sort of moral requirement, which may be the limitation of my movies.

In the four years of college life, I wrote many novels, including Fa Zidu, which I adapted to a rather surrealistic scenario. But I have had no chance to make it into a movie, not because I have no money to do so or no one is willing to invest in it, but because there have been so many changes in China that I have to capture them in my movies. When producing the movies, I often adopt a way which I think is the most humane to delineate the stories honestly, faithfully, and simply. I want to build a bridge leading to real life more than to utopia.

Originally published in MAD Dinner (Actar, 2007)