Three Gorges Probe

Filmmaker Jia Zhangke on the forgotten people of Three Gorges

Three Gorges Probe
October 16, 2006

Fresh from winning a prestigious award for Still Life, his feature film set against the backdrop of the Three Gorges dam, the acclaimed director talks to Three Gorges Probe about the making, and the meaning, of the movie.

Director Jia Zhangke, a leading figure in what is known as
China’s Sixth Generation of filmmakers, won the prestigious Golden Lion
prize at the recent Venice Film Festival for his movie Still Life,
shot in the Three Gorges area. Journalist Dai Qing describes Jia as
“one of the best of the directors working in China today who are both
talented and care about ordinary people.” “Jia’s powerful films have
struck a chord with Chinese audiences,” she said. “It’s wonderful that
the judges in Venice, thousands of miles away from the Three Gorges
area, have demonstrated a great understanding of China in recognizing
his work.” Jia Zhangke spoke with Three Gorges Probe while in Toronto
last month to attend the Toronto International Film Festival. (The
interview was conducted in Mandarin. Translation by Three Gorges
Probe.) — Kelly Haggart

Jia Zhangke on location in the Three Gorges area

Three Gorges Probe: How long did you spend in the Three Gorges area making the film, and where exactly did you shoot it?

Jia Zhangke: We shot the film over the course of
almost a year, spending about three months on and off in the Three
Gorges region. We filmed mostly in Fengjie. It was a good time to shoot
the new and the old, because the old town was being torn down, while
the new one was under construction. We also shot about a third of the
film in Wushan.

TGP: Did you use professional or amateur actors, and were any of them real Three Gorges migrants?

Jia: All the actors are people from the Three
Gorges area, apart from one professional actress, and one man [who
plays the role of a coal miner] who actually is a real miner from
Shanxi province. But I should say that the movie does not focus
strictly on the people who have been affected by the Three Gorges dam.
Rather than talk about the impact of the project itself, we wanted to
use it as a big backdrop against which to explore the changes
confronting people in China generally as the country modernizes. The
story begins when two outsiders arrive in the Three Gorges area looking
for their loved ones. The miner is trying to find his ex-wife, who he
hasn’t seen in 16 years, while the woman is looking for her husband,
who failed to return home after going to the Three Gorges area on
business two years earlier. The movie depicts the life of the local
people through the experiences of these characters.

‘The movie looks at how people make up their minds about love, and then face a new life after making their decision.’

So there are two love stories in the film — one involves a love
that ultimately is abandoned, while the other is about a love that
returns. The movie looks at how people make up their minds about love,
and then face a new life after making their decision.

TGP: Why did you choose the Three Gorges project as backdrop?

Jia: In my view, the time of biggest change in the
Three Gorges area was 2000 to 2002, when the mass resettlement was
really under way, houses were being demolished and people relocated. At
that time the media, from inside and outside China, went to the area
and bombarded us with images of the dam being built, houses being torn
down and people being moved. But then the media withdrew, and the Three
Gorges, both the people and the place, were forgotten. Nobody cared
about them any more. It was at that time that we went to the area. We
were interested in how people there were living their lives, how they
had been affected by the big dam. What we saw, behind the scenes of the
big project, were the problems and difficulties people faced after
relocation. And the changes they experienced — having their houses
demolished and being resettled, with the construction of the dam going
on in the background — look a lot like changes being experienced by
people all over China. And so, in a sense, the changes occurring in the
Three Gorges area represent the changes taking place in China as a

‘We are trying to shift the focus onto people’s thoughts and feelings.’

The movie deals with changes occurring in the environment on the one
hand, and with human freedom and modernization on the other hand.
People usually attach a great deal of importance to changes happening
in the external environment, such as demolition, resettlement and
construction, while ignoring the changes occurring in the inner world
of the same people. We are trying to shift the focus onto people’s
thoughts and feelings, as their fates are shaped both by the Three
Gorges project and the changes that are taking place in the country as
a whole.

TGP: In Chinese, the movie is called Sanxia Haoren (The Good People of Three Gorges), while in English the title has nothing to do with Three Gorges. Why is that?

Jia: The movie is divided into four parts, titled
Cigarettes, Wine, Tea and Sugar — four basic substances on which
Chinese people depend, and which also bring joy and happiness to
ordinary people in a really simple way. They play an important role in
people’s lives and interpersonal relationships. It’s normal for friends
in China to exchange a cigarette or a bottle of wine. However, we found
that people in the Three Gorges area were living really simple lives,
with many households often lacking the basics. And the more times
people had been moved, the poorer they had become. On the other hand,
people there are still full of a vital life force, and burning with
desire for better lives. So “Still Life” refers to the simple life
people are leading, as simple as a still-life painting of a few objects
placed quietly and unobtrusively on a table. That’s what life’s like in
the Three Gorges area, where people have largely been ignored and
forgotten now that all the hubbub there has died down. What we did in
shooting the film was to show a reality that has been ignored, rather
like a photographer snapping pictures of a still life.

TGP: Did you run into any trouble from local officials when you were filming in the area?

Jia: No, not really, because they believed the
furor had died down after 2002, with the media not doing much of
anything there after that. So they didn’t interfere — nor did they
offer any help — and we were able to go freely about our business.

‘Now, however, the Three Gorges is a quiet area, with all the concern about it appearing to have passed.’

I know they had been very nervous in 2002, when there was so much
media activity in the area, as well as intense discussion about the
project’s negative impacts. Local officials really felt in hot water at
that time and made a point of keeping the situation tightly under
control. Now, however, the Three Gorges is a quiet area, with all the
concern about it appearing to have passed. We got there at the tail end
of the period of media attention. We went to the project site and got
some shots of the dam, but we make little comment in the film on the
project itself. Our focus is on the events and changes taking place
behind the scenes of the big dam. The project is a reality now, so it
makes more sense to focus on how it has affected people’s lives. We’re
trying to show the audience how much vitality exists among the people
of the Three Gorges area, how they are facing challenges, making
decisions and, moreover, finding freedom and enhanced self-esteem in
doing so.

TGP: Does the experience of migration relate at all to your own family background?

Jia: I’m not from the Three Gorges area myself, but
from Shanxi province. My grandfather moved to Tianjin, a port city
where many people from Shanxi migrated to do business. He ran a
traditional Chinese medicine business there, but later returned to
Shanxi in 1949 after the founding of the People’s Republic.

TGP: Will the movie be shown in China?

Jia: Yes, we’ve already received official approval, so
there shouldn’t be any problem. I’m hoping it will be in cinemas before
the 2007 [Chinese] New Year. It will open first in 10 big cities, and
after that hopefully will be shown in smaller towns and rural areas as

TGP: Will your big win in Venice help you in some way in your work, perhaps with funding?

Jia: Maybe, though we haven’t had to worry about
funding. We’re financially supported by three companies, from Japan,
Hong Kong and France.

TGP: Recently, the government announced measures to
try and tighten control over foreign media based in China. Do you think
this will have any impact on the film sector?

Jia: How can you really control the flow of
information in the Information Age? It’s so easy now to get a message
out by email or cellphone. I don’t think the film industry will be
affected, and any attempt to do so would be unrealistic and unwise.

TGP: What is the relationship between Still Life and your documentary [about artist Liu Xiaodong] Dong?

Jia: Dong was made before Still Life, with half of the documentary shot in the Three Gorges area and half in Thailand. While shooting Dong,
I found that local people tried to conceal their real feelings and hide
from my camera. Seeing this gave me the idea of doing a feature film
that would try to get at the feelings that people in the Three Gorges
area did not want to reveal.

TGP: Did you write the screenplay?

Jia: Yes, I write the screenplays for all my films. Still Life is my fifth feature film, and Dong is my third documentary.

TGP: And your next film?

Jia: I hope to start filming Ciqing Shidai
(The Age of Taboo) in March. This film will be historical, focusing on
1975, the year before the end of the Cultural Revolution. It was a key
moment in time, when urban youth had no jobs and nothing to do. I’ll
try to convey this important era by focusing on a group of young
people. I don’t want to do anything about 1976, however, because that
year — with the death of Mao Zedong and so forth — is too political.

TGP: Finally, how would you summarize the message you want to convey through Still Life?

‘People have welcomed the reforms in China, but at the same time, the consequences of the reforms have begun to emerge.’

Jia: The most important aspect is the change taking
place in China. In my opinion, that change is in its final stage, as is
the construction of the Three Gorges project. The reforms and changes
that began in the late 1970s and early 1980s have involved a
redistribution of resources — again, not unlike the Three Gorges
project, which was taking shape at the same time. And the challenge is:
As Chinese people, as individuals, how do we deal with this new
reality, and the redistribution of resources? People have welcomed the
reforms in China, but at the same time, the consequences of the reforms
have begun to emerge. My four previous feature films concentrated on
changes in China — economic change, social change, change in the
people. Right now, the changes are coming to an end, and a new era is
just around the corner. So I wanted to take a look at the people and
ask: How are they facing the challenge of a new reality? My focus is on
individuals. They can do nothing about the changes that are occurring
in the country; on the other hand, they themselves are full of
vitality. No matter what comes their way, they have to go on living —
and, somehow or other, they will display their spirit.

Still Life, which opens in China on Dec. 14, will be released in North America in the new year.

See this review from The New Yorker, June 5, 2012, THE CLIPPINGS FILE: “THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN,” Posted by Richard Brody.

A scene from Still Life

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