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Interview with Jiang Wen

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  • Jiang's award-winning "Devils on the Doorstep" recounts Sino-Japanese War
  • Jiang's "In the Heat of the Sun" tells individual story of Cultural Revolution
  • Jiang is optimistic about future of the Chinese film industry
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BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Hi, I'm Anjali Rao in Beijing's Forbidden City. My guest today is the renowned actor/director Jiang Wen. This is Talk Asia.


Chinese actor/director Jiang Wen

AR: He is known as the Marlon Brando of China, a notoriously fierce actor and one of China's best and boldest film directors. Jiang Wen entered China's film industry as an actor starring in critically acclaimed movies such as Zhang Yimou's "Red Sorghum" with actress Gong Li. His passion for acting and unique eye for directing propelled him to make his own movie, "In the Heat of the Sun," which won the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Film Critic: There is this sort of this impulse that just drives him to direct and to try to shape the movie as if he is God. He is sort of a natural-born director. I'd say his style is unique because it's not like your typical martial-arts film. What's characterized his work as a whole is an obsession with truth, an obsession to preserve the truth and put it on the screen as he sees it. And that's why I think his films have proved so controversial, so provocative.

AR: It was a story about the Cultural Revolution in China, told through the lives of rebellious Beijing teenagers during one summer of this historical event.

AR: His second movie "Devils on the Doorstep," a vivid depiction of the Japanese occupation of Chinese villages during World War II, won the Grand Prix at Cannes but was banned in China.

AR: Jiang had not run this black-and-white film past the censors in China, and he was reportedly told to stay clear from the director's chair for the next seven years. "Devils on the Doorstep" is yet to be officially released.

Film Critic: He's a very aggressive director and he's very unafraid, and that's I think what a lot of directors wish they could do, but very few end up doing. He makes his films exactly the way he sees reality, and that's the main concern, that's what drives his films and not the desire to please other people.

AR: Despite this reputation, Jiang refused to speak about the "Devils on the Doorstep" controversy, saying he wants to forget about the past and focus on his upcoming film. China's most sought-after director is now behind the camera again. His latest film "The Sun also Rises" is due to premier at the Venice film festival next month. A complex plot spanning 50 years of history told through four separate stories, this adaptation of a short story is expected to be Jiang's defining directorial comeback.


AR: Mr. Jiang, welcome to Talk Asia. It's wonderful to have you with us. First of all, tell us about "The Sun Also Rises," your latest directorial foray.

JW: It's hard to say what the movie is about, because when I'm directing a film, I don't know how to use language and words to express the film. Stories that can be told through language and words don't need to be filmed. All I can say is that this movie is made up of four stories. The four stories are linked but are also separate. If you want to categorize the four stories, there is a story about madness, one is about love, another is about a gun, and one is about a dream. There are six characters in the four separate stories.

AR: Why was this important story for you to tell?

JW: Because I visualized the story and I thought it was really good. I've visualized this film for many years. So I wanted those people who haven't witnessed this story to see it because it really touched me. That's why I made this movie.

I think that as a director, especially when it comes to writing the script, which I also do, and I'm also the first one to visualize this story, I think contributing to the film industry means I'm able to take the best of a story and translate it well into a movie that can be released in theaters. This way, if the audience can also see what I visualized as a good film, then I think it counts as a contribution to the film industry.

AR: You're preparing to release it soon, are you nervous at all about the reception that might come off the back of it?

JW: I'm a little nervous, but not too nervous.

AR: The last film you directed, "Devils on the Doorstep," won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2000, which is that particular event's second-biggest prize. What was your inspiration for telling that particular story?

JW: I think that as a Chinese person, nobody will forget that in China's history, there was a war against the Japanese. Even though the war has been over for some 60 years, the impact and the destruction it brought to China, the loss it caused and all the bad things it left behind for the Chinese people can still be felt. So I think that as a director, at the time I was still a young 35-year-old director, it was impossible not to come up with a topic like this.

AR: And what was behind your decision to shoot it entirely in black-and-white?

JW: Well, it's beautiful.

AR: Well, I guess that sums it up.

JW: When we see documentaries of that time period, aside from the fact that it's a documentary, the black-and-white colors also leave a deep impact. So filming about a war that had happened 60 years ago in black-and-white was a good attempt. Also, in terms of filming Chinese or Japanese people, we don't have anything to lose since there are no blue eyes nor blonde hair. The movie itself would be more natural if filmed in this way, and there's nothing to lose anyway.

AR: What's your take on the impact that movie had here on China?

JW: It's been seven years. It was a movie from seven years ago. My brain is now focused on "The Sun Also Rises," so I may need another two weeks to recover and remember the impact that movie had. But from what I can remember, the impact was pretty huge. The film had never entered the market.

AR: Still now, it hasn't?

JW: I think it's just like wine, if you put it into storage, the longer you leave it, the more wonderful it will taste.

AR: How careful do you have to be as a film-maker in this country in terms of what you try to bring to the screen here?

JW: How can I say this? From my experience, I've directed three films. One is not yet been released, one was not allowed to be released, and one was released. So the ratio is 3-to-2 and 3-to-1.


AR: The Forbidden City in the heart of China's capital, the ultimate symbol of power. This sprawling palace compound serving as the seat of imperial rule for more than five centuries is the setting of choice for film directors. "The Last Emperor" was the first western film to be shot inside these Forbidden walls, leading the way for a host of other directors.

AR: Just like "The Last Emperor."

JW: Yeah, you know, this courtyard is higher than Forbidden City because it's for the grand, grandfather.

AR: Oh, it's beautiful.

JW: Forbidden City is an office and living room for the Emperor. But here is for the grand, grandfathers. It's more important. So the film "The Last Emperor" was shot in the Forbidden City. That is the Emperor's office.

That's Tiananmen Tower. Most often, people stand in front of the tower, but this is from the right wing of the tower. And a lot of photographs shot during the Cultural Revolution are from this angle. Chairman Mao would stand in that corner, just like his backyard or private office.

AR: Mr. Jiang, your directorial debut "In The Heat of the Sun" depicted the chaos that ensued in the height of the Cultural Revolution, which you experienced. How much of this movie was based on what you went through?

JW: It's not easy for a film to tell a story of the experiences of an entire society. However, from an individual's perspective, it is possible to tell one aspect of an entire society's story. And it can be done in a pretty interesting way. It would be just a waste of time to film the entire picture of the society. So I made the film from my perspective and focused on a lifestyle that I myself was familiar with. So I think it's very interesting. Some of them reflected my own life. I can tell you that the main characters in the story are about seven to eight years older than me.

AR: We hear so many people saying it was miserable, it was chaos, but you enjoyed yourself during the Cultural Revolution?

JW: I can only focus on my generation and my generation's true feelings. Of course, when this film was made, it had to be reviewed before it was released, and people asked me if I could change the title of the film. They asked me not to name the film "In the Heat of the Sun" because it was a dark period. Or they would ask me, as children during the Cultural Revolution, were your feelings really that important? Shouldn't you focus on the more official or general feeling instead to tell the story? I don't doubt that during that period, a lot of bad things happened in society and there were a lot of deaths, and I know it was a rather big political activity. But if I wanted to portray that time through the eyes of children who lived through that time, then I would have to film it in that way. Of course, I think the solution is that different people should make films according to their own perspectives. Different people should make films according to their own lifestyles. Then, that would give a complete story of what went on during the decade-long Cultural Revolution.

AR: After the Cultural Revolution, the drama school you joined subsequently reopened. What are your memories of your time there?

JW: I remember that before I applied for the Central Academy for Drama, I didn't know that this kind of school existed. My friend told me about the school and asked if I wanted to go. I prepared for the exam and passed. Before that, I had applied to a film school but failed to get in. They didn't want me. So in 1980, I entered the Central Academy for Drama. From there, four years later, I began my career.

AR: One of your teachers at that school said that you could at times be fairly tough to instruct, because you always questioned everything and you just didn't take anything for granted as far as orders go. Do you prefer to be the puppet master as opposed to the puppet, so you went into directing after acting?

JW: I think there are a lot of things that can cause a situation to change. But what you have just said is one reason. Other reasons are probably because I see the film in my head, but nobody is directing it, so I take the initiative to direct it. I think that's it. Also, when I was very young, probably between the age of 6 and 10, I made my own light and flashed it on to the wall. Then I'd have 10 or so papers with drawings and made my own film. The film was mainly about war because most of the films I saw when I was young were about war. And then, I had a box to put everything in. I took my father's thick and big medicine box and made a handle. I took off the labels from the medicine box and put a blank piece of paper over it. On it, I put the title of my film and who made the film. I think it was this experience that influenced me and made me become more interested in making my own movies.


AR: So we're still in the Forbidden City, which is where you have your office, which is, I don't know, to me that sounds fairly unusual. Why did you pick to have your office, your headquarters in the Forbidden City?

JW: Because I wanted to find a forest, and that was the only forest in the city. That's a forest.

AR: Those few trees there, that's the forest of Beijing.

JW: Each tree is more than two or three hundred years old.

AR: So let me ask you this. Do you ever want to make the jump to Hollywood?

JW: I won't reject the opportunity to go to Hollywood. I think films made in Hollywood are very meaningful. There is a wide range of audience. I think staying in China and going to Hollywood wouldn't be contradictory. Not only that, China is rapidly opening up. A lot of film companies are coming to China to film. So the chances of standing in one place to make two movies are growing.

AR: What do you think of China's evolution over the next few years? How do you see it developing?

JW: It's growing fast. For the longest time, China didn't develop at all. So I think that having not developed for several hundred years, this growth in the past 20 years isn't enough. It might continue to develop for a long time.

AR: Do you think that the Olympics are going to help it?

JW: I'm not too good in sports, so I can't really say.

AR: So you're not going to go to any of the events at the Olympics?

JW: I don't know. I can't. I'm not an athlete.

AR: You don't have to compete. You can sit there and watch.

JW: If there's a film competition after the Olympics, I'll participate. But I could be a good spectator.

AR: Someone else who frequently questioned authority was Marlon Brando, and you're known as China's Marlon Brando. How do you respond to tags like that?

JW: Wow, that's an exaggeration. You're too kind. I don't have anything else to say. Marlon Brando represented an entire era. He started the era and ended the era. He's like a heroic figure. So to compare me to him and say that I'm a Chinese version of Marlon Brando makes me happy, but at the same time it's an exaggerated appreciation. I'm afraid to accept it. I can't accept it.

AR: You've worked numerous times with the famed director Zhang Yimou. What do you put the success of your collaboration down to?

JW: We've worked together twice. The first was for his film, "Red Sorghum." The second movie, nine years later, was "Keep Cool." From my perspective, both of these films were well done, especially "Red Sorghum." It's an outstanding Chinese film, no matter in the past or present.

AR: One of your most-loved films was in 2002, "The Missing Gun." Were you surprised with how well it did?

JW: It's like this. The director wrote me a letter. He was very young then, 30 years old. He wanted me to direct his film and the letter was very moving. He said he couldn't find me so he wrote me a letter. When I made my first film, "In the Heat of the Sun," I was also 30. And I saw a director who was trying to make his film, but couldn't find the money nor the people, so I was really sympathetic. I was very willing to help him. So I took him and his script to find sponsors. We were able to successfully make the film. I think I was willing to help him because I felt that his idea at least was worth pursuing.

AR: How important do you think these sorts of events like Venice, like Cannes are in terms of contribution to international film?

JW: I've only directed three films up until now. The first one is "In the Heat of the Sun." The second one is "Devils on the Doorstep," and the third one is "The Sun Also Rises." For the first movie, I went to the Venice Film Festival, for the second one I went to the Cannes Film Festival, and for the third one I also went to the Venice Film Festival. For the first movie, we received the Best Male Actor award in Venice. But I found out the film was not released in the States. At the same time, there was a TIME magazine article by Richard Corliss that listed seven global films that should be released in the States but are not and were a great loss for people who cannot see it. Our film was listed as the first one. The second movie received the Grand Jury award at the Cannes Film Festival. But it wasn't released in the United States until a few years later, and the audience was very few. So, my films have progressed from not being released, to being released to a small audience, and now the third one is being released to a wider audience. But I have to say the fact that "In the Heat of Sun" was not released in the U.S. market was a loss for the American audience, because I went to the San Francisco Film Festival with this film. And I noticed that a lot of the younger American audience was very into the story.

AR: You have a very distinctive directorial style. How do you maintain your originality?

JW: I just direct whatever movie I can see in my mind. If I can't see it in my mind, then I won't direct it. I won't direct a film I haven't visualized or that has only been visualized by others, so my originality and style may be linked to this. Perhaps because I've only directed three films, I can't really talk about originality yet. When I direct my fourth film, I'll pay more attention to see what my style is.


AR: You've said there's a severe lack of really good acting roles in Asia. Basically because the region has a backward sense of self-awareness and has done for the last five or six hundred years. How do you see the future of Asia's film industry going forward?

JW: I'm definitely optimistic about Chinese films and films around the world. I think that the film industry is still young, too young. No matter how old your culture or philosophy is, film is still very young. Whether or not film can sustain itself as an art form into the future... I think film has not done enough yet. It's still a very young art. I think in the future, film will be more meaningful and there will be more meaningful films. I don't know what those films will be, but I can feel they will be more meaningful because of people's relationships. The film industry can become greater, whether it comes from the story content or sound, everything would become more realistic and with more feeling. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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