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Zhang Yimou & Annemarie JacirThe art and heart of making films

Published in October 2010Time to read: 4m55s

The spectacular, exquisitely coloured scenes and riveting storylines created by Zhang Yimou in some of contemporary cinema’s most iconic works, including Raise the Red Lantern, To Live and Hero, have won the Chinese director an unparalleled global audience, going far beyond the normal fan base for “foreign films”. Now a young, Palestinian film-maker gets a rare opportunity to see exactly how this unique director creates each element of his masterpieces.

by Mary FarquharOctober 2010
  • Zhang Yimou
    The Mentor
  • Annemarie Jacir
    The Protégé

“Wow!” exclaims Annemarie Jacir. She has just stepped on to the set of Zhang Yimou’s latest film,13 Flowers of Nanking. The set recreates entire streets and buildings of the war-torn city of Nanking and looms large and grey in a snowbound landscape against a sombre sky.

During her year as protégée to China’s greatest film director, Jacir has privileged access as Zhang, with a budget of $US90 million, tells the story of the Rape of Nanking in the winter of 1937. His international cast and crew include Hollywood’s Christian Bale, as the star, and the renowned Taneda Yohei, as art director. Taneda took a year to design the set and another six months to build it, creating a spectacular setting for Zhang’s 22nd film.

Jacir is also in mid-production of her own film in Jordan, where she is based. When I Saw You, her second feature, tells the story of Palestinian refugees in the 1960s. With a budget of $400,000, she relies on nature to provide spectacular settings – a desert, a national forest and a field of flowers on the Jordan-Syria-Israel border. An international entourage surrounds Zhang; she works with a small crew and cast, including a 13-year-old non-professional actor from a refugee camp.

Jacir is Zhang’s first-ever protégée and this visit is her first immersion into the world of Chinese film. From China and Palestine – two of today’s political hotspots – they seem worlds apart. But much unites them. Both are passionate about film. Both are focused on technique, but believe that something deeper is essential for excellence in cinema – great film-making, both are convinced, comes down to an artist’s intuition.

Jacir sees this in Zhang’s “perfect compositions”, in his sumptuous images. She observes how these images are achieved as she sits beside Zhang in his director’s tent, re-working take after take on the monitors lined up before him. He shifts from fixed to handheld camera to get, in his words, the “right thrill” of anticipation as a schoolgirl hurries to a window to watch 13 prostitutes arrive at a church for sanctuary. Zhang spends hours refining this point-of-view shot through stained glass. He creates a quivering voyeurism in a single shot – a blend of sacred and profane that links schoolgirl virgins and whores with hearts of gold to a universal story of sacrifice and war. His intuition is yielding cinematic treasure.

Watching Zhang at work, Jacir reflects on her own film-making. “He knows exactly what he wants.” Then, she adds thoughtfully that she’s just learning to trust her intuition as a film-maker. “He’s such a great artist. I think it’s about his intuition and that’s why he gets so obsessed with a particular shot that doesn’t feel right.” Indeed, Zhang says that all his films are about “gut feeling”.

His “gut feeling” comes from honing his art through persistence and hard work, virtues that are evident in the way he overcame his difficult beginnings. From a “bad” class background, he laboured as a youth in villages and factories, famously selling his own blood to buy his first camera. He directed his first film, Red Sorghum, in 1987. Today, Zhang showcases China to the world. The opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which he directed, turned centuries of Chinese history into glorious spectacle. Commentators saw it as a shock-and-awe announcement to the world of China’s rise to superpower status.

“I’ve travelled your path making low-budget films,” Zhang tells Jacir. “I was 37, older than you, when I directed my first feature. There’s a Chinese saying that ‘great vessels take years to make’, just as great talent takes years to mature. So don’t ever give up.”

Extracted from an article written by Mary Farquhar for Mentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2010/2011 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.


Rolex Mentor and Protégé