Interview: Jia Zhangke

Director Jia Zhangke talks about his new film, shooting the future and...dumplings

Jia Zhangke has made his name as a filmmaker by staying current. From his early films shot guerilla-style in his gritty hometown of Fenyang, Shanxi province to more recent efforts that span across China, Jia’s films have had a constant focus on the ways China has changed and modernised. From his first full-length film, Pickpocket, to 2013’s A Touch of Sin, Jia has consistently used his position as director to craft statements about the way people live in China today.

Which is why it’s surprising to hear that Jia’s newest film, Mountains May Depart, is partially set not just outside of China, but also in the future. Set across three years — 1999, 2014 and 2025 — the film charts the path of a woman, her two suitors and her son from Fenyang to Australia. While the film marks Jia’s first international production and his first attempt at sci-fi, the focus of the film still lies squarely on China’s current day capitalist frenzy.

After A Touch of Sin, a viscerally violent film whose view of a thoroughly corrupt modern China led to its banning, Mountains May Depart marks Jia’s return to Mainland screens. While there are no killing sprees, the film still promises its own incisive portrayal of modern China.

In the future portion of Mountains May Depart, the design of objects like mobiles and tablets all have a very futuristic feel. Was this your personal vision?
When we shot the 2025 segment of the film there was just one major question, which was whether to approach it from the angle of science fiction or realism. After I thought it over, I decided we really had to go backward instead. So [the characters] drive old cars and listen to vinyl records. But I think in contrast to that, in this film all the communication is done through iPads and mobiles. It’s a thread that runs through the whole film, exploring how technology affects our feelings and emotions.

You've been promoting the film abroad. Are there any foreign cities you especially like?
I really like New York. Every time I go there it's for an event, like the New York Film Festival or an exhibition at MOMA. I like the equality in that city. For example, I have really bad English, but no one there makes fun of me, people are all very warm-hearted. I also quite like Rome, you can see all of its culture and civilization wherever you go, right out on the street. That kind of feeling, its openness, its history and the openness of its history, I especially like that. It's as if on every corner you can find a statue, a museum or a piece of street art.

In terms of language in the film, the Cantonese used seems very melodious and even alluring.
Yes, I think it’s like that, it just feels very tangible. Like in the film there’s a scene where one character makes dumplings for their lover. This is the kind of feeling we always tend to overlook when it happens in normal life, but when it becomes used in a film it’s different. I remember during a trial screening, when my assistant, who is from Shanxi, saw the part with the ear of wheat dumplings, he just couldn’t take it because every time he returned to Taiyuan, his grandmother would make those dumplings for him.

What are ‘ear of wheat’ dumplings?
Most dumplings aren’t really pinched shut like ear of wheat dumplings; these dumplings are more complicated. To close the dumpling there’s a kind of trick, which is to close the opening in a way that resembles the pattern on an ear of wheat. There are a lot of creases. For most families, when you’re young there are a lot of other kids around. During Chinese New Year, though, your mother knows to make ear of wheat dumplings just for you, to help you grow up strong and healthy.

What are your ten favourite films?
I can’t choose. I used to be able to pick favourites, but I haven’t been able to for a few years. Nowadays I refuse to answer the question. I think it’s too cruel. There are too many films that I like. I can recommend a few films that I especially liked recently, though. I recently re-watched Rome, Open City. Abel Gance's La Roue is truly great. The world of movies I like to watch is really older, more classical.

By Aaron Fox-Lerner and Zhang Xiaoqi

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