Interview: award-winning film director Zhang Dalei

What's it like to make one of the most-anticipated films of the decade?

Before last November, few people had heard of Zhang Dalei. The 34-year-old director, who attended film school in Russia, had only a few shorts and an unreleased debut feature film to his name. Then that debut feature, The Summer Is Gone, clinched Best Feature Film and two other awards at last year’s Golden Horse Awards, essentially the most prestigious honours in Chinese film.

The list of previous Golden Horse winners reads like a who’s who of heavyweight Chinese-language directors – Hou Hsiaohsien, Ang Lee, Jiang Wen, Ann Hui, Stephen Chow and more. If being placed among their ranks has gone to Zhang’s head, he doesn’t show it. He even remains modest about the roots of his cinephilia, insisting 'there’s no way to specifically say what influenced me. When I was a kid, I didn’t want to be a director, I just watched a lot of movies. And I wasn’t watching movies to truly appreciate them or to discover something deeper inside, I just had nothing to do.'

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Shot in handsome black and white, The Summer Is Gone is drawn from the same childhood that Zhang spent watching movies. The film is heavily autobiographical, centred around a young boy named Xiaolei growing up in Zhang’s home province of Inner Mongolia in the early ’90s. Xiaolei’s father works for a state run film studio – Zhang’s own father worked as a film editor – that closes in the wake of growing privatisation in China. As Xiaolei comes of age, the country undergoes its own changes
around him.

The film’s success is all the more notable given its humble creation. Like many debut features, one of its biggest issues was financial, with a budget of only around two million RMB, much of it raised by Zhang. The movie’s cast was also composed of non-professional actors. The actress who plays Xiaolei’s mother had hired Zhang to shoot a wedding celebration, while Kong Weiyi, who plays Xiaolei, was the child of a friend of one of Zhang’s father’s co-workers. Kong’s debut performance went on to earn The Summer Is Gone another one of its other Golden Horse Awards, for Best New Performer. Zhang is characteristically quick to shift the credit to his cast: 'Everyone was very skilled. They didn’t need my instruction, they had more experience than me.'

Now that he’s an award-winner, Zhang’s focus hasn’t changed much. He’s still mostly concerned with the difficulties of getting funding and determining the scope of his next film. One thing’s for sure, though: given his auspicious debut, we have high expectations.

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After you finished the film, did you find it was different from what you expected?
I never thought of this movie as realism. It’s actually like a daydream that particularly matches my memory, especially memories of my experience in the ’80s and ’90s. True or false, virtual or real, these are always hard to distinguish. So until I finished the film, I had no way to set these things apart. Its type of hazy, boundary-less sense was just what I wanted, though.

What was the biggest issue you had with filming?
I think that money is the most obvious, apparent issue. Although I could never resolve financial problems, I think the real problem was with myself. Probably it was that there were things I didn’t understand, or you could say that my judgement wasn’t mature. Actually, in those years of waiting [to make the film], I was able to reflect upon myself. That was a good pause, I’m thankful for that pause. I’ve matured. Regardless of whether it’s personal maturation, or maturing in regard to film, or just in regard to The Summer Is Gone, it’s been a constant process of maturation. When it comes to making lots of choices, these things are a lot clearer afterwards, when time gives you some distance.

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You studied film in university. What did you get out of that? And why did you choose Russia?
I actually just went to Russia to escape from my life before. I simply wanted to leave home, to not be supervised, so I went there. Maybe it was fate. If it weren’t Russia, if I could’ve gone to Mongolia, I would have also gone there. If it were Cambodia, I would have gone there. As I long as I was leaving home, it was okay. But it turned out the greatest thing I gained from those six years was the past I’d left far behind. Once I’d left my home so far behind, I began to look back on all the things I’d lost.

For your next, do you still want to make a similar kind of movie?
Yes. In terms of this type of movie, I don’t have a clear-cut idea [of what that is]. You can say with the drama Taxi Driver that it’s a classic art film, but it was a box office success when it came out. I think first you can take what you’re sure of, then you can naturally put in your own emotions.

How did you feel after you won at the Golden Horse?
Our strongest feeling was that we all hadn’t been so busy for nothing. That our decisions have been vindicated. This film is very important to me, and it was necessary to help me decide what to do next. So now you know I’ll be able to make another film.

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The Summer Is Gone is in cinemas from Friday 24 March.

By Wang Xiaoyi
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