Jia Zhang-ke could fairly claim to be the most important filmmaker of his generation; he’d probably be the last person to do so. Audiences tend to scan Jia’s work for political sentiment, but the director has always attested that his films are strictly about people. As a lecturer in Shanghai University and elsewhere, he’s used to speaking about them at length. During a nearly three-hour masterclass at the Visions Du Reel festival in Switzerland last week, some of his answers stretched to nearly 30 minutes without pause, yet earlier that day, when I asked him if he believed on a fundamental level that the complexities of his characters––their interpersonal relationships and inner lives––were more important than what looms in the background of his stories––the epic geographical and architectural changes and vast social, economic, and political shifts––he paused, smiled, and simply said “yes.”

Jia was born in 1970 in Fenyang, in the Shanxi province in Northern China. During his talk, he explained that the streets he played on as a child were built during the Ming Dynasty, and that seeing them replaced upon his return from film school––seeing that “old world vanishing”––changed the course of his filmmaking. Jia’s work flicks through genres while remaining empathetic and sincere, gesturing to events of unfathomable sweep and scale while focusing on the relative microcosms of human lives. “I try to understand,” Jia explained to a packed auditorium in Nyon, “life as it is.” He’s also what I would call a natural filmmaker, an artist as at home to the language of cinema as Ronny O’Sullivan is to a snooker cue.

In person, Jia’s humility and soft-spoken politeness come with an unmistakable hint of celebrity. In both our conversation and at a dinner organized by the festival later that evening, he rolled deep: with an interpreter and two fashionable assistants who sat beside us, tapping away on smartphones and laptops. On our way to the interview, a press assistant informed me that the room we were meeting in had no windows, yet Jia spent our 40 minutes together behind a pair of aviator sunglasses (at the masterclass he apologized for this, explaining that his eyes were sore from editing). Whether I was speaking effusively about his work or bundling through a question about the challenges of filmmaking in China, his expression and tone stayed largely the same, only occasionally allowing for a mischievous laugh. In this surprisingly busy milieu, we spoke about his six-year hiatus from narrative films, his endearing appreciation for popular music, and Caught by the Tides, which will premiere next month in competition in Cannes, as so many of his films have.

Our conversation was conducted via interpreter and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Film Stage: Congratulations on the award.

Jia Zhang-ke: Oh, thank you very much.

I’m really looking forward to the masterclass later on. I imagine you’ll cover a lot about your previous films there so I’ll try to speak about some other things. There was wonderful news last week of Caught by The Tides being selected for Cannes. I was wondering if you’d be able to talk a bit about the film. I read that it was shot between the years 2000 and 2023 and that you checked back in with the same crew and actors at various points during that time. I was curious if that was the plan from the very beginning, or if the film has come together in a more organic way?

In 2001, I released my first digital film. I set up this small team with actors and we began shooting without a specific aim or form. We only shot in our favorite cities, our favorite locations. Sometimes it was purely documentary, sometimes we had a small screenplay––which reminds me of the approach of Vertov––but we didn’t have a specific idea of how the film would actually look like. I would say that it’s like clouds in the sky: clouds keep flowing, and they can go in any direction and into any shape or form.

So we really enjoyed the process. But the footage we shot at the time was simply left untouched. I didn’t even go back to watch it. However, during COVID-19, we were all condemned to stay at home. I had nothing else to do, anyway, so I began to watch previous footage and edit it, and after that we shot the contemporary part. So I could say that the film grew and prospered when social life came to a standstill. We didn’t have a preconceived idea when we started filming; the film simply grew organically. Of course, throughout the entire process I used different equipment. There was 35mm, 16mm, as well as the latest model of a digital camera called Alice. One thing I found extremely appealing was the intricate contrast of colors between images shot on different equipment.

Regarding that footage, you said in an interview that it struck you profoundly how these faces have changed” and that it helped you to “realize what cinema really is.” I was wondering if you could talk about that. What did you discover with this realization?

Over the last 22 years, there are two changes I’m particularly interested in. First is my actors. You know, there’s this one actor and one actress that I’ve been filming with, all along. And when I started, they were in their early 20s. They were in their prime youth. Now they’re in their 40s and they’re in middle age. I can see the magic that time is playing on their faces. Time keeps erasing their old selves and adding a new layer. I would say that objects stay still for us, people’s faces change.

The other change I noted is the different locations and people who inhabit these spaces. At the beginning of the century, people dressed in a different way compared to today. Their makeup, the way they conduct themselves is all different compared to today. And these spaces and locations also underwent changes. At the beginning of the century, [the country] was not as developed as today. We have different means of transport––it’s almost like a life that we put behind us. So by watching this previous footage I realized, “Oh, we used to dress that way, we used to travel that way, and the city used to look like that.” All those changes are simply beyond words, yet cinema can show you directly, with its images. And these changes are only a small part of the major transformations that the world is going through.

And personally, throughout editing I realized that the one element that we tend to forget most easily is the sounds of a particular era. And by editing, I was able to revisit and relisten to the songs of a bygone world. I think, in our recollection, it’s easy to keep visual memories with words, images, and photos yet audio memory tends to be erased easily. I have been very fortunate to be able to record the songs and voices of different times.

Caught by the Tides (2024)

Is there a particular sound that stands out when you think about that?

There are so many. Cities used to be fraught with noises. For instance: I could hear the engines of motorcycles. They made enormous noises. These days people still ride motorcycles, only motorcycles have become electric and noiseless. I also miss the vibrations of noises, particularly the noises of bicycles. Now bicycles have also become electric––it’s like they’re floating. The noisy age, when we used to run things with oil, has already gone. Now we enter the age of renewables; it’s noiseless.

I got to rewatch Ash is Purest White at the award presentation last night, which is one of my favorite films of the last ten years. I’m curious, when you’re developing a film that gestures to so many genres––say the melodrama of the romantic scenes, or this phenomenal fight sequence––do you look to film history for inspiration?

Obviously I was inspired by gangster films from Hong Kong. When I was in middle school, I watched a vast amount of films on VHS, a lot of which were Hong Kong gangster films. I would say that for Ash is Purest White, from an artistic or form point-of-view, I borrowed a great deal from gangster and mafia films. The fighting in these films quickly establishes the identity of a character. These are marginals rejected by mainstream society, and, as you said, I was mainly interested in the changes in interpersonal relationships and how their sentiments and emotions changed. Of course, I give a small hint in the film that reflects reality. In one scene Bin, the gangster boss, is watching a VHS with his brothers and it’s a fighting scene from a Hong Kong gangster film.

As you know, in China, the underground society only reestablished gradually in the ’80s––unlike in Hong Kong, where the gangster tradition has never been interrupted. It started in the late Qing dynasty, at the end of the 19th century, and it continues up to today. Whereas in China, the underground society formed organically in the ’80s. In a way, Chinese gangsters have been copying from a long tradition, and they resort to Hong Kong gangster films to observe their ways and rituals and their philosophy. So in a way, my characters were mirroring Hong Kong gangster films and I was, in a way, learning from Hong Kong gangster films as well.

The film played at Cannes in 2018. Since then you released Swimming Out Until the Sea Turns Blue, but I think six years is your longest gap between narrative films. Obviously there was COVID and other reasons for this, but I wonder, as an artist, if it was challenging to have such a long break.

I would say it wasn’t challenging until 2019 because I was making Swimming Out, which was subsequently screened in Berlin in 2020. And then COVID hit us all of a sudden. The three years of the pandemic were really challenging. I used to make one feature every two years, but my work pace had been disrupted by the pandemic. It was painful at the beginning, but we all adapted quickly and during the COVID years I finally began editing my new film. I also wrote two screenplays during that time, which will be put into production quickly. And another thing that COVID changed in my life was that I used to really enjoy being on-location, being on the spot, and I had been deprived of that pleasure during the COVID years.

You also acted as co-producer on Apichatpong’s Memoria. I was curious about your involvement there. Were you ever on location in Colombia?

No, I wasn’t on-location. [Apichatpong] is someone I appreciate as a professional and, at the same time, I consider him a personal friend. While he was preparing the film, he wanted to raise funds in China and he also wanted the film to be screened in China because China has a large audience for arthouse cinema. His films had been screened in film festivals in China, but never screened in a movie theater or distributed commercially. So I helped him as a co-producer in those ways. He is an excellent director and a mature one, so I didn’t get involved in the actual shooting. I simply helped him secure funding as well as distribution. In the end, Memoria enjoyed a wide audience in China and we were both happy.

Last night in the introduction, there was a statement read out from Claire Denis. She said, “Your films helped to introduce me to a truer China, to your China.” I think this is a sentiment shared by a lot of people who love your films. Do you ever feel any weight of responsibility there, in the way that your films are so representative of your country to so many people, especially in the West?

My films only reflect my personal perspective. I try to convey and transmit my observations in an honest manner. I feel neither responsibility nor the ability to reflect the complex realities of Chinese society. I think we need different directors––their different perspective, their different personalities––to show the different facets of the Chinese society in order to form a comprehensive narrative of China. Personally, I’m more interested in people and their experiences, how they live, what kind of pains and joys they experience. This is where my ultimate attention lies, and I try to film their lives in an honest way. My characters happen to live in China, so if the audience feels like they have a deeper understanding of China thanks to my films, then I can only say I’m flattered. But bear in mind that my starting point is always people rather than country.

I remember reading Nick Pinkerton writing that one of the most endearing things about your cinema is your appreciation for popular music. I’m always curious how you choose the songs for your films. Are they particular to the period that you’re working in, or is it more to do with what you’re listening to at the time?

Most of the songs I use in my films are my personal favorites. Some of them are not to my taste, yet they blend in really well with the story as well as the character. I think it has to do with my early years. When I was in my teens, pop music came to China. We didn’t have that before then. So pop music, which is close to teenage life, really resonated with us. I would say that, during those years, every year there was one or two pop songs that stood out from the crowd and was sung in every household. This also has to do with what I described as audio memory. Although audio memories are easily erased, pop songs can stand the test of time as this most prominent element to remember an era. Today, pop music is still omnipresent in China. Maybe not so much in big cities as in small towns. In small towns, you walk across the street and you can hear pop music everywhere. So it’s really something I have taken from natural, everyday life in China.

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