6 Filmmaking Tips from Zhang Yimou

The legendary director of The Great Wall has some great advice.

Zhang Yimou
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No one will ever have a career quite like that of Zhang Yimou. He and the rest of the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers learned from a very specific set of teachers and went on to make movies during a specific period for their nation in terms of the arts, industry, and politics. Still, outside of Zhang’s precise experiences, talents, accolades, criticisms, and bans is a master with a base humanity and universal aesthetic. You can not only learn certain skills to attempt to reach his level of success but also follow the limited amount of filmmaking tips he’s offered over the decades.

Below are six pieces of advice from the director behind such classics as Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, and Hero, all three of those Oscar nominees, as well as Red Sorghum, The Story of Qiu Ju, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower, and The Flowers of War, all five of those China’s non-nominated submissions for Oscar consideration, plus To Live, Shanghai Triad, and now The Great Wall. Most of these tips are and have been for the taking by any filmmaker anywhere in the world, though of course some of it does have more precise meaning for Chinese up-and-comers.

Anyone Can Direct, Part I

This first tip may come as a surprise considering it’s such common advice coming from a filmmaker of a certain background. But these days, even Zhang can be encouraging to budding talents around the world. And in many places, the advice is applicable. The following is from his acceptance speech at the 2012 Mumbai Film Festival, where he received a lifetime achievement award (via FirstPost):

Have faith in yourself. You maybe not have enough money to make a film; people might not trust you, but if you have the talent and the will to do it, eventually you will shine.

Anyone Can Direct, Part II

Now that you’ve gotten the usual tip encouraging the idea that anyone can become a filmmaker if they really want it and will work hard to get it, here is something more specific to the current Chinese film industry, which Zhang says is so huge that literally anyone can make a movie because there’s enough investments to go around. There’s no need to work hard or have talent to get started.

In the 2015 video interview for BAFTA below, he explains that’s the reason there’s no advice to give young directors. “They have got it lucky,” he says. However, he does also add what qualities they need to succeed and continue on, what he looks for in a crew, and how he hopes to lead the way for new filmmakers particularly in branching out internationally.

Know Your Audience

Like many filmmakers who break out in the international market while unpopular back home, Zhang initially made movies that the Chinese saw as too influenced by the West. But his intention wasn’t just to appeal to a global audience, particularly a white audience, outside his own country. He wished to make movies for everyone. In a 1994 interview for the Independent promoting To Live, which wound up being banned in China, he explains:

“They’ve accused me of pandering to the West for 10 years,” Zhang recalls. “But 10 years ago I hadn’t even been abroad. If you want to please the Western audience you have to know them.” The move towards spareness, he maintains, is more to do with his itch to develop as a film-maker than a sop to critics whose “narrow nationalism” will come to “seem very childish.” He is, he concedes, meticulously concerned about his audience (surely, no cardinal sin) and aware of the importance of balancing the needs of those at home, who have lived through what he films, with those of the West. But he can’t think himself into another culture. “Since I have no knowledge of a Western audience, I just take myself as human ‐ because even Westerners are human, not animals.”

More than 20 years later, in a 2016 interview for China.org.cn, Zhang updated his status as a rare Chinese filmmaker able to make movies that appeal to Western audiences while still being very much Chinese movies:

To export Chinese culture, you have to follow their format. You have to be careful and entertaining, you should not be too academic, otherwise it will not be efficient and accepted by foreign audiences. You have to succeed in this. If the film fails, your mission to export culture will fail too.

In the below interview promoting The Great Wall, Zhang explains his desire to communicate Chinese history and culture to a wider audience:

Be Unique But Not Too Complicated

For that balance needed for universal appeal and specific cultural content, another tip worth considering comes from Zhang’s personal viewpoint on the depth and originality of ideas that all films should entail. The following comes from a 1999 interview for Off Screen:

A work should be unique in idea. I think many Hollywood movies reflect a simple world outlook. Instead of putting emphasis on the breakthrough of the content, the symbolic aspect, they stress other entertainment elements to attract an audience, such as sensational approach and a high technological skill. They carry a high price tag, and sometimes are very well done, with love scenes and action. But in terms of artistic value, the symbolic meaning of the movies, some of them, not all, are kept plain. They may just draw lines of moral value, such as struggles between good and evil, something we are educated about once and for all in high school. I think movies should have more than just these, they should touch more varieties of the society, different aspects of life, and reflect people. They are more for development, more to explore. Of course this is only my personal view, each person may have their own view.

Later that same year, in an interview in the Winter 1999–2000 issue of Film Quarterly (reprinted in the book “Zhang Yimou: Interviews”), Zhang seems to contradict the above statement, though it’s actually more complimentary than it sounds. He’s saying they should be unique and substantial but still entertaining and affecting.

I think film originated from various folk performances. It should be very common and popular. I don’t think a film should carry too much theory. After all, it is not philosophy or a concept to be taught in a classroom…I tend to believe that films are about emotions. An artist’s ideas should be understood naturally through emotions. I think the subject matter of a film should be simple. Only after it is simplified, after the thoughts are simplified, can the capacity and power of emotions [of a film] be strengthened. If the subject matter and thoughts are too complicated, emotions will definitely be weakened.

The Four Aspects of Film

Although Zhang and other Chinese filmmakers have dealt with extreme circumstances compared to the rest of the world, some of his advice can seem specific to his nation yet can in fact apply to anyone. Zhang’s statement below in a recent interview for The Hollywood Reporter can be good advice to consider in America, as well as in China:

The market decides everybody’s thoughts. Today, many Chinese directors talk about box office and business. It is completely different from the time when we made Red Sorghum. We didn’t even mention business and box office. We talked only about politics and art. Now we are still talking about politics and art, but also we talk about business and box office. This is the biggest difference. You don’t know if it is a good thing or bad thing. But you know that for the directors, we always prefer talking about art more. It is a matter of balance. Now the factors affecting the balance have increased. In the past there were two words. Now there are four words.

In the same interview, this is his response to a question of what kind of advice he now gives young filmmakers:

In China, you can’t completely break away from reality. So for any young film directors, they have to consider all of these four words I mentioned earlier [politics, art, business and box office]. It is their choice which aspect they want to focus on more. But you must face all these four words.

Never Stop Learning

It has been 35 years since Zhang graduated from the Beijing Film Academy, and in that time he has become one of the most recognized and acclaimed Chinese filmmakers in the world. But he’s also still a student. In his 2012 Mumbai Film Festival acceptance speech, Zhang also said this about himself, which can be taken as a tip to do the same:

To be honest, I think I’m myself a student of moviemaking. I constantly learn how to make a good film. I get this lifetime achievement award but I think I am still learning and still have a long way to learn.

And in the following video from last year showcasing Zhang’s mentorship of Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir for Rolex’s annual initiative, he compares the relationship to the mentor and apprentice program he was in during film school and implies that mentors get as much out of such relationships as apprentices. He also directly states the belief that “the more you see, the more you learn,” and filmmakers “must never stop learning.”

What We’ve Learned

Zhang Yimou has had a special career, one with tremendous critical and commercial success, but it is difficult for him to give valuable advice to newcomers, particularly given how much China has changed, especially with regards to its film market, in the decades since he started out. The key things to consider with tips he’s offered in years past and, more relevant to young directors, in recent years, are uniqueness, independence, an ability to evolve with the industry, and an attention to the universal humanity of stories no matter where or when they’re set. In addition to what we’ve learned above, if you want to be like Zhang, then follow his lead and appreciate any awards recognition you receive but never strive for it, just make great movies.

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.