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To Get Reality, Forget Reality:
China's Bad-Boy Filmmaker Zhang Yuan
Comes Home

by Katja Gaskell

photo by Quentin Shih

Prodigal Beijing-based filmmaker Zhang Yuan, winner of this year's Venice International Film Festival award for Best Director, has come home with his film Seventeen Years.

The 36-year-old director has won over 20 awards at major international film festivals over the past decade for features, shorts and music videos. But his works have mostly been labeled too controversial and banned by censors at home.

Unlike his other movies - with the exception of his first film Mama - Zhang sought permission from the Chinese government to produce Seventeen Years. As a result, some critics are charging that by collaborating with authorities Zhang sold out and lost the edge that made his other films so powerful. But Zhang denies this.

"I didn't collaborate with the government. I sought permission to produce this film simply because I wanted to have my film shown in China. That's all there is to it," Zhang says matter-of-factly.

Besides, he adds, going through official channels wasn't easy. Although the film was completed last summer, he only learned in January that the film was approved for screening in China.

Seventeen Years, the story of a family torn apart by tragedy, touches upon themes of remorse, reconciliation and salvation. The movie opens with two teenage step-sisters who attend the same high school and share the same bedroom. When one sister accidentally kills the other, she is sentenced to prison at age 16.

After 17 years, the convicted sister Tao Lan is granted a weekend pass to go home for the first time for Chinese New Year. However, her parents have moved and no one comes to meet her at the bus station. Her prison guard, a young woman around her age, then drags a reluctant Tao Lan to find her parents. What follows is an intense and deeply moving family reunion.

Seventeen Years is not a happy film. It is disturbing and tragic, yet there are bittersweet moments of hope which reassure that even after a lifetime of despair, deeply buried emotions of love can be revived. Zhang's choice of bleak setting in the suburbs of an industrial Chinese city may not be a place everyone can relate to, but it is impossible not to empathize with the universal theme of human fragility explored through the relationships of family members. The young sisters experience sibling jealousy and rivalry, and at the same time are used as ammunition in the crossfire of their parents' dysfunctional marriage. Upon her release, Tao Lan tries to cope with alienation and separation as she navigates an unfamiliar society and family.

In Seventeen Years Zhang has, once again, chosen to represent people who live on the fringes of mainstream society. His first film Mama (1990) told the story of a single Beijing mother's struggle to raise her mentally-handicapped son, while Sons (1995) recounted the true story of a family torn by alcoholism and insanity.

"I choose to show these kinds of people and tell these kinds of stories because they exist and play an important part in our society," Zhang explains.

You might expect Zhang Yuan to be serious and melancholy given the often disturbing nature of his films. But he ironically can usually be found grinning, and he has an uncanny ability to command attention as soon as he enters a room. It could be his signature mass of naturally, wiry black hair sprouting from his head at all angles. Or it could be his large, lively eyes that seem to hold a dozen different thoughts at the same time.

Zhang, talking excitedly in his sparsely-decorated apartment, explains how and why his latest film was shot in his trademark documentary style. Instead of using fancy camera techniques or special effects, Zhang says he prefers to let the story speak for itself.

"I believe the style I use returns to the roots of filmmaking. It is a traditional approach that doesn't intrude upon the story being told," he explains.

"I think the philosophy behind the process of my filmmaking is 'to get reality, forget reality.' I seek reality persistently, but I can only get to reality when I forget about myself. Forgetting it is as important as obtaining it."

Watching a Zhang Yuan film is a bit like being an uninvited guest at a family argument. In contrast to the fast-paced, "feel-good" formulae offered by such box-office hits as Mei Wan Mei Liao (Sorry, Baby!), Zhang's films draw viewers into a slow, dark world as a gritty reality unfolds on the screen. In the case of Seventeen Years, the result is a drama that leaves the audience mentally exhausted and emotionally drained after leaving the theater.

Zhang was first inspired to make Seventeen Years after watching a television program in 1996 on prisoners returning to society. As part of his research, Zhang visited a number of prisons. The film is based loosely on the true story of a girl sentenced for accidentally killing her sister.

"When I visited the prisons I met so many young female prisoners who had been imprisoned for murder. I believe that women go through great emotional change during adolescence," Zhang says. "The idea of having had so much freedom, which is then suddenly taken away from you - this idea really struck me."

Although Zhang received permission to film at the Tianjin No. 1 Correctional Facility, the film itself only dedicates about 10 minutes to the main character's time spent behind bars.

"I didn't want to make a film about prison life. Of course prison plays an integral part of the story, but what is most important is how if affects the family," Zhang says.

The film has received plenty of praise abroad, with The New York Times describing Zhang as "possibly the most gifted and original filmmaker of his generation." Whether the film does well in China remains to be seen. Critics surmise that in a country where art-house films are still a rarity, there is a possibility Chinese audiences just won't get it.
But Zhang thinks they will.
"I don't believe there is anything in this film that is inaccessible, Chinese audiences will be able to accept and understand it," he maintains. "It is up to each individual to see the film and make of it what they want."

Seventeen Years will be shown with English subtitles at Cherry Lane Movies on Friday, March 10 at 8 p.m. Tickets are RMB50 each. (See Zhaole directory for address)


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