"Jalainur": Interview with Director Ye Zhao

in 13rd Pusan International Film Festival

by Élise Domenach

Élise Domenach: Jalainur is your second feature film. At the age of 29, you already directed Ma Wu Jia in 2007 (Best Picture Award at the China Independent Film Festival) and a short animation film (Cai Wei) in 2004. Your career as a filmmaker shows an amazing diversity; from animation to family drama (shot in a realistic style), to an expressionistic road-movie set in one of the biggest coal mines in Inner Mongolia. Which one is you: the documentarist, the animation director or the fiction director?

Ye Zhao: I never thought my films were so different from one another. Or maybe I never realized it. They seem continuous to me. All are very personal. They partake of the same effort to express myself.

How did you work with your cinematographer, Zhang Yi?

I studied art before doing films. The art of drawing, in particular. I was born in Beijing. Then, I moved to the South of China. There, I was lucky to attend a special art focused high school. So, I have always been very sensitive to landscapes. Photography is natural to me. After high school, I majored in the Animation Department in the Beijing Film Academy in 2004. This training in pictorial arts was so important to me that now, when I prepare my films, I draw the pictures I have in mind in a notebook. I draw a sketch of almost every shot before the actual shooting. I use these drawings to discuss with my cameraman about the colors, the light, etc. For Jalainur, we changed a lot of things on the shooting location, mainly because of the very hard conditions in which we were working. The shooting lasted sixty days, in winter, and the weather was incredibly cold (minus forty was common). It was very difficult for the crew and the actors. We shot a lot of footage. Then, the editing was crucial. Every single shot required an average of twenty takes. The main reason was that the actors were non professionals. They needed some time to get inside the feelings of their characters, and to be able to express their feelings without many words. We did a lot of takes to allow them to be at their best. Sometimes in order to wait for the right light.

Has your cinematographer, Zhang Yi been working with other Chinese film directors?

He did short films with others, but my feature films are the only ones he has done. We were class mates in the Animation Department at the Beijing Film Academy.

The film focuses on a father and son relationship that is dramatized and in that sense it is very fictional. But it’s also an amazing documentary on North-East China. The film opens inside the driver’s cabin of a mine train, and ends with a beautiful long shot (a moving painting) of the industrial landscape of Jalainur. How did you get interested in Inner Mongolia, and the coal industry? Do you have any personal connection to the place?

No. Two years ago, I wanted to do a film on farewell. I didn’t know how exactly, until last year, when I saw photographs of Jalainur in a magazine. I was struck by the place, and decided to go and take photos there. I wrote a ten-page story, took a hundred photographs on location, and came to see Helen Cui (my producer).

Helen Cui: I am familiar with the 5th and 6th generations of Chinese directors, thanks to my family, who work in the Chinese film industry. But I must say that the project and the photographs that he came to show me seemed absolutely unique to me. Since the very beginning, I knew that this project was important, and that it would be very difficult to find an audience for this film in China. That’s why we hope the movie will find its audience abroad, in Europe and America particularly.

The theme of farewell has several levels in your film: the personal level, and the economic one…

Of course. It was important to me that farewell be addressed to one’s past and history, as well as to a state of the Chinese industry, and to one another. So, I went to Jalainur by myself first, to take pictures. Then, I started looking for the actors. I always thought I would work with Liu Yangsheng (who plays the young man) some day. He is a friend. He has studied dramatic art. Then, I tried to find the actor for the older character, and he introduced me to his uncle, Li Zhizhong (who lives in Harbin). He has this amazing face, and I immediately liked him. He had a tough life, and has a mystery. I think that it shows in the film. He brings his own mystery to the character. Then, I went back to Jalainur with my cinematographer and the actors, and I shot more photographs. The last time I went on location, was to shoot the film, last winter. The whole project began in January 2008 and was finished… a few days before we showed the film here, in Pusan. It took less than a year. I was very lucky.

Did the relationship between a father and a son come from any literary influence, or did it come from your personal experience?

I guess it comes from my personal experience.

No doubt that Jia Zhangke introduced western audience to such depictions of an industrial and desolate landscapes where human beings feel at a loss. Did he he influence you?

Some people tell me that my film makes them think of Still Life. In fact, I feel very different from the realism that drives Jia Zhangke. My purpose was to shoot from a distance, in a very neutral way.

You refrain from drama. We know that terrible accidents happen every year in Chinese coal mines, and you avoid this kind of drama. Why?

Yes, because I feel very opposed to realism in fact.

What about Wang Bing: West of the tracks…

I haven’t seen his movie. Sorry.

How did you work on the soundtrack and the music?

The music was very important. In fact, Helen Cui introduced me to Lin Chaoyang, who is a very successful young Chinese composer. He is so creative.

What was the budget for your film?

About 200.000 dollars. For financial reasons, we chose to shoot in HD.

Have you been able modify the image in post-production, with special effects?

In the post production stage, we didn’t change a lot of things. A lot of it was done on location, during the shooting. I paid a lot of attention to the lighting, for instance. Most of the scenes were shot in the morning and early in the evening. We often waited for the right light, for the dust to come up from the ground, for the shadows to unfold.

What is your next project?

I have three distinct projects. I have no idea which one I will be able to do.

Helen Cui: I would like him to make a love story ! But that’s a producer’s opinion ! Berlin asked for the dvd of Jalainur. Sundance too. So, we hope this movie will be distributed abroad.

Élise Domenach interviewed Ye Zhao on October 9th 2008 in Pusan.