It is a great honor for Movie Chaser to have invited Ding Sheng as the third film director to receive the interview. Meanwhile, with in-depth talks with his close friends in the industry, we try to explore the authentic and artistic perspectives and original ideas of Ding Sheng’s filmmaking, in a bid to show the audience the distinctive personal style and artistic attainments of the director.
In the works of Ding Sheng, he always focuses on the struggles of the small potatoes. Thus there is a sense of authenticity in his films which is rarely seen elsewhere. This way of creation facilitates sympathy on the side of the audience who will project their own emotion and values onto the characters. It is this way of expression that makes Ding Sheng’ s films play an important role during the transition to modern Chinese action film.
In an afternoon in July, the crew of MOVIE CHASER met Director Ding Sheng in an automobile art park. Back then, he was busy with the editing of A BETTER TOMORROW 4. He took time out of his busy schedule to meet us, driving his Jeep. He looked quite fit from years of workout and with closely cropped hair and a black T-shirt, he was a man of great vigor and vitality.
It cannot be denied that Ding Sheng is one of the few “tough” directors in the Chinese film industry. Over the past 10 years, from THE UNDERDOG KNIGHT, LITTLE BIG SOLDIER to SAVING MR. WU, he has created many fine works one after another. An upright character as he is, he refuses to conform to the conventions but dares to meet challenges. His friends and partners all describe him with one word, “stubborn”.
He Jun, member of Jackie Chan Stunt Team, serves as the action director of several films directed by Ding Sheng. “Ding Sheng is so stubborn that sometimes it’s painful talking to him”, says He. Wu Liqun (Lao Zai) is a very senior musician in Mainland China. He has worked with a lot of film directors and most would heed his professional advice. Yet when it comes to Ding Sheng, he could not avoid some “bargaining”. According to Lao Zai, “Persistence is both his biggest merit and demerit at the same time.” Liu Ye was the leading character in several of his films. He believes that Ding Sheng has secured his spot in the industry. “I think it is attributed to his hard work. You may that’s his stubbornness yet on the other hand, it is also a facade of perseverance.” Jackie Chan has cooperated with Ding Sheng in three films. He made such comments, “There’s a reason for his success today. He is earnest and concentration, and he has made 100% devotion to his work, all these makes who he is.”
It wasn’t all that glamorous along the way of the pursuit of his film dream. The failures in the early times are unforgettable for him. In 2000, at the age of 30, he made a comedy entitled A STORM IN A TEACUP. He considered the film a total disaster. Every time he went to the theater to watch it, in the hope that the audience would “get excited” at the special plots or jokes he had carefully designed, it turned out that the audience weren’t moved at all. He was slammed hard and lost confidence in himself. “After that I knew what I made was nothing but bullshit. I made the investors, the audience and most importantly the film, disappointed. The feeling was so bad that I could never erase it from my memory.”
However, a man with perseverance will not be bended so easily. It was at that time that he became more determined to walk down his career path as a film director. “I think that was a very important film for me, a turning point for me at the age of 30. I became more determined that I’m walking down this path as a film director. I had this very clear goal to shoot the next film and not fail again.” Later, he went back to the Film Academy for one year in the Department of Film Directing. After graduation, he stayed low profile, shooting advertisements while accumulating for his next film. After establishing himself in the advertisement industry, he went to see Jing Wong with three of his screenplays. Wong pointed out the weaknesses in storytelling and asked for a new story from him within 7 days. The film adapted from this story is THE UNDERDOG KNIGHT—another turning point of his career.
THE UNDERDOG KNIGHT franchise flares up a new tough man style in Chinese film
–“I am more stubborn than Lao San (protagonist of THE UNDERDOG KNIGHT) and many times I thought it was me up there.”
The first THE UNDERDOG KNIGHT is considered as the most representative works of Ding Sheng. His toughness permeates the whole film, from the highly stylized lens, fist-to-fist actions scenes to the subtle touch of brotherhood between men. In his camera, toughness is reflected not only in the simplicity and righteousness of the protagonist, but also in the impulsion and resolution of the unyielding antagonists.
The leading actor, Liu Ye, thinks that he shares the simplicity and perseverance with the protagonist in the film, and so does Ding Sheng. The crew spent the first day of shooting and finished with the main scene. From 6:00 in the morning to 8:00 in the morning of the next day, they kept shooting the whole day and the DP Ding Yu remembered that he shot over 70 scenes within that day, “For push-ups alone, Liu Ye did more 1000 times.” This craziness of working satisfies Ding. “No one complained the overwork. We felt this is the way it should be.” Ding Yu said, “The director was all about details. He allows for no slackness of the crew. He set the same standards for himself.”
Sometimes in shooting, Ding Sheng was so stubborn that Liu Ye found him impossible. When it came to underwater shooting, he insisted that the crew go to a harbor in Qingdao, where there docked a lot of cargo ships. He also insisted that Photographer Ding Yu went underwater to shoot the scenes. With no previous underwater shooting experience, Ding Yu and others all thought it was too risky. Ding Sheng put on his swimming goggles immediately and dived into the water to explore the underwater possibility. “He was so persistent that you could not get angry with him.” said Liu Ye, laughing.
Ding Sheng was overloaded with work during the whole process of shooting. After a day’s shooting, he still had to draw storyboard and work on the lines for the next day. He slept only two hours for several days in a row. The man was worn out by the high intensity of the production, and finally got sick. In order not to delay the shooting process, he showed up at the set with venereal injection. “You only hear about a film director shooting while taking an injection. We actually saw that at THE UNDERDOG KNIGHT.” Ding Yu still had vivid memory of his hard work.
The anecdote of dustbin happened at the end of the shooting of THE UNDERDOG KNIGHT, which was always on the lips of Ding Sheng. The last scene was when Lao San threw a water bottle into a dustbin. The camera stands still at the arc shape of the mouth of the dustbin that reminded people of a smiling face, symbolizing the protagonist’s determination to separate from his love and embrace of a new life. Yet behind this scene is the “stubbornness” of Ding Sheng towards a dustbin. “The mouth of the blue dustbin at the entrance of the Qingdao Museum looks like a smiling face.” Ding told the crew, wherever to shoot the last scene of dustbin, he would like the same one as it.
Ding said, “People seek for perfection.” In order to find the perfect bin for Ding Sheng, the producer and art director went to all the stores in Qingdao, big and small. They even tried to move the dustbin from the Qingdao Museum. However, it didn’t always go as wished. The next day, the crew randomly chose one wharf in the city and Ding Sheng had to make do with a common dustbin. When they were to shoot the scene of Lao San throwing the water bottle, the rain began to pour. The crew went to find a shelter. By then, Ding was still lamenting for not having the ideal dustbin. But when the rain stopped, they rainfall washed away the rubbish and revealed some bins that were covered underneath, and they turned out to be the same as the ideal dustbins of Ding Sheng. “It was just unbelievable! I turned around and said that was exactly the dustbin I wanted. There appeared at least five same dustbins and everyone was shocked. You see things work out if only you have faith!” Recalling this experience, Ding could not help laughing. It seems that he had god on his side that time.
He completed the filming of THE UNDERDOG KNIGHT within a short period of one month and all his accumulated energy was blown in the film. Maybe for the audience Lao San is an interesting character with guts and simplicity; yet for Ding Sheng, the character carries his own values of good and evil and his ideas of how to be a tough man. The character is a reflection of his inner world, “I am even more stubborn than Lao San. Many times I thought it was me up there.”
With no spectacles or dazzling stunts, the film attracts the audience with the vivid image of the protagonist. The film, with strong personal style of Ding Sheng, breaks from the conventional image of a Chinese hero and delivers a different expression of toughness, making Ding Sheng a pioneer in presenting a new style of toughness in Chinese films.
Joinning hands with Jackie Chan Ushers a New Era of Chinese Crime Films
— “I am a man making films.”
Ding Sheng established his style through THE UNDERDOG KNIGHT franchise. His understanding and focus on the small potatoes had a sweet spot with Jackie Chan’s pursuit of change and constant breakthrough. In his camera, Jackie Chan created completely different screen images, where he put off the laurels of a hero and played common people.
The two began cooperation in the shooting of advertisements. At the shooting set, Jackie Chan observed how Ding manage and coordinate the shooting process. His earnest attitude left a deep impression on Jackie Chan. Jackie Chan asked whether he was interested in filmmaking and gave him a simple story: in ancient time, two armies fight with each other and both were annihilated except for a soldier and a general of the opponent. The soldier wants to claim awards by taking the enemy general back to his country. The two undergo innumerable trials and hardships and return to the country, only to find the country has been annihilated. The simple storytelling inspired Ding Sheng, who said, “It is an excellent storyline.” Initially, Jackie Chan didn’t take the story serious. However, after half a year, Ding Sheng went to see him with a complete screenplay, characters, style and environment. Jackie Chan was deeply moved by his hard work and rigorous attitude. He signed the contract of the film LITTLE BIG SOLDIER with Ding Sheng. Naturally, Ding Sheng requested to be the director. However, it is by no means easy to shoot a Jackie Chan film. He must first be approved by Jackie Chan himself.
As the most respected Kongfu star at home and abroad, Jackie Chan has accumulated decades of experience in action films. He has kept a set of high standards for his films. One evening before the shooting of LITTLE BIG SOLDIER, Jackie Chan said directly to Ding Sheng that if Ding was not up to his standards as the director, he would direct the film by himself.
Hearing this, Ding felt great pressure thus talked with Jackie Chan every evening since shooting about the scenes next day and solicit his suggestions. In the daytime, Jackie Chan always observed him working. “At the set, I watched him from afar to see if he needed my help.” Three days later, the agent of Jackie Chan came to Ding Sheng to reassure him, “Don’t worry. You have passed the test of Jackie Chan.” Jackie Chan said, “He has earned my trust. He knows full well how to manage the set and what the producer wants.” Yet at that time, Ding Sheng considered himself a staff at the set, “I just want Jackie Chan to see me working in a down-to-earth way. To be honest, I seek nothing from him. I’m not trying to take advantage standing on the shoulders of a giant. I am so content with making films with him.”
Ding Sheng wants to show a different image of Jackie Chan through LITTLE BIG SOLDIER. In 2010, LITTLE BIG SOLDIER stood out from 14 films released during the Chinese New Year and topped the box office with RMB 160 million. This road film from the Warring States Period helped Ding enter “100-million-box-office director club”. It also brought more opportunities for him to work with Jackie Chan. Later, in POLICE STORY 2013 and RAILROAD TIGERS, Jackie Chan played more small-potatoes roles in these films. According to Jackie, “Through the three characters in the three films directed by Ding Sheng, he has said a lot of what I intend to say.”
When shooting POLICE STORY 2013, Ding Sheng stayed for three months in the Fifth Division of Beijing Police Force to learn about the work of the police in Mainland China. At the time, he lived together with the officers, even participated in the detection and arrest of kidnappers. In this way, he had a thorough picture on how a case was solved and how a suspect was interrogated. It helped a lot in putting together the screenplay of POLICE STORY 2013. Meanwhile, it guaranteed the authenticity of the details in the film. This unforgettable experience also paved the way for his next crime film, SAVING MR. WU.
Breaking from Convention, SAVING MR. WU was Shot in Documentary Style with Handheld Shot and No Storyboard
— “I don’t want to repeat myself.”
In his days with the Police Force, Ding Sheng got to know the Legend of Beijing Police, Cao Zhigang. He told Ding that the case which left the most profound impression over his decades of experience of crime fighting was the kidnapping of Wu Ruofu the actor. Ding Sheng drew inspiration from the case for the film, SAVING MR. WU. “I began collecting information. I interviewed some policemen who participated in the case. They even showed me the details and internal videos of that case.” Ding said, “Who else shall make the film if not me?”
However, the authenticity of the story is a double-edge sword for the film itself. On one hand, the topic can arouse the curiosity of the audience. On the other hand, it’s a fine line to walk between fact and fiction. If the story gets over-dramatized, it loses its credibility. If it is too faithful to the reality, the story loses its tension and suspense. Such dilemma made the shooting more difficult and Ding Sheng was faced with a new challenge.
“I don’t want to repeat myself.” This is the biggest challenge faced by him in filming SAVING MR. WU. He became stubborn again in the making of the film. He overthrew his traditional methods, “Before SAVING MR. WU, I used to draw storyboard and take camera into consideration from very early stage. I told myself this time I would not draw any storyboard.” Such shooting techniques seemed exciting for Ding Sheng as there’s more room for improvisation. Together with his team, they set the tone for the whole film: a sense of participation. Thus he gave his DP Ding Yi more freedom in creativity and broke all their previous working patterns.
“I told Ding Yu that he could shoot the film freely. He needed not consider the line or the movement or the angles. I even didn’t ask for perfect lighting. I want your lighting to look like without any lighting. It is better that your camera is not steady so that the audience has the feeling of gasping.”
Apart from a lot of handheld shots, Ding Sheng required the actors and actresses to maintain spontaneity in acting. At the set, Ding Sheng would show video of the actual kidnapping case to them and asked them to find their own place. Moreover, he set some hidden cameras to catch the most spontaneous reactions of them. All these created an immersive atmosphere throughout the shooting.
This way of filmmaking seems casual, but it makes SAVING MR. WU its own kind. Ding Yu believes that these techniques only fit few films. “Probably there will not be any films to apply such techniques.” Unsteady camera, authentic acting, coupled with neat editing and proper symbolization of the characters allow the 106 minutes film to build up the tension to its maximum. The documentary style and variable tempo, the freedom of acting left for the actors and actresses, as well as the confrontation between the police and suspects in a narrow space, make the audience hold their breath while watching the film. The success of the film with unique techniques testifies the ability of Ding Sheng in making crime film.
The film SAVING MR. WU helps Ding Sheng outrun himself. With the market recognition of his previous way of filmmaking, Ding Sheng chose a new way of artistic expression with the tone of authenticity. Under the principle, his ingenious storytelling shown in SAVING MR. WU took the whole Chinese film market. It is this film that won him the Golden Rooster Award for Best Editing this year and made him one of the best directors of crime films.
Confronting Pressure to do the remake of A BETTER TOMORROW 4
—“I’m doing it, scolded or not.”
A BETTER TOMORROW franchise constitute an amazing chapter in the history of Chinese film. It ushered in the era of gang hero films. A BETTER TOMORROW ranks the first among the top 100 Hong Kong films selected by film critics. The legendary film got Ding Sheng instant sensation and a lot of suspicion when he announced that he was going to do the remake. “It is a film bound to arouse criticism.” Speaking of A BETTER TOMORROW 4, he became stubborn again. “People would question why you are qualified to remake the classic or how you could adapt the original one. Fine. I would still do it. So what?”
After shooting POLICE STORY 2013, he knew that remaking classics would mean great pressure. Yet the IP of A BETTER TOMORROW which was brought out again after 30 years was a huge temptation for Ding Sheng. When the producer invited him to be the director, he chose to seize the opportunity. “I thought to myself by then, I would regret if I give the chance to others.” Then he made the decision, “I would rather be scolded than giving it up.”
His DP Ding Yu tried to dissuade him out of it, yet he persisted, “He is so stubborn that he thinks he could overcome any difficulty.” His style in directing is very distinctive. He is tough and romantic, which matches perfectly with the theme of the film, A BETTER TOMORROW, which features brotherhood and righteousness of men. Like a lot of people, Ding Sheng loves the film. He has no intention to simply copy paste the classic; rather, he hopes to integrate his personality and express himself in the film.
He made some new attempts in the filming of A BETTER TOMORROW 4. In terms of image, he chose aerial photography, handheld shot and various large mobile devices while shooting; in terms of actors, he chose three young actors—Wang Kai, Ma Tianyu and Wang Dalu, to rejuvenate the film. All these aimed for an atmosphere of modernity to differentiate it from the old version.
Time changes and heroes always exist. What Ding Sheng hopes is to present the classic hero film with modern film language. “I don’t know what A BETTER TOMORROW 4 will bring me, yet it is my 8th film and I exert all my energy to tell the story in an earnest way.” A BETTER TOMORROW 4 is bound to be another signature Ding Sheng film.
It is such stubbornness that got Ding Sheng where he is today. He said, “I am always a small potato and I express what I believe through my films.” He only believes in things that he emphasizes with, and without stubbornness it will not work.
Selected Parts of the Interview
MC: After scoring sound box office performance with Jackie Chan’s LITTLE BIG SOLDIER, was there any changes in your state of mind?
Ding Sheng: The real meaning of the film was to tell me that I could be a successful filmmaker. THE UNDERDOG KNIGHT has many weaknesses, with limited budget and by then I was a bit rusty as I hadn’t made film for 6 years. There is a spirit in the film that makes it special to the audience. Yet I think LITTLE BIG SOLDIER is better-rounded, and I spare no efforts making it.
Many thought that I was discovered by Jackie Chan, but he himself didn’t take it as a Jackie-Chan-formula film. Anyone knows him can tell. Also, I know full well that the so-called “100-million box office director” has nothing to do with me. The credit goes all to Jackie. The high box office revenue should be attributed to him, and I was a filmmaker simply. Now I still think this way. I always think that it is not me who brings the box office success for the several films I worked with Jackie Chan.
Jackie Chan film belongs exclusively to Jackie Chan himself. I went to film festivals abroad with Jackie Chan. I know that there is such a character who attracts a lot of people walking in the street and people would ask for his signature even when they fall. All the tickets are bought for him, not me. I always feel I am a small potato, one who makes films. So I feel it’s nothing when people talks to me about how high is the box office is. It’s not because I’m the director. And at the same time I am reassured that I haven’t let my audience down.
MC: How would you evaluate the success or failure of a film?
Ding Sheng: I think it depends on whether the film can stay. If it is made to exist for a moment, then the audience would not watch it again. If the audience would not think back after watching it, then the film is a failure. I think what I should strive to do is to make my films stay longer. For example, the film POLICE STORY 2013 is still a complete story and fine film even without the previous POLICE STORY franchise. It’s real.
I didn’t imitate Hong Kong films and didn’t try to leverage in Jackie’s earlier glory. Instead, I put him in a new film and he played the character successfully. The film also reflected some social realities at that time. I think it is a good film and so is LITTLE BIG SOLDIER, just as I think A STORM IN A TEACUP is a bad film.
MC: I think being stubborn is the ultimate artistic expression of a film director. As you are never satisfied and constantly seek better results, then you find yourself in such a situation. Is there any bottleneck period?
Ding Sheng: There will always be problems when it comes to filmmaking. You need to find a solution when you are faced with a problem. If you cannot come up with a solution, you put it aside for a while. At least I can change the lines or proceed from other aspects when editing. I think it is not bottleneck. It is the fact that there will always be some problems with the film that make you unsatisfied. Sometimes it is caused by time, schedule, weather or other factors that you have to change your plan. And after the changes, I don’t think there is any big loss. Up to now, I haven’t reshoot any scenes of my film, for that I could say I am a reliable director. I would always try to find a way to solve unsolved problems in a different part of filmmaking.
MC: Have you thought about what to do if you stop making films one day?
Ding Sheng: I cherish the current life as a director. I am a person who feels reluctant to seek help from others. I spare no efforts in my work and I am strong in developing films. Moreover, I am still quite energetic. I work hard and if someday I will be too old to work this way, if one day I exhaust my creativity, or I have nothing to express in films, then I will not waste time on this job.
I have a dream and I believe it will be turned easily into a reality. I want to be a painter and hold my own exhibition. I have been drawing for many years since I was five years old actually. I think of myself as a talented painter. Drawing is another state where you need not adapt to other’s disposition, nor seek funding or consider the market. I draw whatever I want to express and it doesn’t need the appreciation of anyone, only self-admiration is enough. It is not difficult to hold an exhibition, and I know I can realize it, though I don’t know when to do it. I sometimes think to myself whether I need a bigger house to include my own painting studio.
MC: What are the suggestions you have for those who want to pursue a career in the film industry?
Ding Sheng: Be stubborn and you will be rewarded. Actually, what I mean of being stubborn is being concentrated. Take me for example, I could make a lot of money by shooting advertisement and I am happy with that work as it is not so tiring. Yet I choose filmmaking, which is relatively more demanding. When I choose to make films, I immediately quit making commercials, no matter how much money I could make out of it. Because I might not be up to it even when I focus, how could I make it if I try to juggle more than one? I think it is the meaning of being stubborn. You will not succeed if you are not stubborn.
MC: How would you describe the career as a film director?
Ding Sheng: A good film director is a good and detail-oriented storyteller.