How to Shoot a Crafted Countryside Romance
— Director Yang Zi and His Mountain Cry

In 2015, Mountain Cry was selected as the closing film of Busan International Film Festival and was highly praised. Director Yang Zi talked about how he shot Mountain Cry, and what he thought and gained in the process of creation. he said, “The most important and the most difficult thing for a director is to tell a good story and return to the essence of filmmaking.”

Mountain Cry is a special work for Yang Zi. He calls it his debut, despite releasing several commercial films before. The film was shot in 2014, adapted from the novel of the same name by Ge Shuiping, a famous female writer. The original work won many awards including the 4th Lu Xun Literature Prize and People’s Literature Award in 2005.

Yang Zi has always known he wanted to be director. He studied abroad in his teenage years, and after gaining an economics degree, he returned to Beijing and studied acting at Beijing Film Academy. “I just couldn’t stop my craving for acting”, he says. It was owing to an exchange program between Beijing Film Academy and University of Edinburgh that he came to study film. At that time, Professor Xie Fei from the BFA was invited to the Edinburgh Festival, and Yang Zi was responsible for the reception. The two weeks he spent with the great director turned his thinking upside down. At the moment of parting, Xie Fei advised him to consider becoming a director, which no doubt equated to huge approval for Yang Zi, urging him to rethink and adjust his goal.

In 2007, at the age of 27, Yang Zi finished his graduate study, and openly declared his determination to be a director. It was the third major decision he made about his career. His family chose to offer him the strongest support in spite of several nervous breakdowns. During the first six months after his public declaration, he was given no chances at all to work as a director. His mother lent him some money so he could shoot his first film and start his directorial career.

However, he was very nervous two days before the shooting of his first film. What he didn’t know then was that he was fully ready with years of imperceptible preparation. “When I sat there, the ideas a director should have at that time just occurred to me. It was amazing”, he said. He suddenly realized he had already found what he was born to do. Nonetheless, he was always unsatisfied with his work, no matter whether he was shooting commercial films or films with more freedom of creativity such as NANA. He bluntly called two of his commercial films “rubbish”. In 2014, when he saw the script of Mountain Cry with several rounds of revisions on his computer, he was astonished by his limited creative ability in 2008. He started to rethink his gains and losses over the years, and embarked on a wholly new journey of creativity.

In April 2014, the Mountain Cry script won the prize for “Most Commercial Potential” in the project venture unit of the Fourth Beijing International Film Festival, and was thus selected for the New Chinese Film Talents Fund Forum of The Film Market at the Cannes International Film Festival. In 2015, Mountain Cry was selected as the closing film of Busan International Film Festival and was highly praised.

We talked to Yang Zi about how he shot Mountain Cry in a gentle, voluble manner. He told us what he thought and gained in the process of creation. At the end of the interview, he said with great sincerity, “A director will never be fettered by so-called commercial routines, or regard them as skills he can rely on to tell a good story. The most important and the most difficult thing for a director is to tell a good story and return to the essence of filmmaking. ”

 

 

CFM: Mountain Cry is set in a rural area and contains such realistic elements as women trafficking and domestic violence. Yet the film has made great efforts to depict the love between a young man and a young woman who are both kindhearted. What is the story behind it?

Yang Zi: The story comes from the original work. The novel didn’t exaggerate domestic violence or human trafficking, so I retained this arrangement and focused on effective development of the two characters. I was very young when I revised the script in 2008, so I was far from able to fully understand the subject. What I did was more of a personal explanation of what I understood in my excitement. Honestly, love was the only thing I could perceive in this novel at that age. When I took out the play in 2014, I had my moments of introspection. I was thinking whether I would need to dig deeper into the script writing the second or third time. I was also thinking whether the digging would change the initial essence of the novel. The final decision was to dig deeper into the existing story chains while maintaining the original innocence of the plot and characters.

 

 

CFM: You mentioned you have adopted and sublimated your experience accumulated in shooting previous commercial films in Mountain Cry. Can you explain how you balance market concerns and art in shooting a literary film? How was creating Mountain Cry different from previous commercial films?

Yang Zi: In fact, I didn’t deliberately balance the two in terms of my creativity. I just told a story in the way I am best at. People deem the film as literary, perhaps because it is based on a rural subject. We often identify the nature of a film by its subject matter, but it is not necessarily so. In my opinion, a rural subject can also be used to produce a commercial story or a film with a good narrative.

At the very beginning, I didn’t identify it as a literary film, nor did I constrain my creativity within the framework thereof. I just wanted to tell a clear story in the smoothest way I know, using techniques that wouldn’t divert the audience’s attention from the story. I packaged characters layer by layer and presented them, to let the audience understand the essence of the story that way. I wanted to produce a comfortable feeling. I didn’t think much about attending film festivals or winning prizes. I just wanted to shoot meaningful scenes. I didn’t want to make a rural film in a realistic style. I knew that if I did, it would be drawing a tiger after the model of a cat. I am not good at that, and it can by no means produce a crafted film. I prefer following my own heart to behaving in an affected way.

This was the only way I could ensure the final film was just what I wanted it to be. As for how the audience would relate to it, I was not quite sure when shooting it. Now I am quite sure most audience are willing to watch films that tell good stories, and characters in these films can still arouse empathy.

I believe there is a gray zone between commercial films and pure literary films, and many films belong to this vaguely defined zone. Such a film has a strong narrative and well-rounded characters. It depicts a sort of impulse with great tension. Yet it is shot without losing artistic feelings or techniques, and it possesses the artistic appeal required by all literary films. I like this gray zone very much. Maybe it is the only zone that suits me well.

What impresses me the most is if I can give full play to my talents in shooting films, they will often meet with favor regardless of their genre. When creativity is in this intermediate zone, you need to produce a film in which you can give play to your talents and boldly shape a “reality” that is beyond the truth, or you need to create a realistic ambiance, build a pure visual world and a literary world for the film, and then mold characters. As long as you can create something in its entirety, or if what you have created can blend into one harmonious whole, the audience will be willing to bring themselves into the story. In fact, they are quite tolerant and curious about the film world.

At the beginning, I saw filmmaking as something experimental, as I personally had no background or experience of living in a rural area. To be frank, I was not sure what the real situation of a mountainous rural area in the mid-1980s should be if I were to depict a true picture of it in those years. Thus, I basically raised each link of the film to the ambiance I could understand from the start. Although the story is based on real life, I tried to add a sense of design to everything, and even a sense of exaggeration to some. In the aspect of character building, I asked the actors not to deliberately imitate how rural people speak and behave. Generally speaking, actors can only acquire a smattering of imitation after accumulating social experience for a long time. Instead of doing so, I preferred to make best use of my advantages – imagination.

I actually built a world I have imagined for Mountain Cry. This world is poles apart from the original work and the author’s intention when writing. I wanted it to be beautiful; I wanted to create a gorgeous and varied environment for the story. Although the story showed the shackles of human nature, the environment didn’t need to be poor. I just wanted daylight and depth of field. Usually, directors are allowed to realize their ideas in filmmaking; I added all my ideas to this film. If I am able to make audiences believe in this world I created, they can be brought into the world easily as long as the story is good, even though they may find some factual inaccuracies.

In fact, what impressed me most in this process is that I found another way of shooting films that can still arouse the audience’s empathy without asking for an extremely realistic and precise depiction of all environments and details. The point is to bring the audience into the story and the visual world you built through characters and narrative. In the meantime, I realize directors can sometimes try creating stories in strange environments, because the key is to return to the essential characters and story rather than presenting a strange world.

 

 

CFM: We find many famous actors in your previous commercial films. How did you choose the two stars of Mountain Cry? They both acted very well and have been recognized and praised by audiences. As an experienced actor yourself, what are your requirements as a director?

Yang Zi: We considered contacting famous performers for this project at the beginning. It would have guaranteed box office success. During the preliminary discussion, we dropped this idea not only because of objective factors such as investment and scheduling, but also because we felt that young performers would do just as well.

Lang Yueting played the mute girl in the film. We have known each other for a long time. She is the fresh blood Johnnie To has been cultivating. We are sure she has potential for development in future. She is also a pianist, and has devoted twenty years to her playing. She has a real artistic temperament, which she uses in her acting, making her style unique. Her overall image and personality fit the character quite well. I found that she was much better than average performers in controlling the rhythm of her performance, maybe because she has engaged in music for years.

The character of the mute girl required the actress to control her limbs and pace without saying a word. It is very difficult for average performers to act without the support of language. Yet Lang Yueting is musician. Language is not necessary for her. She is accustomed to training her inner rhythm. This is an advantage that average performers don’t have.

I hope the mute girl can convey the beauty of the mountains and a feeling of ethereal harmony. Lang Yueting fits the aesthetic feeling I wanted to produce, with her refined temperament. I told her that she had the thing I wanted, and she shouldn’t let the character, the play, and the subject matter imprison how she felt about herself. Before shooting, I didn’t ask her to watch any films for reference or to make any preparation. I even asked her not to read the script. I said, “Just come.” I did this because I didn’t want her to bear any psychological burdens or to be influenced by any first impressions. Instead, I wanted her to wear her costume, stand in her character’s house, and feel what came to her in the first moment.

I have also known Wang Ziyi for a long time. He has a gift. The duality of his character in the film can be found in his own personality as well. He looks lackadaisical and indifferent, but he is quite explosive when necessary. I myself have studied acting, and I like integrating my understanding of performance into filmmaking. In my view, it is wiser to create a character that is close to the performer than to ask the performer to try their best to get close to the character. In this way, we can save much time and reduce the influence resulting from our consciousness of achieving the desired effect. On the contrary, if the character is close enough to the performer, they can eliminate all distractions when controlling the character; what they need to do is just be there. This is also what I told Wang Ziyi to do. He had many lines. I asked him to get familiar with the character and feel what it is like to be him. Also, I asked him not to refer to any other films or try feeling anything in them. He only needed to act like a city boy.

I had a feeling from the very beginning that the performers shouldn’t act like rural people in reality if they wanted to shape the characters successfully. They needed to act as if they were in an urban idol drama, so that they could feel comfortable on the set. They only needed to bear in mind how to display their most beautiful or most attractive side. What I wanted from them was confidence. Their job was to put on the costumes, stand in the environment we built, and act in the most confidential manner; my job was to address those inadequacies.

 

 

CFM: Mountain Cry has been screened at many international film festivals. How has the audience feedback been during its overseas screening? How do you view the responses of the foreign audience?

Yang Zi: Generally speaking, the overseas screening of Mountain Cry has produced a decent result which has met our expectations. Unfortunately, I have not had many changes to exchange in-depth views with foreign viewers. I think audiences from all over the world share common feelings when they watch the same film and hear the same story. As long as you can present a plot that is good enough, characters that are well rounded enough, and conflicts that are full of tension, audiences will naturally accept a story that arouses their emotions to relate to the fate of the characters. I didn’t pursue an overly realistic portrayal in acting, makeup, and costume design, so I think the audience may forget what the subject of this film is. They may forget that the story is happening in a rural Chinese area, and forget the historical and social backgrounds. Instead, they will concentrate on the characters and each turning point in their fate.

I feel that audiences around the world are the same to a certain degree. To be specific, they share the same acceptance and absorption of films. If you think too much, you will not be able to attend to everything at once. I followed my intuition when shooting Mountain Cry, and examined each of my decisions from the perspective of an ordinary audience member. I asked myself whether I would have wanted to watch it if I had been an ordinary audience member. I had to go though “me” first. I examined all links in filmmaking including the editing at the final stage in order to guarantee I could be touched by the work and encouraged to finish it. Although it is a conceptual literary film, the it has an international appeal.

 

 

CFM: What are you shooting next, and what are your plans for the future?

Yang Zi: I am going to shoot a feature film called My Other Home. Beijing. It is a relatively new attempt. It’s an inspirational sports film and also commercial, with high investment and obvious commercial advantages. Sport is a relatively new subject in the domestic film market, so we feel some pressure. However, I am quite confident about the film itself.

Foreign inspirational sports films have moved audiences. I myself am quite into this type of film. People are interested in the stories behind sports stars, who are like heroes in their fields. Sports films have to be professional enough to ensure each audience member can understand what is going on, and to arouse their interest and reward them with some knowledge. Finally, sports films need to create the surroundings for characters to highlight the adversities and pressure confronting characters. The purpose is to strike a chord with the audience. In fact, everyone can become a hero in his or her field. I think the film should elaborate on all these elements. As for the release date, I’m hoping it will be sometime in 2017.

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