PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 April, 2006, 12:00am

IT'S NOT EVERY day that one is greeted with the sight of one of China's top directors unbuckling his belt and unzipping his trousers. 'Come. It's OK, I can still talk,' Zhang Yimou says, as he flops face forward onto a bed - a massage bed, that is. He has hurt his back and this massage session is the only time he can spare away from the set of his new film, Autumn Remembrance, which reunites him with Gong Li and also stars Chow Yun-fat.

But, we're not here to talk about Autumn Remembrance, which promises to be a martial arts extravaganza along the lines of Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Instead, the topic of conversation is a small film, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, that Zhang has managed to slip between his kung fu blockbusters.

In the past few years, Zhang has become one of the busiest filmmakers on the mainland. His international profile has grown rather commercial with Hero and Flying Daggers, and his resume has expanded to other art forms such as opera (The Turandot Project), ballet (Raise the Red Lantern) and short films for the Olympics.

Critics are hailing Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles as a return to art-house films for the director, although Hero and House of Flying Daggers were, arguably, as much - if not more - art-house than they were kung fu.

Zhang says the film is more of a return to the small, intimate dramas on which he has spent a large part of his career.

'We have always been making such small-budget dramas,' he says. 'I was just exploring new genres with high-budget, mainstream films such as Hero or House of Flying Daggers.'

Set for the most part in Lijiang, in Yunnan, the stunning background for Riding Alone is one that Zhang fans would be familiar with: rolling vistas and uncouth but friendly peasants.

The major difference between Riding Alone and Zhang's earlier films is that it's related by a Japanese man, Takata (Ken Takakura), who tries to mend a rift with his dying son by travelling alone to Yunnan to film an opera that the latter wanted to see. In his dealings with the bureaucracy and helpful villagers, the stoic Takata discovers more about himself, his estranged son and their relationship.

Zhang started writing the story for Riding Alone about five years ago, after he and Takakura, his childhood idol, discussed a project together. The 74-year-old Takakura is a veteran of more than 200 films, including Hollywood productions such as The Yakuza (1975) and Black Rain (1989). He's often called the 'Clint Eastwood of Japan' because of the tough-guy roles he used to play.

'His film Cross the River in Anger made a huge impression on all of us growing up in China after the Cultural Revolution,' Zhang says. 'His name was synonymous with cool, machismo and toughness. When I met him and got to know him later, he mentioned he would like to work with me. It became a wish I had to fulfil.'

The story of a Japanese man in China wasn't easy to write, Zhang says. 'I couldn't turn it into a travelogue. It had to be substantial and have an emotional arc. That's why it has taken five years. I didn't want [Takakura] to just play a Chinese person.'

The parent-child relationship theme isn't new to Zhang's films, having been explored in The Road Home. It's something that has prompted him to reassess his own relationship with his parents. 'I don't think I've been a good son. Most parents want their sons to achieve great things, but you can never know whether your parents want a son [who] is successful in his career, but is never home, or a son [who] isn't that successful, but is always around his parents,' says Zhang, the father of a 23-year-old daughter.

'One can only be successful if one spends a lot of time on one's career, on filmmaking, but then you can't pay as much attention to one's family. It's inevitable. Therefore, we could be successful in our careers, but we could never be successful in being sons.'

For that reason, he advised his daughter - a film graduate who recently got married in Los Angeles - not to try too hard in her career. 'I told her, 'Don't dream of becoming a well-known director. Don't be like me.' I told her to be, first and foremost, a wife, to be someone with a family and a life. A person is only complete in that way. I told her not to be too ambitious.'

Zhang had plenty of ambition and passion in his youth. Born in Xian in 1950, he had a difficult childhood because of his family's ties to the Kuomintang: his father was a major in the KMT army, his elder brother followed the KMT to Taiwan, and another brother was branded a KMT spy. When the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966, he was shipped off to work on farms and textile mills for the next seven years. Zhang has said that his idolising of Takakura inspired him to give up his job at a cotton mill in 1978 and apply to join the cinematography department of the Beijing Film Academy at the ripe old age of 27. He was initially rejected because of his age, but successfully appealed against the decision.

Zhang spent his early years working in small inland studios with directors such as Chen Kaige (Yellow Earth). He officially made it into the ranks of the Fifth Generation directors with his 1987 debut, Red Sorghum. The film placed him and his new muse, Gong, on the international radar. Gong became a mainstay of his films until they parted ways with Shanghai Triad in 1995. It wasn't until his 1999 film The Road Home that Zhang introduced another new muse to the world: Zhang Ziyi.

'I'm happy to see that they have accomplished so much. They are the most internationally renowned Chinese actresses in the country,' Zhang Yimou says of his two protegees, with whom he was romantically linked.

'I was the one who discovered them, but they wouldn't be where they are without talent and hard work. It was their diligence and their insistence on improving themselves that brought them global recognition. It hasn't been easy.

'Look at Zhang Ziyi. When we first worked together, she didn't speak a word of English. But for the past four or five years, she has worked with a teacher. By reading books aloud every night her English is now very good. No matter how you look at it, she worked really hard for her success. They both did.'

Although he hasn't found a new muse yet, Zhang Yimou hasn't stopped searching out new talent. The 54-year-old director is best-known for casting untrained actors in his smaller movies, as he did with Wei Minzhi and Zhang Huike in Not One Less (2000). Riding Alone was no different with the introduction of Jiang Wen, who plays Takata's interpreter, and the young Yang Zhenbo, whose encounter with Takata marks a turning point in the latter's journey. 'I like using new actors wherever possible, because it gives the audience a sense of freshness and originality,' Zhang says.

'It would be best if there are new actors every year. In a country as big as China, there should be a new face every six months or a year. But they're discovered too slowly. There aren't that many good and influential directors and producers. The industry is still developing.'

If Zhang doesn't consider himself a good son to his parents, he has become one of the nation's favourite sons. He has put the country firmly on the cinematic map, especially with his academy award nominations for best foreign film for Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern and, most recently, Hero.

And he's been pulling in the investors. Autumn Remembrance is budgeted at US$44 million - US$8 million more than Chen Kaige's The Promise. It's not surprising that his name has become synonymous with the development of mainland films, although Zhang is hesitant to assume the honour. 'No one person can represent the whole spectrum of Chinese films, nor any one film. 'Chinese films' is a huge concept. One shouldn't take that kind of responsibility on one's shoulders. You'd be crushed. It would be impossible to have a normal state of mind.

'There is this metaphor I like to use: a director is just like a carpenter, it's a vocation. The only difference is, this industry draws a lot of attention. If there's anything exceptional, it's the industry that's exceptional, the industry that's glamorous, not us. We just happen to be a part of this industry. That's why I think filmmaking is an ordinary job, a job that I like. And when the day comes when I can't do it any more, I will let it go.'

Despite the international attention he attracts, Zhang says it's unlikely that he'll let go of China and his Chinese themes, and wander off into the Hollywood sunset, as Chen has.

For the 10 or so minutes of footage in Riding Alone that was shot in Japan, Zhang happily relinquished directing control to Furuhata Yasuo, on the recommendation of Takakura.

'I'm not interested in films that have no Chinese elements in them,' Zhang says. 'If I try to make a film completely without Chinese elements, I'm sure it won't be any good. The result would be a third-rate film. There's no point in knowingly making a third-rate film. It's mostly because of unfamiliarity. When I don't even know the language, there's no way I can make it work.'