IT'S A STORY THAT sounds too far-fetched to be true. A migrant worker travels thousands of kilometres, braving temperamental transport and tempestuous weather to take the corpse of a friend home - all because of a casual promise he made that he would give him a proper burial to prevent him from becoming a roaming 'hungry ghost'. When the story ran in the Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekend, a heated debate ensued across the country: some people saw the farmer's deed as a sign of the power of superstition in rural China, while others applauded his commitment.
It didn't take long for the story to catch the attention of mainland director Zhang Yang, and a year later Getting Home was in the can, vividly documenting the struggle of a penniless migrant fulfilling his pledge to a fellow wanderer. 'For Chinese farmers, their homeland is their roots,' says the 39-year-old Beijing native. 'The story is a journey to find their roots. It's a good subject for a road movie.'
Getting Home, however, is hardly a gritty tragedy. Instead, Zhang has conjured a black comedy out of the story. The main character, Old Zhao, with an upbeat take on life, is a peasant who's determined to overcome the difficulties of his journey with wit and will. 'I don't want to make it sad,' Zhang says. 'Someone on such a mission should be optimistic or he'd find it hard to continue. You can find that trait within the underdog mentality in China. It's an attitude I appreciate. I think I have it as well.'
If he does, it's not showing. A stern chain-smoker, Zhang says he's 'a pretty serious man, actually'. Perhaps his optimism can be found only in his works.
His first film, Spicy Love Soup (1998), is a comic look at Chinese marriage and dating among different age groups. His much-lauded second work, Shower (1999), takes a comical look at a man returning home in the mistaken belief that his father has died and then struggling between his modern habits and his family's traditional lifestyle. Even in the heavier Quitting (2001) and Sunflower (2005), there's an understated humour.
'A good film should have some humour,' he says. 'It makes the film more appealing and adds some power to your characters. Tears among laughter are always more powerful than simple bitterness.'
Zhang's witty portrayals of life in contemporary China are neither too commercial to be boring nor too arty to understand, and have gone down well with audiences and critics without upsetting the mainland's censors.
Zhang attributes his good luck with the censors to the fact that 'the subjects and the attitudes of my films are very normal, very close to real-life experiences', but he admits that 'sometimes I ask myself, 'Can I get it passed?''
To strike a note of black comedy in Getting Home, Zhang recruited stand-up comedian Zhao Benshan to play Old Zhao. The actor sometimes struggles to shake off his comedic associations, as in Zhang Yimou's Happy Times (2001), in which he plays a bachelor looking for love in his 50s. But Zhang Yang is confident about Zhao's performance. 'First, he looks like a farmer. Most importantly, he has an innate sense of humour, which many mainland actors don't have and which I think is needed by the character and the film.'
Zhao is joined by a star-studded cast, including Song Dandan (House of Flying Daggers), Hu Jun (Lan Yu), Xia Yu (In the Heat of the Sun) and Guo Tao (Crazy Stone), who play the characters the farmer meets on his journey.
Despite the fact that Zhang is critical of the commercial orientation of the mainland film industry - '[It] just forces you to turn [an art-house film] into a commercial one, using big stars and spending a lot of money on publicity' - he's defensive of his own latest offering, which boasts formidable star power and a big publicity budget. 'You can't let your investors down,' he says.
Because Zhao's mission is made clear at the beginning, the film loses some sense of suspense compared with conventional American road movies - a genre Zhang says doesn't work in China because the mainland's car culture is young. 'Cars are something new in China, so the whole road movie genre is lost. We took a different approach by focusing on the relationships of the people he meets.'
After graduating from the Central Drama Academy in 1992, Zhang went on to hone his skills by shooting music videos and television documentaries. While most filmmakers of his generation such as Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye had to dodge censors, he quickly rose to prominence, thanks to good connections within the industry. He teamed up with well-connected American producer Peter Loehr and soon learned how to appeal to both Chinese and foreign audiences without upsetting censors. He also signed with Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency, which counts Ang Lee and Ning Hao among its clients.
Zhang's best-known film, Shower, won eight international awards and has been shown in more than 60 countries.
But he says his interest is the same as other independent filmmakers: to present a realistic picture of contemporary China. He says he's not tempted to make meaningless commercial films, although he says he has received several invitations to shoot martial arts epics.
'I want to put my observation and reflections of real lives into my works,' Zhang says. 'I believe a director should have some consistency in their work. My goal is to create films that honestly follow my heart.'
Getting Home opens on Thursday