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Chinese language cinema

Chinese art-house filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang on his Golden Horse-nominated role in Love Education – and why he really ‘can’t act’

One of China’s Fifth Generation filmmakers, Tian has acted in a few minor roles, but was surprised and embarrassed with his recent nominations. He talks about how he is unlikely to act again and his thoughts on his next film

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 2:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 6:23pm

It’s a long story how one of China’s most prominent art-house film directors ended up earning a best actor nomination at the Golden Horse Awards in Taipei – often regarded as the Oscars of Chinese language cinema – but Tian Zhuangzhuang would like to make at least one point clear.

“I won’t become an actor – this much I know,” he tells the Post in a recent interview in Hong Kong. “I’m not one of those actors who can portray a wide range of characters; that’s very clear to me. If I have a chance I’m still going to direct again. I also like teaching – that’s meaningful to me. I’ve made this film and people like my performance, but I don’t think I’ll act again.”

Tian, 65, is referring to his part as a gentle husband and father in actress-filmmaker Sylvia Chang Ai-chia’s acclaimed relationship drama Love Education, which received seven Golden Horse nominations, but did not take home any prizes in the end. While it was presumably a little disappointing to the cast and crew, Tian doesn’t sound like he is too bothered.

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“To tell you how I really feel from the bottom of my heart: I don’t think I can act – when you look at it from a professional perspective,” he says of his own nomination. “The truth is that I feel a little bit ashamed to be nominated alongside these other professional actors. I’ve merely taken advantage of a really well-written character.”

In Love Education, Tian’s driving-instructor character shares vital scenes with three established actresses: director Chang as his often agitated wife, Lang Yueting as his free-spirited daughter, and Rene Liu Ruo-ying as a driving student who’s far more enthusiastic than his wife would like.

“I can’t say I’m playing myself there,” he bursts into laughter. “I’m not such a warm and responsible person in real life. I feel that I need to explore this character and think a lot before playing it.” The docile role has, however, earned Tian more than a few new fans, a fact he struggles to process with a straight face.

When I point out how endearing his character comes across to many viewers, Tian is visibly embarrassed. “It’s a very uneasy experience when I watch myself act, you know? I would keep thinking, ‘Oh, I didn’t do well enough here, and oh, I didn’t do well enough there.’

“I was more concerned about other people on the set, like, ‘Am I blocking their view [on camera]?’ I’m not a professional. And I also thought, ‘Can I just skip to the side [and out of the camera’s view]? I think about these things. … I was only afraid that I hadn’t done well enough, that I had a negative influence on [Chang’s] film. After all, I’m not an actor.”

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A representative figure of China’s fabled “Fifth Generation” filmmakers alongside Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, Tian has, in fact, appeared as an actor in a few other films, albeit never in a role as high-profile as the one in Love Education.

For long-time followers of his work, Tian’s Golden Horse-nominated part also marks a welcome if unexpected return to the centre of the Chinese cinema world for the director, who has appeared to be on a filmmaking hiatus after his last directing effort, the deeply allegorical The Warrior and the Wolf (2009), confused critics and alienated audiences.

“That was a strange one,” Tian lets out a long sigh when Warrior is brought up in our discussion. “For me personally, it’s a film that I still like quite a bit even up to this day.”

Tian recalls how the project was initiated – when the Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien brought him Yasushi Inoue’s short story, on which the film is loosely based – and went through more than a decade in pre-production limbo, when the screenplay went through countless drafts before Tian settled on his own fatalistic take.

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He is not at all apologetic about his vision, however. “That film is about the fate of people, but it’s not easy for everyone to understand that subject. In China, a Communist country, people don’t believe in fate; they don’t think they could be affected by it. … But it’s OK. Maybe after some time, people will have a different take on the film.”

Still best known to world cinema audiences for his classics The Horse Thief (1986) and The Blue Kite (1993), Tian attributes his lack of directing output since 2009 to both his teaching duties at the Beijing Film Academy and his escalating concerns about the state of financing in today’s Chinese film industry.

“I’m one of those directors whose films are for the minority audience group,” he explains. “I don’t want to give my [producer] friends trouble, but I also need to find a project that suits me. If a suitable opportunity with favourable conditions comes along, I may direct a film again. But I won’t force myself. Must I direct another film? I have this hope but it’s not my ultimate objective.”

While Tian’s directing career seems to be at a standstill, two of his Fifth Generation contemporaries are going as strong as ever. Tian says he has watched some of the recent films by Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, but not all.

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Tian played a part in Chen’s Monk Comes Down the Mountain (2015) and is really looking forward to checking out the upcoming Legend of the Demon Cat, because “I grew up with Kaige and I understand him”.

He hasn’t watched Zhang’s films since 2010’s Under the Hawthorn Tree, however. “I didn’t see Coming Home (2014), and I definitely would not go to see The Great Wall ,” Tian says of the 2016 fantasy action epic starring Matt Damon. Why?

“Because you really couldn’t call that a Zhang Yimou film, could you? Whether he made that film for the money or something else, I don’t know. But I understand that his interest in film is quite broad, so I wouldn’t be surprised no matter what kind of films he’s making.”

Regardless of the quality of Chen and Zhang’s new films, Tian says he has “a lot of respect for their work attitude”. “I think they’ve passed the stage where they still need fame or fortune – well, fortune, maybe they could still want more, but fame, they’re probably good. They’re famous enough and won’t get any more famous. So in a way, it shows that they still love cinema enough to stay connected with it.”

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As our interview draws to a close, I ask Tian if he’s thinking about his next film. He is much more forthcoming this time. “Yes, I do think about it,” he says, “I think about it every day. I have a lot of ideas – as for how I’m going to complete them and realise them [in actual productions], I don’t know. Let’s take one step at a time.”

Love Education opens on December 14

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