Retrospect of Zhang Yimou Workshop & Masterclass: Be Humble and Down-to-Earth with Audience
2023 marks the fourth year of the hosting of Workshop & Masterclasses by the Beijing International Film Festival (BJIFF). Over the four years, the Workshop & Masterclass have been committed to building a platform for sharing and exchanges between filmmaking masters and fans. Big names in global film industry are invited to talk about their filmmaking stories, share their experience and insights, explore the essence of films from professional perspective and experience the appeal of film art.
Accomplished, prolific and prestigious filmmaking masters at home and abroad have been invited to be the keynote speakers at the Workshop & Masterclasses, presenting to professionals, film fans and general audience professional, authoritative and vivid film classes.
Here is the transcript of Zhang Yimou Workshop & Masterclass at the 13th BJIFF:
Time: 1:30-3:00PM, April 27, 2023 (Thursday)
Theme: From Sorghum to Full River Red: Everything in Zhang Yimou’s Filmmaking World
Keynote speaker: Zhang Yimou, Chinese director
Panelist: Song Fangjin, screenwriter and writer
Moderator: Chen Luyu, media professional and program host
  Zhang Yimou Workshop & Masterclass
Chen Luyu, Zhang Yimou and Song Fangjin from left to right
Chen Luyu: From debut film Sorghum to Full River Red released recently, we’ve been attracted to cinemas by films directed by Zhang Yimou. We are honored to have director Zhang Yimou and Song Fangjin to talk about the memory his films have left to us. Warm welcome to director Zhang Yimou and Song Fangjin. Director Zhang, what do you think are the reasons for the huge success of the Full River Red?
Zhang Yimou: The gross box office is beyond my expectation. It also enlightened me. I used to think that it’s hard to achieve “fun with education”. We made attempts and tried to attain household popularity by means of delightful comedy. Can we make the genre better and add a sublime touch?
Chen Luyu: The Full River Red blends history, costume drama, suspense and comedy genres. Is it your new attempt?
Zhang Yimou: Yes. The Full River Red is different by leaps and bounds. First, I built a Shanxi courtyard. Meanwhile, I found screenwriter Chen Yu. I invited him to the courtyard, and asked him how he liked it. Murder, murderer hunting, suspense and murder mystery game popped up. We started with atmosphere at the courtyard in mountains.
Song Fangjin: After director Zhang read it, I was talking with screenwriter Chen Yu. His professionalism is beyond reach for many other screenwriters. It’s extremely hard to do so in highly enclosed settings.
Chen Luyu: Professionalism is often overlooked. Any personal experience and feelings about this as a screenwriter?
Song Fangjin: A lot of screenwriters, including myself, have this problem. We tend to ignore professionalism in the pursuit of artistic creation. Unlike writers who write their works at home, screenwriters have to cooperate with director, producers and platforms. For the Full River Red, director Zhang and screenwriter Chen managed to bring the message and sentiments of the film to next level within restricted settings. In particular, when the poem Full River Red appears, the film is no longer simple suspense narrative of a murder mystery game. There’s so much more to it.
Chen Luyu: It’s a fusion of history, costume drama, comedy and suspense. Does it take time for the audience to get into it?
Zhang Yimou: Actually, this is my first real comedy. When I directed The Story of Qiu-Ju and Keep Cool, I wasn’t paying special attention to the genre. I simply tried to make them humorous, light-hearted and fun. Back then, all we talked about was art. Just art. Anything but genre. How should I make a comedy? How can I convey humor to the audience? It was a learning process for me. That’s why I always say filmmaking is a constant learning process. If I ever direct a comedy again, I’d be more experienced.
Zhang Yimou
Song Fangjin: We often mention “genre innovation”. Where can we make “innovation”? Director Zhang’s innovation originates from traditional culture. Take the example of the Full River Red. It’s mainly suspense and crime, or so-called “callous narrative”. It’s hard to combine “callous narrative” and comedy. There wasn’t much success previously. Director Zhang excels at genres such as suspense, costume drama and history. But can he handle comedy? As a matter of fact, all of director Zhang’s films are rooted in the concept of heritage. The Full River Red adopts the Chapter-and-Section Format, and blends “callous narrative” and comedy through Yu opera.
Zhang Yimou:  I adopted the Chapter-and-Section Format that Song mentioned on purpose. Many of my films were narrated in the Chapter-and-Section Format original from traditional Chinese culture. The format was also used in The Story of Qiu-Ju and Cliff Walkers. It’s a tradition in Chinese culture. When it comes to fusion of various genres, in my personal experience, the film must be filled with content at fast space. And trust the audience. Today, the audience is far more perceptive than we were in those days. We can switch to suspense right after a fun plot. The editing is clear-cut and fast-paced, just half a step ahead of the audience. The flow is very smooth.
Chen Luyu: The film makes impossible possible as it keeps historical truth while making itself acceptable to the audience. In terms of the ending of Qin Hui, how did director come up with it?
Zhang Yimou: First, you’ll have to follow the basic laws of history. No sheer fabrication. But it doesn’t really matter. In my view, it’s just a storyline. There is no need in putting much time to it. What I found appealing is the poem. It’s romantic and legendary. You see, most revenge stories end with the death of enemies. That’s not the case with the Full River Red. A few illiterate soldiers wish to obtain the poem by Yue Fei as their final food for thought. They can give up anything for a poem. That’s legendary setting. It might not happen in real time. But it’s a legend. The film thus becomes unique and sublime.
 Zhang Yimou Workshop & Masterclass
Chen Luyu:  Such a distilled story can be promoted across cultures. This is how I explained the story of the Full River Red to a foreigner. In one sentence, it tells the story of a group of Chinese who fight dauntlessly for a poem. He immediately got it, and found it romantic. He understood the romantic elements of the settings.
Song Fangjin: Today, I would also like to ask director Zhang to talk about so-called “unique settings”. Director Zhang added traditional revolution heroism in the Cliff Walkers. Can you elaborate on its fusion and innovation?
Zhang Yimou: In fact, the Cliff Walkers starts with a type of scenario. When I had meeting with the cast & crew, I explained that I wanted to make a film throughout which it snows. It’s very romantic, poetic and extremely cold. What is extremely hot? Passion, or heart. The passion for faith, cause and comrades. Such passion and extremely cold weather make stark contrast.
Chen Luyu: I am wondering, if a film is full of big stars, would it make it harder for the audience to guess the murderer in the first place and keep them farther away from the truth? Would you think about that when casting?
Chen Luyu at Zhang Yimou Workshop & Masterclass
Zhang Yimou: Yes, the audience has such a viewing habit. It has already become a routine. The audience know from the beginning that a character played by a big star wouldn’t die. If he/she dies, who would keep the film rolling? Impossible. When there is only Su Jun played by Yiyang Qianxi left in the end, I bet the audience guess the truth. That’s viewing habit. The audience are clever. Great quantity of viewing experience builds up their expectation and imagination. Many directors play with the audience by various means, and try to render films unexpected and dramatic.
Song Fangjin: Speaking of actors and actresses, Director Zhang has discovered many actors and actresses for the film and television industry since you started your filmmaking career. Do you have any secrets or insights in this regard?
Zhang Yimou: Mostly by intuition in early days. I wasn’t good at directing back then, After directing five to six films, I mastered directing skills, and learned to shift perspectives. I started casting young actors and actresses from director’s perspective. I think it’s a scientific process. Not everyone is able to be an actor/actress. He/she must be talented to be cast. We have a set of methods for audition. Specifically, we’d select 10 or 20 candidates through audition, give them training and repeated testing. And then we’d decide the cast.
Apart from scientific audition and selection, it’s very important to trust your intuition, namely the ability to choose the “right face for big screen”. Fortunately, I once worked as a cinematographer. So I’ve got experience. Usually, I’d film the cast repeatedly with my camera, and decide if he/she is up to my criteria for the “right face for big screen”.
Zhang Yimou
Song Fangjin: The film Full River Red sticks to its initial title. But the Snipers changed its title a few times, such as Cold Gun and Coldest Gun, both of which are meaningful, too. Can you share with us creativity and insights about film titles?
Zhang Yimou: First of all, all my film titles are styled in calligraphy. It’s cultural in doing so. Calligraphy is Chinese only. So, from my very first film, all the titles are calligraphy. And they remind international audience of Chinese culture. And I love simple but meaningful, accessible, catchy and direct titles. Today, it doesn’t matter what the title of a film is. It’s all about review, regardless of the title. Nevertheless, I prefer easy and catchy titles.
Chen Luyu:  The Cliff Walkers is about espionage. It entails strong storyline build-up. But in the meanwhile, you try to present humanistic content. How do you think about it?
Zhang Yimou: It’s really hard to express sentiments in the middle of fast-paced storyline build-up. It’s even harder to balance action and narrative, and pace tension and relaxation. In my personal experience, keep it within two minutes. If you can do it in 30 seconds, then just spend 30 seconds. That’s it. Expression of sentiments, feelings and inner thoughts must be precise and concise. And lines must be short. The performance should be restrained but fully emotional. All of those require directing efforts. Such expression gives you another kind of pleasure. The fall of one leaf heralds the autumn. It’s up to Chinese aesthetics. I love it. It’s memorable.
Zhang Yimou Workshop & Masterclass
Song Fangjin: What director Zhang just said is so-called “blank leaving” in traditional Chinese art, or just as a Chinese poem goes, “Avoid redundancies and embrace simplicity, like trees in late autumn. Be bold to innovate and lead the fashion, like flowers in early spring.” A touch of humanity in the cold narrative is much better than lengthy portrait of sentiments.
Chen Luyu: Let’s move on to Snipers. How did you make it a condensed and concise film?
Zhang Yimou: We tried to seek a niche point of entry. Back then, there were a lot of warfare blockbusters. I hope mine would be different. The niche point of entry is very important but hard to seize. Of course, you’ll have to give up commercial properties to certain extent. For this type of film, you’d better cast young or amateur actors and actresses. In this way, the audience feel more relatable and think the cast are like ordinary people around them.
Song Fangjin: Despite strict compliance with the “classical unities”, the Snipers brings life to characters in the narrative process. An ensemble of characters are thereby created. A niche point of entry leads to atrocious war. In my opinion, all the settings conceived by screenwriter and director are worth drawing on.
Zhang Yimou and Song Fangjin at Zhang Yimou Workshop & Masterclass
Chen Luyu: The more indifferent description of the war, the more atrocious and callous it looks.
Zhang Yimou: Exactly. At first, I wanted to make a documentary, which might be better and cooler. But it’s too difficult. Just as the Chinese say goes, “Aim high and you may fall below the average”. First, as I’ve never fought in a war, and I’ve only read and watched references, it would be hard for me to recreate it. Second, if I make a documentary, the expression of sentiments would be weaker. Instead of lengthy portrait of sentiment, there would just be narrative.
Song Fangjin: It depends on the genre. To present a war in the form of documentary, the emotional dimension will be removed. In other words, certain genres can be integrated. Some cannot.
Chen Luyu:  What do you think is “good film”?
Zhan Yimou: In my view, it’s the number of movie-goers rather than gross box office matters. In order to make China’s film industry bigger and stronger, the number of movie-goers is extremely important. What is the film industry? What is it made up of? Moviegoers entering the cinema constitutes the final part. If there is no movie-goers, there is no industry for films. The more movie goers, the stronger a film becomes. So is the film industry.
Just as every director says, “I wish more people can watch this film. I want my film to be seen by more movie-goers.” It’s actually hard to make it. If you just express yourself, present your ideas, art and sentiments, the audience won’t be attracted. They won’t go to cinema. Then what’s the point?
I think we should let go of our “artist” ego, and be down-to-earth so as to approach the audience and interact with them. Try to move them and appeal to them through your film, and put behind the artistic thoughts you try to express. I recommend such mindset of creation.
So, what is a good film? Every one might have a different answer when being asked the definition of a good film. But I want to emphasize today that a good film must be able to attract the audience to the cinema. 
Chen Luyu and Zhang Yimou at Zhang Yimou Workshop & Masterclass
Song Fangjin: Director Zhang chooses to approach the audience for the sake of film industry, and contributes to the construction of a film power. I hope every professional can listen to his earnest thoughts and make their own contribution.
Chen Luyu: Everyone wonders how you stay young. Not physically, but mentally. How do you keep you motivation and passion for filmmaking, and attention to the present? I don’t think everyone can make it at any time. How do you manage to do so?
Zhang Yimou: First of all, I am grateful towards the era. Those in my age or younger are retired. I used to be a worker. So all my colleagues back then retired years ago. I feel lucky to turn my hobby into my profession because of the opportunity granted by the era. So I never dare to slack off, nor let time fly.
Second, cultivate self-discipline. Pay attention to diet, and keep exercising. Being healthy is essential for staying agile.
Third, study a lot. Keep understanding of information. Think more and learn more.
 Zhang Yimou and Song Fangjin at Zhang Yimou Workshop & Masterclass
Audience: Hi, director Zhang. I love martial arts films. I am wondering if you plan to make any martial arts film.
Zhang Yimou: Martial arts films reached its climax 10 and 20 years ago. Representative film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, by Ang Lee, became a global hit. Martial arts is a genre in China and a major category of Chinese films. It’s also unique Chinese culture. We will produce more martial arts films with global popularity.
Audience: You previous films are full of big names in the casts & crews. Do you have any unforgettable experiences in cooperating with those dream teams? How have you united them to make wonderful films?
Zhang Yimou: I believe there are only good actors and actresses, or bad directors. Good performance depends on directors’ right casting. Sometimes, you might think an actor/actress does a bad job. He/she seems unfit for the character. But you cast him/her. So it’s your responsibility. In fact, film production entails great teamwork. A good team of outstanding talents are able to make excellent films.
Audience:  With so many films, have you ever summarized your secret steps of conceiving a film?
Zhang Yimou: First, I will go through the screenplay several times before I start filming. It’s always necessary to read the screenplay in person. It’s my habit to master all plots, storyline and characters. Next, I will gather my crew and discuss what kind of film we plan to make. It’s crucial to profile the film to be produced.
Zhang Yimou
Audience:  Directors like you are likely to receive both positive and negative reviews. Would those reviews influence your following filmmaking and change your mind? Or you will stick to your own ideas and expression?
Zhang Yimou: It’s the era of Internet. I believe every director would pay attention to the reviews about him/her. I’ve always joked that I grew up in the midst of curses from the outset. You’ll have to calmly face various voices and criticizing on the Internet. That’s our era of Internet, where everyone can speak up and fully express themselves instead of just voices of critics and authorities. Everyone is entitled to make their reviews of a film heard. It’s normal. So just face it calmly. Modesty leads to progress, conceit makes one lag behind. That’s how I take reviews. Even if a review is mainly cursing, I would remember the part that makes sense. That reminds me of what I should pay attention to next step or the step after next. The audience’s reviews are like grains. You should eat various grains to remain healthy. Look at them calmly and try to pay attention to them in future. That’s my way.
Chen Luyu: Director Zhang, can you leave messages to young filmmakers and the audience?
Zhang Yimou: I think film is the art of young people. Today, 80% of movie-goers are young people. The history of cinema is only more than a hundred years. It’s young art. Therefore, the hope lies in young people from present to future. I don’t think I have anything more to say to young friends. In one word, love it and stick to it!
 Zhang Yimou Workshop & Masterclass