Ning Hao has become a household name since his third feature Crazy Stone released in 2006. A three million investment winning over seven times more at the box office made quite a few headlines at the time. He has since been compared to Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino. His black humor is unconventional and his ability to mingle several storylines almost unprecedented in Chinese cinema. Anybody who has seen his early work Incense would see Ning’s fatalistic inclination: a penniless monk gets lost in his pursuit to restore a Buddha statue. He pictures the monk’s inner conflict and his alienation from morality. His second feature Mongolian Ping Pong was selected for Berlin International Forum in 2005.
Dreaming and trained to become a painter, a teenager Ning Hao was told to be amblyopic several years later. He turned to filmmaking. After successful theater release of Crazy Stone and Crazy Racer, he and his team went into the desert and made No Man’s Land in 2009. What humanities would be like in a vast area of void? It was considered too violent by SARFT, and its public screening was only granted lately after a change of the ending. Now it has made into the 2014 Berlinale Competition. It is no exaggeration that Ning Hao invigorates a somewhat stiff Chinese film market. He also discovered and nurtured two of China’s most popular actors Xu Zheng and Huang Bo. Follow The Chinese Film Market to enter director Ning Hao’s universe.
What does film mean to you?
Film is a part of my life. Film itself is a complicated conception and can hardly be called pure art or mere commodity. But in China, it is a different context: practicality is what people care most. Even talking about art, its commercial value is emphasized.
When it comes to a film, such questions would be raised – “Does it make money?” “Is it entertaining?” – Mostly focuses on a film’s “function”. If it fails to exhibit these functions, it is devalued. In other parts of the world, even in a very commercial country like the United States, there is Oscar where you can find a number of art films. Have a look at the films that have received this award like The Hurt Locker and Life of Pi, not exactly commercial films. A film’s fate depends on its context: what kind of film is respected. Unfortunately, in Mainland China, we are yet to have such an evaluation system and filmmakers need to go to international festivals like Berlinale and Taipei Golden Horse to get recognition. We do have Huabiao Awards and Golden Rooster, but they are in a different dimension.
In your opinion, what are the keywords in contemporary China?
Material. And desire. Desire is our drive to evolve. But in a longer shot, the keyword in past one hundred years is “change”, mainly in the material aspect. Culturally, there is not much progress in past two thousand years as we are still entangled in the dichotomy of Confucianism and Taoism. It can be said that our spiritual pursuits have waned.
China’s productivity still lingers in the agricultural era: after the hunter gatherer era, we have a length agricultural era, up till now. China’s metropolis era will only come when its productivity has fundamental improvement. But now, people care most about materialism and enjoyment.
What did you feel that No Man’s Land was banned from theaters for almost four years?
I was alright. The Chinese people is an extremely realistic. I am always capable to accept the reality and I am adaptable.
You did not whine, but began to make another film.
Right. There is nothing to whine about. I think all realists act this way. They usually show indifference in such circumstances. Only idealists will experience disillusion as they have prospects and projections. One only gets frustrated when others wake him up while he is dreaming. I am realistic and down-to-earth, so you cannot defeat me with an ideal. Once I realize that was the reality, I accepted it and moved on for another applicable film. Even facing death, realists are indifferent. Everybody will die and that is the reality. I am not alone. And we are capable of coping with the situation.
Time is the essence of life and is very precious. If the average life expectancy is 80 years, then each only has 28,000 days. Take those silly days before 20 and frail days after 60, one only has 14,000 days. Not so many. So there is a need to make better use of it. I cannot wait. I do not want to. I act promptly. Immediate action. After my graduation from Beijing Film Academy, in 10 years, I made 7 films. Filmmaking is all that is on my mind. From the moment you begin to make research for a film project to the day you finish, it might already have been two years, but it feels like 3 months. Time seems to have stopped. It gives me a start when I realize that I am already in my thirties. I feel like I am still a twenty something.
What do you see in No Man’s Land?
In order to survive and to preserve one’s self, a human being changes because the evil hidden inside of him emerges. At some point, they act upon animal instinct. Western religion talks about original sin, something you cannot eradicate. I think the only redemption is to give. In this film, I try to think over a few questions to explore the world in a logical and motivational way. I want to display human beings’ struggle and conflict.
No Man’s Land is quite different from your previous blockbusters. You are the fourth Chinese director whose single film obtains over ￥100 million, after Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Feng Xiaogang.
I do not think I have ever made a blockbuster. Those are two very different markets, so you cannot compare the past film market with the current one. In the past, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou composed what we called the Chinese film market, only in big cities. But now, cinemas are all over China, even in small counties. 80% new cinemas are built in towns and smaller cities. So both the market size and audience group are different from the previous ones.
There is a shift of audience from urban population to rural people in over 600 counties. This causes a change in film tastes and preferences. It is not logical to use a fixed benchmark to evaluate a changed market. In a way, as a filmmaker, I did not change; it is the market that has changed. Films like the 007 franchise and Batman are standard blockbusters, distinctive genre films. I do not think myself a genre film director.
You present the reality in an absurd way. Is it your way to avoid ennui and the films would look less direct?
Change itself will bring absurdity. Each era has its absurdity. In a way, you can say absurdity means conflicts. I do not think absurdity can be the theme of an era because it is not constructive. It can contribute to destroy established orders but cannot help to build new things. Whenever an old productivity comes to an end and meets a new one, absurdity arises. But after that, there will be a constructive movement, due to clashes of orders and values, to liberate or inspire people.
Human being’s civilization is still at its infantry: lying in the cradle, unable to walk out of it. When humans can discover other living species in the universe and walk out of the earth, there should be a leap of productivity. What is culture? Culture is a record of how productivity develops. I am relatively pessimistic and I believe humanity is not a very superior species: if we don’t expand towards other planets, for example, Mars, we are doomed. When other species find us, we then become guinea pigs.
Do you have a favorite director?
Oh, plenty. Akira Kurosawa, Takeshi Kitano and Chan-wook Park. Zhang Yimou, the greatest Chinese director alive. I feel we are too cruel to him. He has done so much for Chinese cinema. When people think Chinese cinema has died, Zhang Yimou won five international awards in important film festivals. He is also the first to make commercial films in China. When Spielberg quit the Beijing Olympics’ directing job, Zhang stood out and presented an amazing Opening Ceremony.
I think each of the things above can be recorded in history. But look how we are treating him now? Where is the common conscience? I was reading about how Japanese see Akira Kurosawa: people all went to the movies to watch his films in his late years and were quite proud of him. As Kurosawa once let the world see Japan through his lenses. Zhang Yimou did the same to China, but see what the public is treating him! Zhang never complains. He has been working so hard and creatively for this many years and people still criticize him severely. The not so kind human nature. It is a myth why he does not get the respect he deserves and why people are so jealous that he made a fortune as a filmmaker. Maybe it lies in the Chinese mentality that a hero should abandon all he has, wave goodbye to people and live in seclusion, like Zhang Liang in Han Dynasty.
What is your new film about?
An illustration of current Chinese pursuit of romance: People seeking one night stand. Once again, it is about desire.
The following words are translated from Ning Hao’s autobiographical book Hun Da Cheng Ren:
* I am very affectionate with the 1980s, when you could see all kinds of things in China as information flooded in with huge impacts. I remember as a pupil, before 1985, I would go back home at noon, listening to the radio programs of heroic or historic Chinese stories. The yard felt so quiet and the sun was so bright like that you would find in the film In the Heat of the Sun. Every family listened to the radio and life was idyllic. 2 or 3 years later, you could get access to all kinds of music. Cui Jian began to sing Nan Ni Wan. I think his singing has a deconstructive spirit, quite different from the conventional way.
* I subscribed some art magazine as I was studying art and began to see different things, for example, Jean-François Millet and Henri Matisse. I did not feel much about Picasso though. In 1980s, novels were booming, too. Works by Su Tong, Mo Yan and others kept emerging, until the mid-1990s. I remember reading Yu Hua’s To Live and was really excited that there is such a great prolific writer living in China. I like realistic things. I find it hard to enter a purely romantic context.
* I am thankful for the information flow the 1980s granted me. It was an explosive era. When I went to middle school, I met the first Chinese rock n’ roll wave like the China Fire. The spirit that I felt in rock n’roll felt familiar, powerful and lasting. And I started to listen to foreign bands like Pink Floyd, Nirvana, Suede, Sex Pistol and Guns N’ Roses. That age was also an age of poets with a lot of poetry readings which I went to some.
* I spent four years in Shanxi Film School during which time my values and methodology about life were established. Since many of my classmates were older than me and there was much freedom in the school, I learned more than my peers could. It was a fun period of my life. I had such a good time there that when I went to Beijing Film Academy, I felt very mature already and sure about what I want.