I first met Yang Cheng at the 5th China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing, where we both were volunteers. It was the age of MSN, Olympics and global financial crisis. Over the years, Yang wrote film reviews, organized screenings, took film projects to pitches like HAF and Golden Horse and then attended a train of festivals with his steady productions. This time, he brings Berlinale an animation feature HAVE A NICE DAY directed by Liu Jian. This film won appreciation from critics and programmers. On the SCREEN JURY GRID, it ranks No.2, next to Aki Kaurismaki’s THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE.
In this interview, Yang expresses his profound affection with the Berlinale and his opinion about filmmaking, about the Chinese society and an ambitious plan for his newly founded production company Nezha Brothers. I believe he is one of the young filmmakers who are reshaping the Chinese film industry.
Note: This interview was conducted in Chinese, I then translated it into English.
What is your impression about Berlinale?
I like Berlinale quite a lot and it is my third time here. I first came to Berlinale in 2013 as the producer of DON’T EXPECT PRAISES. In 2014, I came to watch films as a guest reporter of a Chinese film magazine. This year, I am back with director Liu Jian’s film HAVE A NICE DAY. The festival is special: First because the city of Berlin has both a rich history and young vibe; it is not so crowded and there is a lot to explore. The festival’s wide selection of programs and films mean you have plenty options. And the cinemas are generally huge, so seeing a movie here is like attending a ritual, especially in the Berlinale Palast. Watching films like PARADIES: HOFFNUNG, NYMPHOMANIAC and BOYHOOD at the Berlinale is really unforgettable. To sit in the Palast and hear the audience’s laughter and applause when watching HAVE A NICE DAY feels special.
What is your take about the Chinese society?
It is chaotic but vigorous. A lot is going on. (So will you emigrate?) At the moment, no. I don’t have such a plan, but I would love to go explore another culture, for example, to live in New York for half a year. There are cultural exchange programs that offer such opportunities. My friends like Pema Tseden and Liu Jian have taken the offer and went there, but at present, it’s a pity that I don’t have that much free time to go.
Back to the society question, China still has social mobility. It is still possible to change one’s social status.
So what would you say to younger filmmakers in such an environment?
Try your best. Try your best till the end. But I think one has to be able to change his tracks at any time and don’t be exhausted by filmmaking, because filmmaking itself is not important. I think watching films is important, but making them is not. Many people say that the reason they make films is because they love films, but why? If you love movies, you go and watch it: I mean, you don’t have to make a film just because of that. What a joy to watch films! If you love movies, you can keep watching them, unless you find a direct and genuine connection between your life and moviemaking.
When I first fell for film, I decided that I would like to be a director, so I wanted to make it to the Beijing Film Academy. I chose to apply for the Screenwriting Department instead of the Directing Department because I thought that was a more approachable goal, but of course there are a number of directors who read screenwriting at the BFA. When I arrived at BFA, I found people around me were merely talking about films and felt good about themselves just because they were BFA students. I didn’t want to be like them and I thought it to myself: Did I want to make movies out of my heartfelt passion, or out of blindness and vanity? I also thought about whether I had something to say. And whether I needed to express what I wanted to say via filmmaking, a long and arduous process. What if I just write an article to express myself, or use Weibo (Chinese Twitter). These are all ways of expression. Why make films when you can use other much easier ways to express yourself? So I thought about what I could do with film and what I wanted to do. I then met a few directors and found film production is what I am capable of and interested in, since I love films. More importantly, I thought to be a producer could help my character building, because at the time I was quite introverted and a bit depressed. I found a need to open up and interact with people and that is what is required of a producer. It would be difficult to me, but it should be helpful for my personality, I thought to myself. This decision was based on “a more genuine connection between life and film”, not vanity, so I think it is grounded and generates determination. All in all, I don’t think one needs to make a movie just because he likes watching movies.
I detest the slogan hanging on BFA during freshmen recruitment: “This is where your dream begins.” I think as an education institution, BFA should encourage people to lead a true life with reason. Filmmaking is just a job, a thing. Don’t glorify it so much. To younger filmmakers, I’d say, beware of those who always talk about DREAM: They probably just want you to be a cheap laborer so they glorify a distant business plan. I’ve seen too many big bosses in this business who’d sugarcoat their manipulation and exploitation with the so-called dreams: “Don’t only think about your salary. We are fighting for our dreams and you are the future of the Chinese cinema.”
So do you have a dream?
Sure. My dream is that everybody can live a happy life.
You sound like Jesus Christ!
(Chuckles) The word dream is so grand that it should be something much bigger than daily pursuits. It should not be so trivial like to make more money or to make a better movie – these are just too small undertakings.
It doesn’t have to be filmmaking or watching films. Besides film, there are so many beautiful and touching things to appreciate. Besides, you can always go back to reading (books).
Could you talk about the directors that you are working with?
I am open to any possible collaboration, and I don’t sign directors. I think lasting cooperation is based on similar ideals and beliefs, agreeable profit sharing and complementary proficiency.
My current collaborators like director Liu Jian: He is a quite a pure creator with one goal only – to make quality films. Also, his films always have originality. His films are not only special in China, but also look special in a global context. His film amazes festival audiences: “Oh, it is from China!” So different from regular festival movies from China.
A director’s originality is what I value the most. I say to my collaborators that we have to make artistic contribution to China’s cinema, find new possibilities in the art form and style of cinema. Originality is quite high standard.
Director Yang Heng’s films (GHOST IN THE MOUNTAINS: Berlinale Panorama 2017) are also original both in storytelling and art form. On one hand, his films are about the reality; on the other hand, they have surreal moments and very stylistic. He finds a good proportion between reality and what’s beyond.
So what I find most valuable in a director is not his or her theme or genre, but originality. Also, continuous creativity is vital.
Do you watch lots of movies nowadays?
Not so much. I now actually watch much more bad movies than good ones, you know, the commercial films at the cinema. I haven’t found time to watch the much talked-about films like MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and MOONLIGHT yet. I will watch them for sure. But I’ve always had this idea that one doesn’t have to watch too many movies, because the depth and perspective of thinking about a movie matters more. If a movie arouses a resonance for you, it is much better than you watch 100 movies without feeling anything.
So what are the movies you enjoy watching?
I actually love COMRADES: ALMOST A LOVE STORY and those made by Stephen Chow. In daily life, I often unconsciously think of PARADIES: HOFFNUNG. Films made by Michael Haneke. HOOLY BIBLE II made by Li Hongqi. ARRIVAL, not a sci-fi film routine. I think it feels like THE BOURNE IDENTITY’s innovation in spy/agent movies. Larry Charles’s films never fail to make me laugh.
So what is your plan for your company Nezha Brothers?
I plan to make small budget films based on fun original scripts in the next two or three years. After all, a company needs to make profit to ensure the creative flow.
this interview was first published on FESTIVALISTS.COM