July 18, 2024

Cannes Legend Jia Zhangke on His “Very Emotional” New Film ‘Caught by the Tides’

Across his 25-year career, Jia Zhangke has become the de facto face of independent-minded Chinese cinema — and the Cannes Film Festival has arguably been the most important institution to help him hoist that flag on the world stage. Beginning with his 2002 drama Unknown Pleasures, the 53-year-old auteur has landed in Cannes’ main competition seven”, — write: www.hollywoodreporter.com

Across his 25-year career, Jia Zhangke has become the de facto face of independent-minded Chinese cinema — and the Cannes Film Festival has arguably been the most important institution to help him hoist that flag on the world stage.

Beginning with his 2002 drama Unknown Pleasures, the 53-year-old auteur has landed in Cannes’ main competition seven times — more than any other Chinese filmmaker in the festival’s history. Although the Palme d’Or has so far proved elusive, Jia won Cannes’ best screenplay prize in 2013 with his acclaimed anthology thriller A Touch of Sin, a searing depiction of China during its breakneck economic boom times. Jia returns to Cannes this year with Caught by the Tides, his first fictional feature since his well-regarded drama Ash Is Purest White debuted at the festival in 2018. 

“A lyrical, fluid narrative,” as Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux recently described it, Caught by the Tides is composed almost entirely of improvisational footage Jia has been shooting across China with his troupe of longtime collaborators since 2001. The director says he decided during the quiet days of China’s long, three-year shutdown during the pandemic to sculpt a feature from the hundreds of hours of material he had amassed. Like virtually all of Jia’s work, the new film centers on the presence of his wife and muse, the gifted and always-compelling Chinese actress Zhao Tao. Leaning heavily on a soundtrack of traditional and popular Chinese music, as well some silent film-style dialogue cards, Jia has pared and recomposed his years’ worth of material into a surprisingly affecting narrative. Zhao stars as a young woman named Qiaoqiao who is swept up in the times and carried across China in pursuit of her runaway lover, Brother Bin (inhabited by Jia’s longtime line producer, Li Zhubin). The film spans a nearly 25-year stretch of real-time, creating a temporal portrait not unlike Richard Linklater’s Boyhood — but one that depicts the growing pains of modern China itself as much as the growth of its characters.

Ahead of the Caught by the Tides premiere, The Hollywood Reporter connected with Jia over Zoom to discuss the film’s creation and what Chinese cinema’s overdue return to Cannes this year has meant to him. 

When and how did this project begin? 

I’ve been filming this since 2001. That period was the very beginning of digital cameras. Me, my DP and my actor friends, we were all young people. I think I was around 32 years old. We were just enthusiastic about the potential of digital cameras and we would go traveling together and shoot stuff. It was just young people making fun of each other and playing around with cameras. We were interested in trying to capture the poetic moments in life. Sometimes we would film in a documentary style and sometimes we would play out scenes. It was like we were surfing on the scenes we encountered, floating up and down with the tides and catching waves when poetic moments floated toward us. This habit of shooting lasted for quite a long time and eventually overlapped with my fictional filmmaking. When I was shooting my fictional features, if I noticed something interesting happening near where we were filming, I would stop production for a day or two and go shoot some material in this improvisational way. So I was doing these occasional surfing sessions, capturing slices of life, all the way up until the pandemic. And I didn’t always use digital cameras. Sometimes we shot on film. I used whatever I had on hand. 

Did you always intend to make a film from this material? 

Keeping with the surfing metaphor, it was like my subject was the whole ocean — just too huge and deep. I didn’t know whether all of this footage I had filmed might someday become one film or three. The big idea I had was to make a big, epic panorama of China — capturing everything I had felt and seen over these many years. But I was filled with doubts and it seemed overwhelming. When the pandemic came, we were all stuck at home and all of my other work stopped. That enabled me to really ponder all of this footage I had accumulated. So, in a sense, the real start of this project began then, when I started viewing the material I had shot over almost 20 years. The editing ended up taking over two years. 

The resulting film feels very much like a personal meditation on these past 25 years of profound change in China. 

Yes, it’s very personal. It’s about the times I’ve lived through, the places I’ve been and the people around me. All periods in life are filled with different dramas and confusion. In the early 2000s, that was really the start of the economic high-growth period in China. Globalization arrived and the country was opening up and everyone was filled with a kind of excitement for the future. Twenty years later, everything today is much more orderly, but people have lost their passion and their motivation. This curve of emotion that runs through the film is my personal feeling — this is what I have been through — but I believe it’s also a common emotion among the people of China. 

Just how much footage did you have to work with and how did you go about rearranging it into this loose narrative? 

The first step was simply to digitize everything. Some of the earliest footage was actually on videotape. Later, some of it was on various film formats. So we digitized everything and got it ready to work with. This took quite a while. On that first day, when I sat down at the editing station once everything was ready — this moment really shocked me. Because there was just so much footage. I never totaled up how many hours of footage there was, but it was an overwhelming amount to go through. Then I started by rearranging the sequence of the footage quite a lot. For example, sometimes I took things I shot in 2005 and mixed it with material from 2001. As we got closer to contemporary times, it was clear that the actors had aged, so I couldn’t rearrange as much.

This process must have been such an interesting journey into your past. 

I found so many things I had completely forgotten about shooting. It really was like time-traveling and it was very emotional for me. Interestingly, back in the early 2000s, digital cinematography was not well developed — and we were using this underdeveloped but exciting technology to shoot China at this exciting time when it was still somewhat socially and economically undeveloped. I was struck by what an interesting encounter this was — using non-mature devices to shoot this nascent period in the country. It was kind of magic. 

So, for the latter sections of the film, you shot new sequences to complete the film’s loose story, correct? How did you approach this aspect of the project? 

Yes, everything that takes place during the pandemic period in the film is new footage. For this contemporary footage, I used virtual reality cameras — to bring a somewhat futuristic and immersive feeling into the film. To tell our story, I had to sculpt a somewhat conventional, linear cinematic narrative. But processing and assembling all of the images, on the other hand, felt more like creating a contemporary art piece than making a film. I undertook a lot of experiments with the imagery and sound, and played a lot with mixing the flow of the story with music. 

How did you come to the idea of having the narrative center on a relationship and the evolution of that relationship across time?

The center of the narration had to rely on the footage that we had. However, there are a few moments where I use silent movie techniques to make the story more complete. For the last 20 years, Zhao Tao has been the key actress in all of my films, so it was natural that she would become the center. While reviewing and discussing the footage with her, she mentioned how these past 20 years have also been a journey for her of self-empowerment as a woman. And you could see this in the footage — the ways that she grew over this time period as a person. You could perceive how she found herself and became stronger during the course of all of those years. This also mirrored the interesting overlap we discussed earlier about the evolution of digital photography and the development of China. So, at the beginning, you can see how she’s caught up in the hustle and bustle of those times and is a bit lost. In the second part, in the Three Gorges section, she’s lost her love and she’s coping with that. By the end, you could say she’s just an ordinary Chinese woman. She works in a supermarket. But she’s also become a runner, which shows how she has her own life and a very strong sense of individual vitality. She doesn’t need a man or even a family — but of course, she has some sorrow at the same time. 

How has your collaborative process with Zhao Tao evolved over the years? 

Whether we’re just shooting casually or making a feature in an efficient way, she always has a lot of specific questions about my intentions. Even things like, “What time of day is this scene supposed to be taking place?” Because if it’s 8 a.m. or 2 p.m., she says her character should have a different feeling or energy. She’s very smart, and the physical aspect of performance is very important to her. She’s also very particular about her dialogue. If she feels a little is slightly uncomfortable for her, she’ll tell me about it and we’ll adjust it. She helps me improve and rebuild my screenplays. She also has helped me understand the female perspective, and I believe this has made my work much stronger. I didn’t really realize how much my work was starting to involve strong female characters until I stepped back from it. Since Mountains May Depart, the female characters have been very important in my work. Through these characters, I feel we can see the shortcomings of men. China is traditionally a very male-driven, patriarchal society. I feel men need to retreat a little and give more respect. Making films is a way for me to contribute to the diminishment of this patriarchal ideology. We aren’t born with modern awareness. For me personally, filmmaking has been essential to my process of becoming a modern man. 

What does it mean to you to be coming back to Cannes again this year? 

For the past few years, there were not many Chinese films showcased in Cannes, but this year I’m coming back with my latest film, and several other Chinese filmmakers are coming, too. It means a lot to me to be there again for the first time in six years. Together, we are telling the world that we never stopped — we never stopped shooting and we never stopped telling our story. Most importantly, we never lost our courage. 

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