SIFForum｜Life Without Limits in the Era of She Films
In recent years, more and more female filmmakers have been making a splash for themselves on stages at home and abroad. The characters in their works have the courage to break through themselves and actively pursue a life without limits. This morning, the Her Film Era Forum: Life Without Limits co-presented by Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) and DIOR Dior was held in the newly renovated Shengli Cinema. Starting from their creative experience. In the first half of the event, director Chan Ho-San and actresses Zhang Ziyi, Vivian Wu shared their thoughts on the growth of women in depth; and in the second half of the forum, directors Zhang Mo, Zhou Yijun and actress Wang Jiayi revealed the multi-faceted roles and lives of female filmmakers through their career experiences.
For a long time, filmmakers have been working hard to discover and explore the unique perspectives for film creation. In recent years, more works created through female perspectives have also demonstrated female filmmakers’ unremitting pursuit of art and beauty. At the scene of the event, SIFF and Dior jointly awarded the honor of Female Filmmaker of the Year to actress and director Zhang Ziyi.
Over the past thirty years, Zhang Ziyi has successfully portrayed many classic female characters on the big screen at home and abroad. From the persistence of “Zhaodi” in her pursuit of love, to the loftiness of “Yu Jiaolong” in the martial arts world; from the mixed tenderness and arrogance in “Bai Ling”, to the endurance and resilience of “Wang Min Jia” amidst a tumultuous fate …… The word “women”, as interpreted by Zhang Ziyi, is of infinite and multifaceted power, as both “they” on screen and “she” off screen pursue a life without limits.
Recalling her career in film, Zhang Ziyi believes that “curiosity” and “fearlessness” have given rise to her every breakthrough. From a girl who knew nothing about acting, and chosen by Zhang Yimou at first sight for the big screen, she still thinks that it’s very incredible experience. In the days when she lived with a peasant family, carrying a shoulder pole and a hoe to do farm work, she attached herself to the role of “Zhaodi” in a natural way, “there is nothing about acting, let alone shaping; I just took myself away from the familiar life and went ahead with another one.”
Since then, Zhang Ziyi has gone further and further down the path of “setting no limits”. She often jokes with her friends, “Why do directors always like to cast me in those fierce and cold roles? I’m obviously a very smiley and girly person!” But behind this joke is the quest of an actress to not let herself fall into a comfort zone and to always be curious about her next role. And that really matters. And sometimes she even has to remain curious enough to wait for her scenes. THE GRANDMASTER took three years to shoot. And Zhang Ziyi has managed piece together her final role in a building block fashion with the help of “flyleaves” given to her on a whim. It is by “setting no limits” that she has brought her performance on screen to perfection.
Zhang Ziyi’s experience was also echoed by Vivian Wu, who has been in the business for more than 40 years, and she still vividly remembers the time when she was cast in the role of Wen Hsiu in the film THE LAST EMPEROR. “First, the role was absolutely extraordinary in that period of history. She dared to publish her divorce from Pu Yi in the newspaper, and she had this kind of emancipation of mind to pursue freedom, that we could hardly imagine.” What made her feel the most stress was the all-English dialogue performance, “I was still an international student at the time and my English wasn’t that good, which was also totally out of my assumption.”
From his early films ALAN & ERIC: BETWEEN HELLO and COMRADES: ALMOST A LOVE STORY to his recent DEAREST and LEAP and to the upcoming LINR, director Chan Ho-San’s portrayal and understanding of women’s roles has been a topic of concern and discussion. In this regard, the director also confessed that his perception of women has a kind of “obsession” that is in their DNA, “I always believe that women are strong, so in my works, the female character must be a powerful woman.” Growing up in Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s, Chan Ho-San was influenced by the social trend of the rise of women at that time, “In that era, Hong Kong revered the culture of strong women, so I naturally embraced the perception that women are naturally formidable.” But he also stresses that cinema, as a product of its time, has its historical limitations, “Some works may receive criticism if viewed in the present, this is because the standards of the era have changed, so I have to resort to some techniques and means to achieve my goal, which is to make people believe that women are naturally tough.”
When it comes to helpful suggestions for young filmmakers, especially women, all three “veterans” also offered practical “tips”. Zhang Ziyi mentioned the importance of having a fearless heart and seeking encouragement from those around her. “For us, every new role means a start from scratch, and you have to have a fearless heart to take on things you haven’t tried before, and that will reward you in a totally different way.” She says she is fortunate that every time she gets stuck, she can regain courage from the friends around her, “What’s particularly interesting is that almost all these people who give me help are women, and when a girl helps a girl, maybe that means she really understands you.”
Vivian Wu, on the other hand, says that it is the best time for young people today, when both films about women and the female filmmakers active on the international stage have reached an unprecedented height in terms of quantity and achievements. Against such a background, she hopes that more female filmmakers could learn to express themselves, embrace any possibilities, and try to create more diversified works with courage.
For his part, Chan Ho-San concludes that it is always the passion for cinema that allows him to overcome failure. “In this industry, the chance of failure is 99.9%, yet the chance of real success is very hard to come by, and only when you really love it will you be able to feel happy, as even failure will keep yourself going at that point.” Chan Ho-San also makes special mention of actress Michelle Yeoh, who attended the opening ceremony last night, “You can find that she has been acting and trying out different roles all the time, and her winning speech was all about the insights she has gained in life; she has been trying to transcend herself, always, and thus she’s really impressing!” As a peer, he says with emotion, “Michelle Yeoh is still setting off at new beginnings at this stage of her life, there’s no reason for the rest of us to paint ourselves into a corner.”
In 2009, Zhang Mo entered the film industry by working as an editor and subtitler in the film A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP, and she has since taken on various behind-the-scenes jobs in films such as UNDER THE HAWTHORN TREE, THE FLOWERS OF WAR and COMING HOME. In 2016, Zhang finally picked up the director’s chair for the first time and completed her first directorial work, SUDDENLY SEVENTEEN. Although she was brought up by her father Zhang Yimou and would often follow him on set, the process of turning from an outsider into an insider, as she perceived as both familiar and awe-inspiring, still filled her with uncertainty. “When you’re an assistant director, you’re helping the director with things he can’t take care of, including casting, for example. And however, when a newcomer stands in front of you, it’s a completely new task to judge whether she has the ability to complete performance. So, when I sat in the director’s chair, I was quite upset, because I found that all the things I had accumulated before now had to be applied, and in a very short time.”
Having switched from war correspondent to documentary filmmaker, Zhou Yijun has a deeper understanding of “setting no limits”. “In my opinion, ‘setting no limits’ may mean different things at different ages. I think when you are young, it may mean that you can’t realize them at all, because young people are always a bit naive, but such naivety thus becomes the limit that you can’t notice. For example, when I was in my 20s and became a war correspondent, had I ever thought that it was dangerous? Maybe it was just because I didn’t think about it that I had that courage to fulfill the mission. And at another age, when I turned to documentary filmmaking, I think ‘setting no limits’ means I have to be ready to start again from scratch, and all the experience I’ve accumulated in the past goes to nothing in the eyes of others.
At the very beginning when he switched to documentary filmmaking, Zhou Yijun also met with many unexpected situations, “Even though people recognize what you’ve done before, as you’re now in a completely different field, they’ll be skeptical naturally, thinking if you can really undertake it? So, at that point you have to know your ‘limits’ but you should still believe in yourself as a newcomer.” She believes that femininity can be “striking”, but it can also be a way of being wise in the face of disadvantages.
If the test of “setting no limits” before Zhang Mao and Zhou Yijun is how to handle a proactive transition in their careers, for the new generation of “Mou’s Lady” Wang Jiayi, it is about how to seize the opportunity that comes by chance. This year, Wang Jiayi became well-known to audiences with her role as Yao Qin in the movie Full River Red, a hit during the New Year movie season, but no one knows that she’s trained hard for a year for this day. She looks back on her growth across a year from the time she was notified of the video interview to the time she was selected for the training camp, going through multiple rounds of selection and finally entering the production team. In the past year, she has been undergoing an almost metamorphic growth, “For example, the training of gait, which requires a twist step by step airily, at that time I had to train at least three or four hours a day in front of the mirror, but once I was in front of the camera, I was so nervous that I couldn’t behave well again.”
Despite the fact that her performance in the film has been well received, Wang Jiayi is still conscious of the fact that she has a long way to go and that she has to set some “limits” for herself at present. “Next, I’m going back to school for the time being to finish my studies. It is a rare opportunity for one to study at the Central Academy of Drama. And it may be difficult for me come by such an opportunity in the future, so it is the top priority for me now.” She also says that if she happens to get more performance opportunities in the future, she hopes to take a different role as a challenge, “Whether the challenge is in age or appearance, I aspire to see what I can do.”