Diao Yinan’s latest film Black Coal, Thin Ice won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and has now found itself among the upper echelon of Sydney Film Festival’s Official Competition. After his most recent two films Uniform and Night Train receiving far less appeal than they deserved it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker as unique, talented and deserving as Yinan making waves in the cinematic landscape. With the help of a translator, editor Jeremy Elphick caught up with Yinan at Sydney Film Festival.
To open the interview I wanted to ask, with the Sydney Film Festival having a special selection on Chinese cinema, specifically mainland Chinese cinema, do you feel there is a growing interest in what is happening in Chinese cinema from the West? And do you feel there is any kind of reason behind it?
Since the 1980’s, since famous directors Zhang Yimou and Zhang Junzhao, the Western audience is already familiar with Chinese films and it was actually a honeymoon period. Until today, it looks like they are even more interested in Chinese film’s development.
Do you feel there is any reason that has sparked this renewed interest?
Mainly the Western society are interested in the market and the market has become bigger now with Chinese films. Mainly they are interested in the industry, as well as film. Perhaps a lot of people were interested in seeing a movie like this to see that China could have a film that could have a high profit a few billion dollars and what would happen to my film if it went to the Chinese market, what kind of profit could it return? That might be the kind of area the majority of people are interested to also find.
I think I forgot to say this, but I should say that I think so far of the films I’ve seen, this is one of the best I’ve seen at the festival and it’s a remarkably beautiful movie in the way it’s shot and it feels in a way that like it’s been loosely influenced, like a lot of other reviewers have said, by people like David Lynch and the Coen Brothers. However, I feel at the same time it is quite unfair to a lot of Western directors as part of the film feels more in line with a strong move towards a very highly distinct Chinese aesthetic in cinema, in particular with northern China. How influential do you feel that kind of Chinese cinema aesthetic has been against Western influences and the location of the film itself? What was more influential: the West or is it a move towards a more distinctly Chinese aesthetic?
I like a lot of Western directors, a lot of Western films. Perhaps if you want to see any particular influence from Western directors with this movie, you probably couldn’t see it because I felt I had seen many movies and so I try to take the essence of the feeling from those directors. So you probably couldn’t tell any specific directors. As a film – an arty film – to be part of the film festival and be in the competition and in the past, most of them are experimental films, there may only be 10 films in a year. But these days, more and more artistic film has been in the film festivals and is being more focused on so they are not just experimental, they are more heavy. Nowadays, artistic direction is very important – not just experimentation. I feel that, with the film, through the imagination you are able to express it in a different way – you can still express some serious sides of life as well.
I feel that you previous films before this have probably been more experimental and more in the arthouse vain than this, and while the two I have seen are both brilliant movies, they do feel like perhaps they wouldn’t have been able to be shown as part of a competition. Do you feel like you’ve had to move away from a less experimental approach to receive this kind of reception?
The difference with this film now is a mixture, it’s a detective film that can be marketed well. So in the process we joined two concepts together and the end result is totally different to what I intended. The most important thing is you need to be sure of your own style: you do not change your style.
On the topic of style, I feel that there is an extensive focus on industrial imagery in the film. In another interview there was a comparison made between the Black Coal, Thin Ice being the realm of reality and both of those fall into the sphere of the industrial. I watched a film several weeks ago a film by another Chinese filmmaker called Wang Bing. It was called West of the Tracks and it’s a nine hour film about the decline of an industrial village. It had the same industrial atmosphere but it was very different from you film. How do the images of power plants and factories provide the backdrop for the film? And are there other inspirations like this?
In China, using an industrial background for a film is actually not very popular style. The majority of the Chinese market would rather use scenery of the beautiful city – the glorious and beautiful things in the city and it is a big contrast to focus on the industrial village and industrial sites. A few directors – Wang Bing is one of them – use industrial backgrounds. Jia Zhangke was a another director who likes to use industrial backdrops in his films. Perhaps it has something to do with the way they were all brought up – they were from those types of cities, small cities. So they like to use the environment they are familiar with in their movies.
What is your personal relationship with an industrial environment?
I was born in Xi’an – in Shaanxi – and it has a lot of factories so the industrial background is very attractive to me. I can see a type of beauty in it. I can also see the relationship between the industry and people. I can see the relationship between humanity and the industrial. A person from an industrial background can also see the loneliness it creates.
I feel there is a lot of contrast in your film between these lonely, single figures against the backdrop of huge, beautiful factories –
That is correct.
Did you always envision that being a major part of the film?
That is correct. It is a very important part of the film because the visions are very beautiful. A person in this kind of a scene not only shows their loneliness but a romantic feeling or a poetic feeling. It is beauty but a cruel beauty.
I feel a lot of those themes are sustained by the performance of Liao Fan in the lead role. He is being widely praised for his performance. When you were looking for the person for that role, did you always have him in mind? Or did it just eventuate that he would be perfect for the role?
Yes, at the very beginning I had selected him to be the lead role. But he is also a very good friend, so he had selected me to be his director!
Do you see yourself sustaining a relationship with him as an actor over the course of your careers?
Yes, we will have a lot more opportunities to work together.
This morning I was speaking to Shelly Kraicer who is programming the large Chinese selection and he was discussing how a lot of the film sphere in China seems to be moving away from Taiwan and Hong Kong and back to more mainland Chinese cinema. Do you think there is a reason for this? Does the mainland have more to offer than it did, perhaps, twenty years ago?
This year at Cannes Film Festival, many Chinese films were on the cover of magazines. More and more people are becoming interested in Chinese films.
Do you feel like mainland films are darker? More mysterious or realistic?
The film may be very dark, but it depends on the director’s way of filming it – he could make it very poetic or beautiful. If something is dark on dark, it makes it difficult for people to accept so you have to do other things with it.
That seems like a good place to wrap it up. Again, I really enjoyed your film and I wish you the best of luck for the competition.