Born in 1967, Zhang Yang received his BA in Chinese Literature from Zhongshan University (Guangdong Province) in 1988 and continued his study in the Directing Department of the Central Drama Academy in Beijing. After graduating from CDA in 1992, he entered the Beijing Film Studio and is now working for the studio as a director.
Spicy Love Soup (1997)
Despite an already prolific career, Zhang Yang's films are difficult to categorise: he shuns the moniker, 'Sixth Generation director.' 'Most directors don't identify with this division - fifth, sixth, whatever. I only want to make my movies. I don't care what they call me.' After the 34 year-old director broke onto the scene with 1997's hit, Spicy Love Soup (Aiqing Malatang), he came out with Shower (Xizao) in 1999, which garnered critical acclaim domestically and abroad as well as becoming a commercial success. Both movies appealed to Western and Chinese audiences because of their honest and compassionate portrayals of contemporary Beijingers. 2001's Quitting (Zuotian) dealt with a much darker theme - drug addiction - and was a well crafted confluence of reality and fiction mixed with theatre and film techniques. It displayed a definite maturity not seen in his previous efforts. The film was originally titled Yesterday and centers on the song of the same title by the Beatles. Michael Jackson, who owns the rights to most Beatles songs, refused to let Zhang use the song or its title. "It's really a pity we couldn't use that song," Zhang laments. "It really detracts from the film."
Zhang professes his love for early Chinese rockers like Cui Jian and Ziyue. There is a hip, rock 'n' roll flare to his films, indicative of this new crop of directors who, according to Zhang, "draw from the current environment, [and] record the process of growing up." For these filmmakers, realism is the new mantra - especially when it comes to portraying emotion. Zhang has the ability to draw uncomfortably real feelings out of his actors.
Zhang has also been experimenting with digital media. He recently shot a movie entirely
on DV entitled Sunflower, starring actor Xia Yu (see November 2003 People feature). However, this foray into the world of video didn't impress Zhang much. "DV is better suited for documentaries. Unless I come across the right story or the right environment, I have no plans to shoot on DV again." Despite his digital misgivings, Zhang retains an affinity for theatre, exemplified in the theatre play within Quitting. "Actually, theatre really helps a lot with directing films. If I have [another] opportunity to direct a stage drama, I'd like to do it. It really depends on the script."
For now, Zhang is hard at work preparing for his next film. "[The script] has taken me more than two years to write," he says. "Again, it's about a family. I'm most interested in this theme. The story spans a 20-year period, from the 1970s to the 1990s." Could this new project be considered a contemporary continuation of Zhang Yimou's To Live (Huozhe)? As Zhang is eager to distance himself from the Fifth Generation directors, probably not. "It's about a father and a son," he says. "It will depict everything from the controversial, the touching and the misunderstood intricacies of their relationship. It's all about love, but it's not only about love."
Spicy Love Soup
A major commercial hit and runaway winner of several film awards in mainland China, Spicy Love Soup's five tales of love in contemporary Beijing mark a refreshingly accessible new direction for Chinese cinema. Turning away from arthouse-destined costume epics of emperors, conquerors and concubines, the film depicts a more modern appraisal of the lives of its ordinary citizens. Visiting high schools, shopping malls and housing blocks, capturing teenagers, yuppies and retirees, the film changes tone and feel for each segment, yet continues to follow a certain charming rhythm and style.
One obsessed youth uses his recording skills to edit together an "I love you" from his crush, while another boy hopes to reconcile his bickering parents by putting a magic love potion into a homemade dinner. An overworked husband and wife rediscover love through electric toy cars and miniature kickboxer games, while a younger couple recount their own courtship in voiceover and flashbacks. In the centerpiece of the film, an awkward first encounter between an older woman and three retired suitors turns joyous thanks to the power of mahjong.
Surprisingly warm and humanistic in its glimpse of life in modern Beijing, Spicy Love Soup also boasts a brisk backdrop of contemporary Mandarin pop hits, which recently became the second-best selling soundtrack in China's history.
When the film unfolds, Da Ming (He Zheng), who works in capitalism-oriented South as a businessman, returns to his family home in Beijing after being hinted that his elderly father (Zhu Xu) has passed away. Da Ming's father owns a traditional bathhouse which he runs with the help of his other son, mentally challenged Er Ming (Jiang Wu).
Da Ming feels a little impatient after learning that his father is perfectly heathy. He immediately books a flight ticket and plans to go back. In the meantime, while his brother welcomes Da Ming lovingly, his father is remote and cold. Their separation is a result of different values, different life experience, and different generations.
As the narrative develops, however, Da Ming gradually realizes what has separated him and his father. In a rapidly changing China, what lacks or has lost is the traditional sense of human connection, family ties, and community celebration, which Da Ming eventually learns to value through observation and interaction with his father and brother.
Most of the film takes place in the bathhouse and director Zhang Yang explores the details of what goes on there - rhythmic massage, lather for a shave, sharpening a razor on a strop, suction cup therapy, games played, and fighting crickets. Several small subplots are developed - a would be Pavarotti with stage fright, competition between two cricket trainers, a customer's problematic marriage to a temperamental wife. It turns out that the bathhouse itself - for its patrons, a center of community in the best sense - is threatened along with its aging neighborhood which is to be bulldozed to make way for a shopping mall.
Shower arrives in commercial distribution after winning fans on the festival circuit, and deservedly so. It's a charming film that gains weight through skillful character development and maintains a sense of humor laced with fondness for its characters even as it gently prods their human weaknesses.
There is plenty of humor - gentle humor that arises from real people in real situations. The transition into a flashback story of family history is, however, disconcertingly abrupt, though the story told is touching and relevant. And all the little subplots are worked out with almost mathematical precision.
In the late 1980s a new film star, Jia Hongsheng, emerged in China. Labeled "the thug idol," he gained fame playing gangsters and heroes in a series of films by young directors and soon became the actor of choice for Chinese sixth generation filmmakers such as Wang Xiaoshuai and Lou Ye.
Jia's naturally fragile mental/psychological state coupled with his experimentation with drugs, however, gradually led him into a state of despair. He stopped acting and cut himself off entirely from all his friends, locking himself in an apartment, taking drugs and listening to tapes of his favorite music over and over again.
Jia Hongsheng epitomizes the younger generation who, between the late 1980s and early 1990s, went through a radical social change. Rock music, changes in values, and drugs all contributed to giving birth to a new type of life, stoking the anger between the younger and older generation. The film recreates seven years of effort by a family to help one of their members get rid of drug addiction and also to help him find his identity.
Every character in "Quitting" is played by a real person who was part of Jia Hongsheng's life. The film seeks to be unflinchingly realistic in its portrayal of its characters and the early 1990s as a historical period.
(sources: www.thatsmagazines.com and www.asianfilms.org Dec 12, 2003)