To make a call to France at 10 AM Paris time means that you're on the phone at 2 AM in Beijing. But when you're talking with Jiang Wen, China's toughest actor and boldest director, it's not difficult to stay awake.
"I want to make my films taste like strong liquor; I don't like stuff of 'soft-drink' kind," said the filmmaker who is busy promoting his third film, The Sun Also Rises. "Actually, I am unlikely to shoot those soft kinds of movies. I am a man neither too simple, nor too complicated, and there's no way for me to pretend to be muddle-headed."
Based on the short story Velvet by female writer Ye Mi, it took nearly a year for Jiang and his huge cast, which includes Joan Chen, Zhou Yun, Jaycee Chan, Anthony Wong and Kong Wei, to shoot The Sun Also Rises, traveling to 10 locations in Yunnan, the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
The film demonstrates Jiang's distinctive style of storytelling by spanning over 50 years of history and telling a story in four parts. "You will be intoxicated in it," he said with his pride.
And Jiang doesn't limit his unconventional way of doing things to movie making. During filming for The Sun Also Rises, 24-year-old actress Zhou Yun had Jiang's baby boy, even though the director is already married to a French woman with whom he has a young daughter. Jiang's baby also features in his new film.
As well as being an internationally accomplished filmmaker, the 44-year-old Jiang is also a talented actor.
Since his acting debut in The Last Empress over 20 years ago, Jiang has come to recognize the differences between his role as an actor and director.
"As an actor, I would make comments and suggestions that I'm supposed to make, and I did make many suggestions. However, I never tried to cover up the director's original intention with that of my own," he said. "No creator would sedulously work out a style. Usually it comes from the appreciators' review and criticism after they watch the film."
Born in Hebei, Jiang majored in performance studies at Beijing's Central Academy of Drama from 1980 through 1984. Even as a student, Jiang showed signs of giving, not taking, direction. "Many teachers didn't like him because he always questioned them," recalled Zhang Renli, retired dean of dramatic arts. "He would always ask, 'Why? Tell me why?'" said the 69-year-old, who has coached four generations of actors, including Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi.
Onscreen, Jiang's toughness is best when it's paired with vulnerability. In the role that made him famous across China, as a fresh-off-the-boat newlywed in the 1993 TV series A Beijing Man in New York, Jiang played an out-of-work cellist who battles bitchy bosses, sticky-fingered factory managers and an immigrant's boredom.
In Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum, he makes passionate love to Gong Li in a breezy patch of matted sorghum stalks, then gets drunk and boisterously brags about it.
Off the screen, he keeps true to himself and delivers his sharp opinions like his belief that "actors are the center of filmmaking".
"A good director should be a hospitable host. Since you invite the guests to your house, you should certainly take the situation under your control, make your guests feel at home, letting everyone enjoy a happy time."
His passion for acting and special eye for directing propelled Jiang into the pantheon of white-hot Chinese directors. Jiang's directorial debut, In the Heat Of the Sun (Yangguang Canlan de Rizi), won the best actor prize at Venice in 1994 for actor Xia Yu. The movie, based on a short story by Chinese bad-boy author Wang Shuo, follows five guys and a girl running wild during one summer of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) period. This successful start gave birth to Jiang's second film, the equally energetic Devils on the Doorstep (Guizi Lai Le) in 1999, which won the top award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival and NETPAC award at the 2001 Hawaii Film Festival.
To some extent, Jiang's films reflect major stages of his life. In the Heat of the Sun (1994) capped off the wide-eyed youthful exuberance of his 20s, and Devils followed a passion for modern Chinese history he developed in his early 30s.
A director, Jiang says, is only the organizer of a film, or the one who creates an environment for the making of the movie. "It's a good thing that people have enthusiasm and passion. However, if everyone is eager to show off it won't help the film," he said.
For Jiang, the script is the key. "The story is the spirit, it's very important. Whether He Ping, Zhang Yimou or I, all of us would spend much time discussing and arguing about the details of the screenplay," he said.
These days, Jiang may appear in just one movie a year but he has supported many Chinese young filmmakers. Missing Gun (2002), a fast-paced crime drama about a small town cop whose frantic search for his stolen pistol unearthing a web of provincial vice, is Jiang's first appearance in a film since Devils on the Doorstep in 2000. The film's director is Lu Chuan, a young film school graduate with a background in commercials.
In 2003, Jiang played the role of a policeman at actress Xu Jinglei's directorial debut film My Father and I, in which he spends only five minutes onscreen. Later he was the leading actor in Xu's second film Letters from an Unknown Woman in 2004. On the set of Green Tea, a guy-meets-girl urban romance, Jiang worked with director Zhang Yuan and actress Zhao Wei.
(China Daily May 10, 2007)