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Communication Is Titanic Challenge
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Two of the titans of the film world sat down yesterday afternoon in Beijing and discussed the meaning of films and the goals they want to achieve with the medium.


Steven Spielberg, who was on Sunday named the artistic adviser for the 2008 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, and Zhang Yimou, who has been appointed chief director for the same events, revealed their mutual admiration in a special program taped by CCTV's Movie Channel.


China Daily helped design the questions as well as set parameters for the conversation.


"I've seen all your movies," enthused Zhang. He started with the Indiana Jones series and graduated to E.T. and Jaws; and said Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan touched a deep chord with "their depictions of human suffering."


Raise the Red Lantern was the first Chinese film Spielberg happened to see. "It exposed me to a culture I didn't know anything about and I felt drawn to the characters." And yesterday, he bought a DVD set of Zhang's works and asked him for an autograph. Zhang inscribed: "To my favorite film director and an old friend."


Talking about Zhang's movies, he said that he could completely understand what is going on even if he does not look at the English subtitles.


Both Spielberg and Zhang agreed that films are fundamentally about human emotions, which transcend languages and cultures.


In Munich, Spielberg approached the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a sense of mission: to encourage both sides to communicate with each other. Zhang's Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is also about the importance of communication between generations, languages and nations.


Munich has more depth than Riding, noted Zhang, who is saddened by the hostilities between different cultures.


"When can human beings stop physically annihilating each other and reach a phase of harmony?" he asked.


"Communication is the next important frontier to conquer. We have to communicate and understand each other," added Spielberg.


He also saw environmental degradation as the crisis of our time. "We're at the tipping point environmentally," he said. "We harvest the environment and it's going to come back to haunt us." As "powerful countries," the US and China can play a role to save the environment and films could be a "good medium."


"Movies and other arts can change the way people see the world and move people to act," he elaborated.


On cultural differences embodied in their work, such as the individual vs. the collective, Zhang commented that the Chinese culture and education have always emphasized the importance of the group. For all the recent changes, "collective" is always given priority, especially in martial arts films.


"It's a glorious thing to die for and my film Hero highlights that concept," he explained.


Contrary to popular belief, Spielberg does not see Saving Private Ryan as a group of people trying to save one person; he believes Ryan is a symbol which stands for all the things that people fought and sacrificed their lives for during World War II, "the last great war."


He admitted that he didn't expect films like Ryan to click with the masses but was confident that cultural barriers would not prevent Chinese movies to resonate with American audiences. "I'm fascinated how some movies are bigger in one market than another."


But the underlying power of human emotions goes beyond borders. "The worst thing is apathy," he asserted.


Zhang has been accused of pandering to foreign taste, but he was perplexed because "I don't speak a foreign language and I honestly don't know what foreign film-goers want."


But sometimes he approaches the question by putting himself in a similar position: "Why do I like certain foreign fare? It's not the exotica, the history or the locale. It's the shared emotions that touch me."


When it came to Hollywood's hegemony, Zhang said there are many people in the Chinese industry who are angry with Hollywood but at the same time desperately want its recognition. The right approach, he said, is to "absorb its experience and use it to enrich our national cinema."


Spielberg readily acknowledged Hollywood's "domination" of the world market. He cited an instance 13 years earlier in Italy and France. The local press accused his Jurassic Park of squeezing out local releases. "I felt terrible and guilty. But it turned out to be not exactly true."


The situation has been addressed since then when more movie theaters were built in Europe and more opportunities arose for domestic output to be screened along with Hollywood blockbusters, he said.


For all the technological breakthroughs he spearheaded with his digital dinosaurs, Spielberg did not concur with the statement that "the history of filmmaking is the history of technological advances." "It is the history of good story telling," he offered.


New technologies only make it easier for filmmakers to tell stories. They are tools. And "that's why movies will be with us forever," he said.


Zhang shared his opinion: "Whether a movie is intended to be entertaining, thought-provoking or educational, the story is the basis of everything. Everyone, from small kids to older people, loves a good yarn."


(China Daily April 18, 2006)

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