Chang: The idea of this thing came up when Professor Dai Jinhua [Beijing University] came to visit and I took her over to have lunch with these guys. It was a very fruitful discussion and I learned a lot. And later on during her visit we had a roundtable discussion about feminism, literature and film from the PRC and Taiwan with Asian Studies faculty. The Transnational China Project at Rice University sent a professor over to record, transcribe, translate and publish it on their website. And there was a good response. So I thought we might as well do the same thing with Peggy here. Now we don't even need an interpreter. The Transnational China Project has again agreed to publish it. So basically I think we should stick with the same kind of casual format. It can last as long as we like.
Schatz: Well, I've got a whole series of questions that I'd love to talk to you about, and they tend to center around three large issues. One just has to do with this whole idea of a regional cinema, and how you see that developing, given the economic and political disparities or differences between the key national cinemas or production centers involved, and just how you think something like this might come about. Clearly, it's happening. But can it really happen in a more programmatic way. Horace and I have done a lot of consulting in Europe over the years. And I mention that because a lot of what we've done has been in the Nordic countries. I know John Downing has spent some time up there as well, in Finland and the Scandinavian countries.
Schatz: But it's interesting in that those are very distinct nation states with very obvious connections of various kinds -- cultural, historical, social -- but different languages. There is a very strong realization that they need to figure out ways to cooperate in terms of international co-production, etc. There is much less to overcome, I think, than say, between Beijing, Hong Kong, Taiwan. But they've had tremendous difficulty getting into an efficient co-production kind of situation. And this mainly involves Horace and my going back and forth, and it mainly involves television. But I have become more aware of this whole idea of linguistic regions, and the degree to which the different countries have historical and cultural orientations that are more or less in sync. You know, this is an interesting problem.
Schatz: Another area that is of great concern to me, and Cindy Chan and I have talked about this, is the awful amount of mobility of talent between Taiwan and the U.S., Hong Kong and the U.S., and just what that means in terms of the experience of production and the mode of production. I have learned a lot from Cindy about the relationship between people involved in the industry, and how much more Asian cinema tends to rely on personal relationships, etc.
Schatz: Also, Horace and I co-chaired a dissertation recently by Ying Zhu, a very sharp screenwriter from Beijing who did a previous MA at San Francisco State in production. Very sharp. And she wrote her dissertation, basically, on the fifth and sixth generation of Chinese directors. And I learned a lot just in terms of the ways in which, in Mainland China, in Beijing, the different political regimes have affected the development of film style and the development of the working practices in the industry. And also just a notion of the marketplace, and what was a viable commercially in China.
Schatz: So those are the kind of three large themes that are on my mind. And others may have others. And we could kind of start anywhere.
Chiao: Yes. Well, let me give you an example first. I produced The Beijing Bicycle. The director, Wang Shaoshuai, is one of the leading figures of the sixth generation directors. Together with another guy, Jia Zhangke, we are going to produce another film. As I said yesterday, Jia's film PLATFORM, being viewed by many Western critics as the best film over the years of Chinese film history, which I disagree, but it certainly is a brilliant film.
Chiao: Anyway, I met these two directors during film festivals, knowing them for five or seven years. They have a lot of problems. You know, co-production can help those people because they have been underground for so many years. The whole generation of sixth generation directors graduated during the Tiananmen Square incident, in 1989. And immediately they didn't have any job openings for them because censorship was really severe and everybody was hushed up. So there were no job openings for them, and then they started to do underground works for more than ten years.
Chiao: So those people eagerly wanted to be legal. But there were a lot of things they have had to overcome, like the attitude of the government, and the censorship. And they've been trying to be really daring, and sometimes even, I think, exploitative. This particular guy named Zhang Yuan, the one who directs a lot of films that have something to do with the themes he predicted Western people would like. He did one film with an underground rock band, The Beijing Bastards, and a gay film, East Palace, West Palace. And then he did a documentary on Tiananmen Square. It's a response to the political incident. And recently he did a documentary on the People's Liberation Army soldier who went through a sex operation. Those are really sensational subject matters. Each time I go to a film festival, big or small, he's always there with all kinds of films. He knows how to deal with Westerners.
Chiao: But this kind of relationship initiates debates in China. Some people say, "Are those people making films because they are underground?" and "Are they making films only for people outside of China?" And certainly for this guy, it's like that, you know, because most of his films have been sold very successfully in Japan, Korea, France, and Italy. Certainly not in the United States, which is such an autonomous market, does not show market need for any foreign films, at least for the last ten years. Because when I was here in the late 70s, I remember people really liked foreign films. But not any more, I think, because I heard that the figure has dropped drastically for the market share of foreign films. I think down to 7 percent.
Schatz: It's bad. It's bleak.
Chiao: And a lot of the small art cinemas have folded. So those Chinese films are pretty much popular among Westerners, especially in Europe, and in some Asian countries, with Japan and Korea being the biggest markets.
Chiao: And so those people started to make films for those markets. And they became even more underground. And then the conflicts between them and the government became more and more severe. And the government will accuse those people of making films that bring detriment to the image of the country. You know, because it always showed off the images that Western people wanted, the derogatory images of China.
Chiao: So this is something like a big debate. And this has been going on for a long time. And then it initiates these conflicts between the fifth generation and the sixth generation. Because the fifth generation, being legal and legitimate with the country, with the government, have felt like they are threatened pretty much by those brats, those social, marginal filmmakers. I have heard Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige criticize those people a lot for making films that are basically not decent enough, not real, authentic, or authoritative in attitudes.
Chiao: And the sixth generation directors claim the fifth generation is also very degenerate because they think they are also ingratiating themselves with the Western audiences. Films like Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell my Concubine, and Shanghai Triad, all had foreign capital involved, especially from France. And those films of the fifth generation wanted to be legal, so they always chose the safe subject matter. A lot of times they had nothing to do with reality. Sometimes they are dated back in the 1930s, like Concubine and Shanghai Triad.
Chiao: So now all these interactions where foreign capital is involved certainly influence the theme and the subject matter being chosen. But you see the two generations of film directors, they both make films with foreign money, but with different levels of appeal.
Chiao: The fifth generation have had general releases, big distribution, A-level films. Big budgets and stuff. They made films unrelated to reality. So the sixth generation, of course, is closer to reality, especially the guy who did Platform. As I said in yesterday's lecture, he was influenced pretty much by Taiwan cinema. His film is very much in the realm of realism. Very strong. Almost to a point of documentary. So he and this generation of directors accuse the previous generation of being more aloof, more alienated from the people, whereas they are closer to the younger audience and society. They also accuse the older established directors of being something like celebrities and of not knowing what happens in the world. Certainly not what happens among Chinese people in society. So these kinds of issues have become a big issue of debate in China. I'm sure Cindy knows about this.
Chiao: And then people like us are involved. We wanted to help out like the sixth generation, but not like the French people or the Japanese people. The French people or Japanese people approved the subject matter and that's all. They give the money, and the film is made. It's just like a contract. For us, we take a very strong interest in co-production. We send equipments, and we do the post-production together. Actually, originally we write the screenplay together. So this is - the whole process is very different from just foreign money. It's a different format.
Chiao: However, I remember in Variety they had a review of our film, saying, "This film eventually has a very curious touch of Taiwan - Taiwan cinema." I don't understand what the reviewer meant by "curious touch." He felt that there was a rhythm that was unfamiliar to them. It belongs to the aesthetics of the sixth generation. I guess it's because this film was trying to gain more of a general audience, and trying to be less alienating. A lot of the directors now ignore the audience totally, and they just want to do whatever they want to do. And sometimes the films are too aloof for the general audience. So what we did so far is trying to drag the film back to more conventional format.
Schatz: In marketing these projects are you thinking consciously in terms of local, regional, international And how much do you think these affect questions of style and content?
Chiao: I think it has a lot to do with it. In the beginning when we started to have this series Tales of Three Cities, we needed to have a collective force because of the financial situation. We need to have a pan-Chinese cinema, instead of a territorial cinema, say, of China or Taiwan, Hong Kong. It's because we need the larger market. And with a collective image of China, the changing society, the 21st century, new talents, new creative people, and new aesthetics maybe. And when we packaged these kinds of things together, and then appealed to the financiers, they bought it immediately. There were a lot of them interested in this package, and we found financing very quickly. It is much easier than finding money only for films from Taiwan or Hong Kong. We have to use the collective image of China to do so.
Chiao: And then, on the other hand, because we have this whole package we have started to try to influence the directors a little bit. For instance, our director from Taiwan still wants to use actors from his previous films, non-professional actors. And we convinced him to use Chang Chen from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He will be acting for Wong Kar-Wai's next film. We know all these things are lining up for him. He has potential. He has the potential to be an idol in Asia. I know that because when we went to Japan and Korea together with him there were a lot of the fans asking for his autograph. So those kinds of things will increase the market immediately. It will be much easier. People who buy films in Asia look at it in a very simple and rough way. They say, "Who is the actor?....Who?....I never heard of him." Then they don't want it. And then you say, "Oh, the guy from Crouching Tiger," and they say, "Okay .I'm interested." And the story? "Love story?....Okay." It's very rough, you know. They don't even bother to look at the tape. They just want to know names and the story type. So those kinds of things we negotiate with the director and we say, "Please, in order for us to gain some of the money back from Asia territory, we need to have faces familiar to the audience."
Chiao: And also we literally had to reedit the film for our director from Taiwan because he cut seven versions. Because he cut seven versions, and it didn't work. It was really bad. It was unreadable. It's like watching your money go down the drain. We had test screenings with many people and it still didn't work. Nobody could understand what was going on. So we hired a very professional editor. He is actually a producer now for Hou Hsiao-Hsien. He quit editing a long time ago, but he is so capable. And so we begged him to come to cut the film for us.
Chiao: And to our surprise, it was selected into competition at the Berlin Film Festival and the film won the best director. [Laughter] So it was a big irony. The whole thing was a big irony. He became an instant celebrity in Taiwan. And he'd say, "My style, my format, my inspiration." I really felt it was an ironic situation.
Schatz: When you say "collective Chinese images," what do you mean by that?
Chiao: Every Chinese can tell the difference between films from China or from Taiwan. Taiwan film is known to be really personal and artistic. Chinese are known to be more epic and serious. And Hong Kong is really commercialized. So each kind of film really appeals to a different audience. And it's very hard for one kind of film to get money for several films, So if you have like six films packaged together and say, "This is a collective image of three Chinese countries," then people are interested. And for us also because the package can appeal to many people. Also, it's because society has changed radically over the last two years because of the return of Hong Kong to China. The Chinese really have been turning into a super capitalist society. And Taiwan after all the elections has become more or less socialistic, to our surprise. So there all of these radical changes that have happened in the last two years. And everybody is curious to see how films can reflect those. Even to this day, many films are dealing still with the themes that happened long ago, dated. They are not related to this current contemporary situation.
Newcomb: But will the three films maintain their sort of distinctive styles that are tied together? Or are you trying to create something ?
Chiao: I'm not the only one who has tried to break down the barrier or the difference. There are so many interactions going on between the three Chinas now. And not only China, but also within Asia. Like Wong Kar-Wai, the Hong Kong director, now using this Japanese super idol Kimura to do his next film. This guy, everywhere he goes there will be screaming crowds of young girls, Those Japanese idols are in a lot of Hong Kong films because all of a sudden, overnight, all the Japanese TV soaps, about love stories and stuff, have become extremely popular in Asia, thanks to cable and satellite, and pirated VCD and DVD. People get access to those things. And also because now the Hong Kong superstars have gone to Hollywood and they need to have some replacements. So they got a lot of people from Tokyo. Wong Kar-wai's next film will be Chang Chen and Kimura together. It's called 2046, and everybody is looking forward to it because he's already built up a cult status, even among the Western audiences.
Newcomb: What genre will this film be? What story type will it be?
Chiao: Nobody knows.
Chiao: He is known to be like Godard. No script.
Chiao: For In The Mood For Love, originally the French people get a script. It was about eating Chinese food. [Laughter] Eventually, it turned out to be a love story, and also about women's clothing, as you know. It's a completely different story. And then we were at the Cannes Film Festival, and all of the people were saying, "Is Wong Kar-Wai coming for the competition? What's happened to him?" We said, "He's in Cambodia shooting now." But on the last day he arrived with the film, apologizing to people and saying, "This is an unfinished film without complete sound. Please accept my apologies." And then it was a big hit. It won two big awards.
Chiao: But then, you know, what I'm saying is that it's not only the collective Chinese things. It's really a pan-Asia thing. The Koreans are making a big swordplay film modeled after Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, starring Zhang Ziyi, the young girl from Crouching Tiger. It's called Musha. It is a warrior story..
Downing: That leads on to some other questions. Over the next five or eight years, do you envisage that Chinese cinema will itself start developing any kind of anime work? Second, do you imagine that it could clearly make money? Do you imagine that cities such as Shanghai or Guangzhou might become centers of production. Third, and this is really way off, but I'm curious if the other Asian superpower, India will develop any crossover connection with Hollywood.
Chiao: First of all about animation. Taiwan used to have the biggest second production facilities. They did the processing for the animation of Hollywood, all the Disney films and for Hanna Barbera. All the cell painting. They had no part in the creation, just the hard labor.
Downing: Filling in the blanks.
Chiao: Yes. Fill in the blanks and sometimes just finishing the animation process. When I graduated from U.T. and went back to Taiwan it was the biggest animation factory in the world, and now it's slowly shifted to Shanghai because they have even cheaper laborers. And it's also because Shanghai has an animation studio, and they have a long tradition of making really refined cartoons. So now there has been a big panicky situation in Taiwan. They're stealing more jobs and stuff. But now they have found a solution. They moved to Shanghai and they collaborate with them. This is, I think, a very strong strategy. Now the Taiwan money and the Taiwan management staff are collaborating with Shanghai Studio, which is certainly one of the biggest cartoon factories in the world.
Chiao: But this is the opposite of Japan. Japan has a big market for animation. Hayao Miyazaki, who did Princess Mononoke and a series of other films, are always number one or two on the top ten list of the best selling films. Miyazaki's themes really appeal to the national sentiment or whatever. Then there is Katsuhiro Otomo, who makes a lot of animation related to science fiction and manga, or comic strips. He also appeals to the younger audiences. Japan has very strong animation. And there is so much ambition in Miyazaki's work, which I like very much. I love some of the really warm and very sentimental things. He wants to bring his wants to the world but there are a lot of obstacles. For instance, Miramax wanted to re-cut his film, Princess Mononoke. The deal kind of fell through for two years, I heard, because the director refused to let them cut the film. Eventually Miramax didn't do any publicity, and the film went out on a very small release and didn't recoup the money.
Downing: Do you see Chinese eventually merging for this kind of work?
Chang: Tsui Hark talked about this when he was here.
Chiao: Right. The remake of A Chinese Ghost Story. It was a flop everywhere. The Koreans wanted to have a share of the cartoon industry but they invested a lot of money in collaborating with people from Japan and Taiwan and Hong Kong. For instance, Tsui Hark. I think a lot of money came from Korea, and Taiwanese wanted a film by Wang Xiaodi. Grandma's Ghost was also financed half from Korea. Koreans especially want to compete with Shanghai to become tops in animation in the world. There are so many things happening very rapidly and quickly. A lot of people are trying to explore and trying to experiment. So we don't really know what will come out in the end. But I'm more, you know, into features and documentaries. So it's only my observation.
Downing: What about Hollywood and Indian film? Can you imagine any collaboration down the pipe?
Chiao: No I don't know much about Indian films. Because in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China people can rarely see those films. You know, in India alone there are about 32 dialects from all over the country.
Downing: Well, there are 16 official languages for sure.
Chiao: Right. And then I think the two major ones in South and North don't integrate such that there are films made for Northern territories and films made for Southern territories. And even within the country it is very diverse and to privileged audience. So it's hard to get the films exported to other countries.
Downing: It's interesting, because India's films have been quite successful in many countries: in Africa, North Africa, Russia even. The Classical musical ones.
Chiao: Yes. There are one or two really popular ones in China, but that was twenty years ago, thirty years ago and no longer. In Taiwan or in Hong Kong, I don't think ever.
Chan: Not in the mainstream.
Chiao: No. Never.
Downing: It's funny what will mix. I mean, who'd have thought that Algerians or Senegalese would necessarily like Indian films. But they do. [Laughter] But they like Chinese films as well.
Chiao: I have done some film festivals before and we tried to invite films from all over the world. Every time we had few audiences for the films from India.
Chiao: Right. It's very hard to sell tickets. People are just not interested. So it's very strange.
Schatz: Peggy, as you know, scholars spend a lot of time these days thinking about, in terms of global culture and international cinema, what's authentic about this event or that type of cinema relative to its culture. And also about the implications of international co-productions in terms of recombinant culture or, for want of a better term, the lending or combining of cultures. Do you tend to think about this at all? Or is this a concern to you? Whether we're thinking about these larger aspects of the epic nature in Chinese cinema, the more artistic nature in the realist, documented style of Taiwanese cinema, or the more commercial, male-oriented and highly choreographed style of Hong Kong cinema, do you think of these as having a cultural basis that can or can't be combined or that you should or shouldn't want to mess with? Do you think in those terms?
Chiao: Right. This is something we think about every day actually.
Chiao: Yes. As industry people, not so much as scholars.
Schatz: What is your take as an industry person? How do you tend to think about these things?
Chiao: To be honest with you, for me the survival thing is most important at this moment. How to incorporate all the elements advantageously and then try to get a film done is what we think about every day. So when we think about how it should be done, you know, we think about the creative elements, including actors with technical people or directors, and how we can arrange them together. You know, we think of film as "Oh, we want a Hong Kong actress, Maggie, or we want a Taiwan actor, Chang Chen." Those kinds of things we think of every day. Of course, eventually there are implications. For instance, the most successful film for Hou Hsiao-hsien during the '80's was a City of Sadness and it was the very first film he used a star. It was a star from Hong Kong, Tony Leung. And Tony Leung's Mandarin is terrible. He cannot speak Mandarin, so eventually Hou Hsiao-hsien made him deaf and mute. [Laughing]
Chiao: Yes, in the film he would use sign language, but it still worked. He still had an appealing face, and it worked. This kind of thing eventually does influence the themes or content of the film. If Hou Hsiao-hsien wants to use Maggie Cheung again for his next film then he has to be realistic because Maggie also speaks very awful Mandarin. So this time then he has to put her as a character from Hong Kong. Also, some creative elements are starting to fuse. The sixth generation are good at the subject matter, But they are not quite technically accomplished and this way we can try to produce a film where we use technical people from Taiwan or Hong Kong to help them. And this will eventually be seen by people who say this has a curious touch of Taiwan rhythm, because something like that will happen.
Chiao: And then in terms of theme, it will also change a lot too, you know, because we have to find themes that are attractive enough for audiences not only in all three countries, but in Asia, Europe and the world. So I think the time for each cinema to be distinctively national or very colloquial or very endemic, is over. There was one critique from The New York Times, about A Good Man, Good Woman by Hou Hsiao-hsien, in which the critic said that as you walk in to see the film, you don't know what's going on in the film. But then you came out and read tons of material, and then walked in again to see it twice. Then you found out it was a masterpiece. I think this era is over because people have less patience. I did a lot of jobs like that when I did press books for Hou Hsiao-hsien. I was always trying to decipher all the secret code in a very skillful way. I tried to do an interview or something, tried to make people understand the historical background or some of the things that make his films known for being so elliptical, so that our press book filled in the blanks
Schatz: So you say the time for a discrete national cinema is over.
Schatz: Is that because the market's not large enough or because the culture is changed? Because we're all thinking more in terms of international or global or regional? And why is that? Why is it over? What is it that ended? Why did it end?
Chiao: For me it's the various direct responses from the buyers and distributors. They come and say, "Oh, we don't want to see another, another serious Taiwan film about their history." And now there are films about private social issues. They say we want films that can appeal to the public and when you say public, it's not the public Europe or America or Asia alone. It's the global market.
Newcomb: Does this mean that the films are perceived in some quarters as more Americanized? I mean, in one way this is what Hollywood was able to do very early is to cross a lot of those boundaries with sort of generic and pragmatic response.
Chiao: Some of the more endemic Chinese films are really, really very hard to understand. People had to sit down with a lot of patience and a lot of understanding. And there will be a very small group of people who really love the films. In general, people just wouldn't walk in or walk out immediately after they saw five minutes or so. When we showed Beijing Bicycle, to my satisfaction hardly anybody walked out. The horror of my experience all over the world, in film festivals, is to see the exodus of the audience. I produced a film, The Hole, by Tsai Ming-Liang. At the public screening, the premiere, at Cannes it was really a shocking scene because it's rare that a film has such a small audience. It was almost an empty hall and I was really shocked, and even with that small audience people still walked out. It's like a big protest to the director and then you have to suffer through that every time. But that's really the most direct and very, very perhaps very rough way to show how people react to a film. For us it's a big index and we try very much to avoid that situation.
Chiao: Beijing Bicycle, for me it's very surprising then. First of all it's a packed house and only few walked out. It's more accessible. But it doesn't mean that this film is less Chinese. I don't think it has anything to do with the theme being Chinese, because I asked a director to do a film about bicycles. Whenever we think about China, we think about all the CNN footage of people riding bicycles, hordes of them on the street. So for me it's a very clear image of China and how the bicycle still means the same thing for Chinese people. I asked the director and the director said it's a very cherished experience for everyone when they have their first bicycle in China and now this situation has changed. Because before the bicycle was essential for their living. In our film we show how it's a demonstration of their proud equipments for the young kids to use it to attract girls. So for those kind of things when you have themes so specific to Chinese society, I don't think it's Americanized, even if the format is probably more accessible. Because there are still very Chinese characteristics.
Zanasi: There are two things that I would like to hear from you about. Aren't Chinese movies more successful in Europe? Because when we talk about the kind of audience and the expectations of the audience toward a movie, I have the feeling that European audiences are more used to the slow and introverted. All of the European movies have the same problem being shown to American audiences that Chinese movies have. So I was wondering if the European market should be the first goal of Taiwanese movies, rather than attempting to Americanize them.
Chiao: I think there are two, very different kinds of audiences in Europe also. Because you know, in France for instance, the American films still occupy more than 50 percent of the market share. And those people would like films like those of Ang Lee, for instance. And those people who like Ang Lee would not like films that are obscure and slow by more artistic directors. Indeed there are still a large proportion of those audiences in Europe and from those people I always hear comments like those in Europe. Ang Lee's more popular among general audiences and younger audiences. But somehow I think in France or, I don't know not so much in England, but in France and the Benelux countries they like very much those slower films and obscure films.
Zanasi: I like very much the Iranian movies; they are not the most fast paced movies, and they also tend to be very local.
Zanasi: I can see these kinds of movies dying out and it worries me.
Chiao: But I think the Iranian film is changing too because it's now become more accessible. Because originally the whole industry was seemingly built on the career of Abbas Kiarastami and then all these people are his disciples, you know, the filmmakers, scriptwriters. And this is a guy who still very much sticks to his own integrity, and he wants to make films ignoring the opinions of distributors. That's unique, I think.
Chiao: And so his films have smaller and smaller audiences. It's very sad to say but then a lot of his disciples decided to change. You know a lot of people started to appeal to the younger audiences, and you can clearly see the same pattern but then in a much less empathetic way. People love those films because of what is simple and poetic in quality in those national stories of folklore. It seems to me there are a lot of folklore stories in Iran. But those films are still very Iranian. They just want to be more commercialized and not Americanized. It's the same situation, very clearly, for Iranian and Chinese films.
Boretz: I have a question about effects of two things that are very different. One is the effect of documentaries on styles of conceptualization of feature films. And the other is the effect of production on style and presentation in which the distribution medium is regional satellite. These include the satellite networks, the star movie channel, or things like this that are kind of a new outlet, non-theater, non-broadcast, local broadcast, but are a kind of pan-East Asian satellite networks. How are these affecting production?
Chiao: Well, cable and satellite we can say now are pan-Asian, but then you look at Asian countries and there are only several that have very, very big cable penetration.
Boretz: I'm thinking more specifically of the Chinese language networks.
Chiao: In Taiwan we have the highest rate of penetrations cable, 80 percent. It's second only to Holland. But we're the second at 80 percent, which means a lot of those so-called pan-Asia or pan-Chinese territorial cable or satellite networks appeal only to Taiwanese audiences. Even Hong Kong has a very small proportion of households with cable, because of free TV. In Taiwan, it's a small island with harsh competition for cables. There are about 80 channels. This is another reason why the film market has fallen apart, because every night we have access to French channels, two or three Japanese channels, and several American channels and Hong Kong channels. All show feature films.
Chiao: As for documentary, there is the Taiwan new wave cinema style that is very close to reality. They pretty much have a unique status in the world cinema because they have blurred the definition between documentary and feature. There are films like The Puppet Master, where you have features and documentaries inter-cut together, and then the feature parts are the reenactments of what happened of the documentary parts. It really juxtaposes the two kinds of cinema together in one context. In a lot of films it's very hard to tell whether it's a documentary or is a feature because the feature has such a strong documentary input.
Boretz: Why do you think there's an appeal? Is it just that documentary style gives it an aura of opportunity?
Chiao: No, I think it's a reversion to the previous escapist cinema. People want to have something real and true to life, and then it develops into the extreme into documentary. But times have changed; now people want to see things larger than life. They don't want to see anything about daily life anymore.
Boretz: I think authenticity is something that, like you said, is something that people are very concerned about. They talk about it a lot. In Taiwan, starting about ten years ago, there were a lot of documentaries on television about what was called your folklore. Remembering our youth and nostalgia for the countryside. I see a lot of that in Hou Hsiao-hsien films. In a way. the appeal of those films is that they are remembrances and also a kind of documentary. They are not documentaries in the traditional sense, in the classical sense, but they use a documentary style. I'm wondering if that style seems to be unsuccessful in terms of the market.
Chiao: Yes. At that moment, yes.
Boretz: Then is there another way to package them?
Chiao: In Taiwan cinema people started to consciously write history with cinema and recount history with a camera. It's a collective act of being an historian. But that period is over, because that was the end of 1980's and early 1990's, and the political situation was still very rigid and a lot of the materials were still viewed as taboo. And people then were really anxious to know more about the political taboos and facts that were covered up by the government. So the films with documentary style really fit into this kind of grand mentality. But when democratic idea started to appear in society, and as we had a rival party, the DPP, with a political dissident in power, then this kind of anxiety no longer exists. There are tons of books and publications out there in the bookstores, covering these events in more detail than any film can do. People have become fed up when moved from a very apolitical society to an overly-political situation now. Now everybody's talking about political events. So the people no longer need a film with documentary style to uncover some of the political truths. That kind of function has been lost along the way. These types of localization are no longer of interest to people.
Chiao: There has also been the invasion of Hollywood cinema. Jack Valenti talked about Taiwan to open its market to multi-plex cinemas. It would really create a big market for Hollywood cinema with younger people; the younger generations want to see those films. They don't care about the burden of history my generation had. We had these anxieties about what happened in our modern history. But the younger generations have a lot of materials to read and they are fed up. They want to see American mega blockbuster films.
Newcomb: What's going on in television with all of this? Is there any of the same concern with the pan-Asian or pan-Chinese approach in television, or is it still very much focused on indigenous and local kinds of stories? I'm thinking of fictional television, primetime. What's going on there?
Chiao: There's a lot of interaction between China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. A lot. Japan and Korea too. As I mentioned, those soap operas, the prime time dramas, are very important in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and they get the biggest money to produce those drama. They bring in profits using location shooting in China and one or two big stars from China.
Newcomb: So the stars are actually crossing over from country to country?
Chiao: Pretty much. Now the most popular star in Taiwan at this moment, this particular month, is a Korean actress.
Newcomb: And how are the language differences handled?
Chiao: Oh, sometimes they dub it in Mandarin and if the show becomes too popular when they repeat it they will use the original Korean with subtitles.
Zanasi: When I was in China last summer I saw all the soap operas that I've seen in Taiwan years ago..
Chiao: They love the Taiwanese soaps. There are hundreds, hundreds of them on local television. They bought those really old TV dramas to show again and again. Sometimes I go to China and in some of the far off provinces I can see some of the old shows that were produced ten years ago.
Zanasi: My reaction to Crouching Tiger was also due to the fact that I spent the entire summer watching lots of popular soap operas on Chinese television, all based on magic martial arts, ghosts and people flying. And I felt Crouching Tiger was only a more artistic version of these soaps.
Chiao: This is true. It's true.
Newcomb: So in terms of genre, this is one of the major styles and story forms.
Newcomb: Are there police shows, medical shows, or is it mostly sort of soap opera style action dramas?
Chiao: Love and romance. Power. Like in Dallas or Dynasty.
Newcomb: Contemporary settings?
Chiao: Yes. This is also another popular genre.
Zanasi: Are the police series emerging? I saw two or three of those.
Chiao: No. As compared to the police or cop genre from Hong Kong, those kind of TV dramas tend to be really too slow. We have to remember that according to surveys all television programs appeal to the educational level of an 11-year old, so they cannot tolerate anything really fast or more sophisticated in theme. They just want everything very simple and superficial.
Zanasi: But what about historical dramas like Yong Zheng Huangdi?
Chiao: Oh, yes, there are the historical dramas. I forgot about those.
Zanasi: Also, The Emperor and the Empress, Huang Ju Ge Ge .
Chiao: Right. Those are from China mainly, and they appeal to intellectuals, cable's so-called alternative audiences.
Zanasi: There was a big production of San Guo that was supposed to be the biggest production ever on television in Mainland China. It was a big production with many, many parts starring major movie actors and actresses.
Chiao: Right. But I feel that's just a phenomenon because after a while they are going to use up all the famous stories. It's the same with the swordplays, after they use up all of the adaptations of Jin Yong's novel. Every once in a while there will be a genre and they will be very popular and then that generates a lot of spin-offs.
Chang: But is there a connection between what's going on in television and what is going on in the big movies? For example, there is Chen Kaige's The Emperor and the Assassin and television's The First Emperor. Do you see any similar trends that shape the themes of movies and television? Do you think they are influencing each other, or are television and movies very different?
Chiao: They are influencing each other, because after the success of Crouching Tiger immediately there was a swordplay television soap produced, with everything according to the original film. The producer sold the copyright immediately to the television and produced more than 40 hours.
Chang: Don't you think these historical dramas can be traced back to the 1930s and 1940s in Mainland China?
Chiao: No, I think the historical costume drama is a very different drama from the swordplays.
Chang: Historical dramas and martial art stories are two different dramas, but with historical dramas you have many kinds, like the Qian Long stories. All of those stories have been made again.
Chiao: This was the historical context during the '50's and '60's, not in the '40's. Hong Kong specialized in producing all these historical epic dramas and swordplay dramas because they could not touch contemporary issues. They were caught between the Nationalist Party and the Communist Party.
Chang: And that was true in Shanghai during the war with Japan. They couldn't touch political issues either.
Chiao: Yes, it's true. Under the Japanese occupation vast amounts of epic dramas were produced as films. They are really interesting for the taboos. This is a time period I would really like to do research on. I think it was a very interesting period and a lot of fabulous films were made then.
Zanasi: There was also a series of movies about love stories in the South China Sea islands, very exotic movies and several musicals. I think all these movies are in the Beijing archives.
Schatz: I would like to shift gears maybe and talk a little bit about mode of production and the extent to which there is a system in terms of both production and marketing and distribution. One of the things Cindy and I have talked a lot about is mobility of talent from Hong Kong to Hollywood and back, and just from Asia to the U.S. and back, and the extent to which Hong Kong in particular depends much more on improvisation in production. Working with thin scripts where there is a lot of creation done on the spot. To what extent do you see the mode of production as being systematic in terms of Chinese, Hong Kong, Taiwanese? Do you see any effort to integrate different approaches to production, division of labor, and to what extent do you see it related to how Hollywood makes movies?
Chiao: Again, the same thing. I'll give you an example first with Jackie Chan. Jackie Chan went to Hollywood and made the film, Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon. He was really popular in Asia before that. Golden Harvest sent him to Hollywood twenty years ago with films like Cannonball Run, and it didn't work, we felt there was no way he could enter Hollywood. But time is ripe after the surprising success of Rumble in the Bronx. And then he entered Hollywood with Rush Hour and then Shanghai Noon. By packaging verbal jokes in Rush Hour he pretty much appealed to the Western audiences, whereas I think the Asian audiences found them pretty superficial and uninteresting. The same thing goes for Shanghai Noon. It was a big flop everywhere in Asia. But then in America it worked very well.
Chiao: Anyway, that's an example for Jackie Chan. He's facing a dilemma, a big irony in his life. He can forsake all the Asian audience and make films for the bigger budgets and bigger profits. After these two films he came back to Hong Kong to make a new one he thinks is authentic of Jackie Chan. Fancy choreography, with the sleek and very, very fast tempo, the Hong Kong rhythm.
Chiao: There are two different tempos, two different mentalities, so he consciously had these things in his mind when he was making these films for different markets. You know, for instance you have Gu Changwei, the cinematographer for Farewell my Concubine and a lot of the fifth generation directors. He's one of the best cinematographers. He is now working sometimes in Hollywood, for Robert Altman, etcetera. And there is also Zhao Fei, who is now working for Woody Allen. In their films you don't see any of their previous merits or previous talents and they are pretty much being absorbed by the whole system. When those people merge into or integrate into the industry they become very bland and uninteresting, and their personal characteristics become obliterated entirely by the general format, I think.
Chiao: So I think the same thing with the actress Michelle Yeoh, or Chow Yun-Fat. When he speaks in English he has a different characteristic. He's more reserved, slower, and really un-interesting guy. And when he's in Hong Kong cinema he appears to be really playful, very witty and very sophisticated. So it's two different kinds of images. All of these technical people and actors play consciously with this international market or that original market in their minds.
Man: Oh, yes. And in fact, it's actually lots of questions, some of the stuff we were talking about before comes in, you know, just the complex interplay a culture and, you know
Schatz: How much of it has to do with just a much more spontaneous and improvised production process in Hong Kong or in China?
Chiao: I remember for Jackie Chan the most interesting thing has been doing his own stunts. But in Hollywood, you know, for insurance reasons and personal security, they would not allow him to do stunts by himself. This was a very big disappointment for Jackie Chan himself and the audiences in Asia.
Schatz: How do you feel about top talent from Asia, whether it's Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Mainland China, working in Hollywood? Do you think this is beneficial to the industry, to the Asian industry, in the pan-Asian initiative? Is this a good thing?
Chiao: I don't know. I have reservations, you know. First of all, I think it depends on different individuals. Ang Lee entered Hollywood but he had lived in the US for more than 20 years. He lives in New York and is pretty much assimilated into the society. But he remains pretty much a very Chinese person. The way he talks, the way he behaves. I think in his case it's very beneficial for him to have very strong Hollywood support for his films because he knows how to deal with Eastern and Western audiences and how to cross barrier and build the common channel for people to understand each other. So his films have become more and more accessible to people. I mean, his films have never been accused of being too Chinese, or too esoteric.
Chiao: But for other figures like Chen Kaige it is less fortunate. I think Hollywood pretty much relies on those people to act as a vehicle to go to the markets in Asia. This has been the main purpose of financing those directors. But it's a disastrous situation because, first of all, the working ethics are very different in the East. There it's pretty much the director is the biggest commander, the one who is the most authoritative figure in the whole production. Whereas in Hollywood, you know, it's pretty much a producer's system. So there are a lot of clashes of egos. There's pretty much a compromise situation on both sides and then a lot of ugly stories of fights that eventually damages the work.
Chiao: But some people should never integrate into Hollywood, people like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang or Zhang Yimou, because the cultural gap in the mode of production is just too large.
Chiao: This is only my theory, some things based on my instincts. It really is that there are too many things happening so rapidly, and even the industry people don't know what's going on. And judging from my experience, talking to Miramax people and some of the Sony Classics people, where some of the big producers are from French companies, their understanding of Asian cinema is still very elementary. They depend pretty much on our information and knowledge and they were surprised that Crouching Tiger worked so well. Now all of the other studios are trying to build branches in Hong Kong, Japan or Taiwan. And they have also started to have different segments of their companies set up to deal just with Asian films. It's such a vast market for people to make films for.
Chang: Well, if there are no more questions maybe we should stop here. Thank you.