“The Way Art Works”: An Interview With Zhang Yimou (1)

Southern Weekend has a lengthy interview with Zhang Yimou, the General Director of the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. The following sections of the interview, translated by CDT, help illuminate the political machinations behind the spectacular extravaganza:

Zhang Yimou: … let me tell you, our [the opening ceremony] program had the highest level of political review since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, basically all reviews were from the Central Committee level. Such a huge matter, no other artistic activity has had this many layers, and such a high level review.

But let me tell you, from the bottom of my heart, each time after the review, the highest leader always only said one sentence to me: “Yimou, it is hard to please everyone. You directors need to integrate everyone’s opinion, but you must do it according to the way art works. Which (opinions) to take and which to leave out is entirely up to you.”

This is really a very progressive opinion: “Which (opinions) to take and which to leave out is entirely up to you.” They did not ask me to do exactly what they said, and there were many different opinions as well, all very tolerant, very understanding of the way art works.


Southern Weekend: Did leaders give their opinions after those reviews?

Zhang Yimou: Of course, sometimes you would meet a very high leader who gave his opinion after the review, so I had to be clear-headed. You do not have a chance to talk back. It is impossible to explain or talk back, nor can you say, “This opinion is not a good one, so let’s not listen to it.” So what can you do? You must be clear-headed. You have to analyze everything, then you make your modifications. Even if you think these modifications are not necessary, I still have to make them, I must do it. Zhang Jigang said several times, “Let’s not do it.” No. We must do it. The one thing I said most often to my team was: Leaders are human beings as well. Let’s not think of them as leaders, just think of them as human beings, giving their opinion from the perspective of the audience. Don’t they represent many audience members’ views as well? So you must listen to them.

Each time when we make modifications, I say to my team: The audience throughout China only cares about the results, not the process. No one will care why you made those modifications. So each time when you modify something, no matter if it is not your idea and goes against your heart, or if it is your own volunteer initiative, for each modification you must devote your body and heart to make it perfect. No matter what reasons are behind it, each time after the modification, you must make the performance even more beautiful and lively.

You are not doing this for someone else; you cannot explain to the audience throughout the whole country that this is what somebody told me to change, the original was much better. No one will listen to such an explanation. You must make those modifications and make the results even more lively and exciting for the audience. This is what we do. I always have this attitude.

I feel that since I am the core of this team, I must be like this. I have to persuade all kinds of people, because their complaints will come to me. Each time I received an opinion [from leaders], and told everyone, all team members had a lot to say. No one wanted to listen to the opinion. They said there was not enough time [to make the changes].

Everyone can say that he/she will not listen to it [leaders’ opinions], everyone can say to me, “Director, there is no way I can do this.” But I cannot say this. I must say: “You have to do it. Even if there is no way you still must find a way to do it.” And I have to tell you: “There are only two days for you to do this. And you must do this well. I will do this with you. I will stay together with you. I am not passing this pressure on to you. I will sit down with you to figure a way to do this. You stay. Let’s talk. Ten hours. Twenty hours. This is China’s situation.

Southern Weekend: Do those opinions from leaders have an impact on the actual program?

Zhang Yimou: Actually, I paid special attention to all opinions and suggestions from our higher leaders and lower leaders in many previous reviews. I took notes on all of these suggestions. You can ask my team, when I came back to transmit these opinions, I always said that the leaders are right.

I am not a Party member. I was not even a member of the Communist Youth League. I definitely am not just saying empty words just to please them, this is from the bottom of my heart. I explain [to my team] why the leaders’ opinions are right: When all three leaders do not like this part, they are three audience members. When all of them feel this part is not very good, or wonder why that part is in such a color, or this is too slow, these are three audience members saying it. Even if I feel these parts are good, but if many leaders all saying these parts are problematic, then they are definitely problematic, since more audience members will definitely say the same thing. Therefore let’s forget about what high positions these leaders hold, just remember they are our first audience.

We often had dozens of leaders come in at once. They all sat down and talked with us. If an opinion was raised by more than three of them, I definitely would make the change. I really did. Because I already realized that this is a test. Because leaders know this is a huge matter for the nation. They knew that time was urgent. They were all very clear-headed. These new leaders are all college graduates, all have Masters or PhD degrees. We all think alike. We are all about the same age. We all had similar experiences such as being sent to the countryside. So they were not coming up with those opinions from nowhere. They knew that time was urgent. When they pointed out that some parts had problems, then I had to reconsider them.

Read the Part II of CDT’s translation of Zhang Yimou’s interview here.


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