Back to Front PageFeature StoryMenu BarBack to Front Page
Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 25, September 10-16
by Yanhong Wheeler

Award-winning independent director Zhang Yuan explores sensitive social topics -- but now with official approval.

"Crazy English! Crazy life! Crazy world!" shouts the man with the microphone, flailing his arms. "I love this crazy game, so let's go!" A camera crew follows the madman down the snow-covered street. Breathing white vapor into the faces of the close-pressed crowd members, he mobilizes the entourage into shouting in unison in English: "Crazy! Crazy! Crazy!" Then the sound technician, backpedalling quickly to keep up with the camera, trips and falls into a muddy puddle of melted snow.

So begins Crazy English, the first documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yuan to receive official approval.

"I'm competing for an Oscar with this film!" exclaims Zhang, who can barely conceal his excitement about being finally allowed to make films legally in China.

The veteran director does not need an Oscar to vindicate himself, having garnered over 30 major international awards in the past decade with critically-acclaimed films such as Beijing Bastards, East Palace West Palace and his recently completed Home For The Holidays which premiered at the Venice Film Festival. He was recently selected by Time magazine as one of the top 100 "people to watch" in the coming century.

However, Zhang is little known in China. Since his debut documentary film Mama, about a single mother raising a retarded child in Beijing, every one of Zhang's five major films has been made without government permission. Although the 36 year-old director has entered these works in numerous international film festivals (again without official approval), none of them has been approved for screening in China. While enjoying fame abroad, Zhang╝s real desire is for his works to be seen by Chinese audiences.

His dream may soon come true. His latest effort, Crazy English, will be released nationwide next month, and Home For the Holidays has received preliminary government approval.

By Chinese standards, Zhang is a highly unorthodox filmmaker, both in choice of content and in technique. He specializes in sensitive social topics, such as autistic children (Mama), underground artists (Beijing Bastards), alcoholism and dysfunctional family dynamics (Sons), homosexuality (East Palace, West Palace) and prison life (Home For the Holidays).

Zhang's films can be painfully honest to watch and all his features are filmed on location, instead of on constructed sets, with the exception of East Palace, West Palace, his first and only conventionally-filmed feature. Zhang's documentaries have no voice-overs. He almost never uses musical soundtracks to highlight dramatic moments. Abandoning such narrative devices, although not unusual in the West, is at odds with the conventions of the staid Chinese film industry.

Traversing China with Li Yang, creator of the "Crazy English" method of learning English by shouting, Zhang Yuan's new documentary faithfully records mass gatherings where Li turns studying English into an act of patriotism and thousands of naturally shy Chinese into hollering maniacs. Li lectures his crowds ranging from PLA soldiers atop the Great Wall to uniformed high school students in the mountainous backwaters of Hubei that fluent English is the key to seizing the markets of Japan, Europe and the U.S., making lots of money and bolstering Chinese national pride. He never hesitates to make fun of foreigners aloud, including his American sidekick, who does not understand Chinese and serves as a straight-man stooge for Li.

In the film, Li tells his story over and over again in interviews, on radio, on television and in commercials how he turned from a shy boy too scared to even answer the telephone to a successful businessman after discovering a unique means of achieving self-assurance through speaking perfect English.This involved shouting it first.

Li also teaches people to yell out his motto: "I love humiliation! I embrace hardship! I welcome failure! I pursue success!"

Zhang has shown the film's first rough-cut to friends and colleagues. Some say Li is a fraud and should be stopped immediately from conning money out of innocent people. Others excitedly ask Zhang where they can purchase Li's textbook.

"People's reactions have been mixed and varied after watching this film," Zhang observes. "But my own attitude must be neutral. This film would be worthless if I showed even a tiny trace of subjective judgement."

Zhang regards himself as a documentary reporter, who must stay objective and let the story tell itself. "I try to abandon any subjective views as an artist," he says. "I often forget that I am making a film and focus all my attention on how to accurately portray what has provoked my interest." Although a painter by training, and a cinematography graduate from the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, Zhang is sparing in the application of artistic flourishes and fancy camera techniques. He is sometimes too timid to move his camera, lest he miss any intricate changes in the expressions of his actors. "I rarely think about how I should show off my techniques in lighting, camera movements and editing," he explains. "For me, the content is much more important than the style."

Zhang's eye for detail and artistic interpretation found perfect unison in his 1995 documentary-drama Sons, about an alcoholic father, his wife and their two sons. The Li family of four volunteered to relive, on screen, their saga of drinking, fighting, abuse, injuries, and sexual confusion. "During shooting, the actors often forgot that I was filming and became completely absorbed in their own emotions," recounts Zhang. "I had to stop filming and pull them apart a few times."

The production allowed Zhang Yuan to film inside a mental asylum for the first time in China. Apart from taking the top prize at the Rotterdam Film Festival, the work also served as family therapy and brought the alienated members of the Li family closer together.

A native of the ancient capital city of Nanjing, Zhang spent the first eight years of his childhood with his grandmother, before returning to his political pariah parents when he was nine following the (1966-76) Cultural Revolution. He then left home again at 16 for school, and settled in Beijing at 20. This experience has made him especially sensitive to family relationships, the topic of three of his five features. When he talks about Sons, Zhang cannot help envying the Li family. "Despite fighting like cats and dogs, they remain loyal to each other," he says.

"During the three months of shooting, they continually discussed the concept of love which is extremely rare for Chinese families," Zhang adds.

Indeed, Chinese people are not known for expressing their feelings outwardly, especially among family members. This is a major theme of Zhang's new feature, Home For the Holidays, about the parole home visit of a woman who has spent 17 years in prison for killing her stepsister. Official approval for the production also allowed Zhang to film inside a prison ward, another first in China's red-tape constricted film industry.

In the film, prison warden Xu takes Liu Li, the parolee, home to her mother and stepfather (whose daughter Liu Li murdered) for the traditional Chinese New Year family reunion. Xu and the camera then become eyewitnesses to the subtle emotional exchanges between the three family members their love for one another expressed in a repressed and reserved manner; Liu Li's remorse; her mother's anxiety and fear; her stepfather's silent struggle to rise above his pain; and ultimately, their determination to continue their lives, happily and peacefully, as a family.

There is no great drama. There are no passionate speeches or shouting, no trashing of furniture or pulling of hair, no rage, and no tears. But as Xu is touched on screen, the viewers are touched off screen, by a film that bears the unmistakable mark of Zhang Yuan. A film in which ordinary people and their ordinary lives evoke extraordinary emotions.


Previous Stories...



China's Cultural Underground Travel Scene Shopping Scene Classifieds Daily Events Guide CD Reviews Wine and Dine Guide FYI Ask Ayi Doctor Doctor Comrade Language cartoon News from the Chinese Press Book Reviews