This interview features Guang Chuanlan, a Sibe director who has been active since 1976. Guang is known for establishing Chinese Muslim cinema made in the Xinjiang autonomous region in socialist China. Many of her films are released and awarded in Arabic countries and in India. Her enduring career exemplifies the key role women filmmakers have played in building Chinese cinema under state-driven film policies. While it is commonly believed that the Fifth Generation (represented by male directors such as Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Tian Zhuangzhuang) put post–Cultural Revolution Chinese cinema on the international map, Guang's career (along with those of other women directors) compels us to reexamine Chinese film historiography and excavate a more complex constellation, especially with regard to women's authorship in intersection with race/ethnicity and the state, and inter-Asian film interactions based on a shared religion—a dimension oftentimes obscured by the dominant paradigm of East-West internationality.
The interview was conducted by Zhou Xia, associate researcher at China Film Art Research Center, in 2009 and 2014 in Beijing. It was originally published in Her Light and Shadow (Ta de guangying, 2018), a two-volume compilation of oral histories Zhou collected through interviewing women directors in mainland China.1 It has been edited here for length and clarity.
zhou xia: What brought you to Tianshan Studio? It involved returning to Xinjiang, the region of China where you were born and grew up.
guang chunlan: Since Nanjing Studio was preparing the second feature film, they didn't want me to work in Xinjiang.2 But I really wanted to help Tianshan Studio out. If Zheng Dongtian and Xie Fei could make films in Xinjiang, then I must, too, since I am from Xinjiang. I went to Xinjiang with one desire: to shoot films. I was confident that I could make the first fiction film for Tianshan Studio from scratch, just like I did for Nanjing Studio. Knowing that Xinjiang had scarce financial and cultural resources, I went there with a novel, entitled The Story of Socks, written by a Han author.3 The novel is about the reformation of a rural area and tensions between the city and the countryside. It's quite contemporary. When I presented this novel to Tatilike Mehmet, the minister of culture in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, he really liked it. So we adapted the story to the Uyghur setting. Everyone was excited about it.
zx: The resulting film was A Song of Happiness (Baxit / Xingfu zhi ge, 1981), your first film at Tianshan Studio.4
gc: Yes. As a child, Xinjiang impressed me with its beautiful singing and dancing culture, its witty people, and its expansive land. A Song of Happiness captured the dreamy side of my childhood. The governors liked the idea because the film was a lively, comic piece. We summoned a crew immediately and went to my hometown of Ili for shooting—most of the shooting was done there. I was happy to go back to Ili, a place where I suffered as a child that had since become a wellspring of happiness. I felt a strong obligation to tell the rest of China and the whole world that Xinjiang has made progress in the new era.
zx: How did you assemble the crew?
gc: I trained the crew as we shot the film. I assigned the Tianshan Studio staff with the most engaging tasks in almost every department—recording, art designing, et cetera. For filming, I invited the famous cinematographer, Shan Lianguo, from Shanghai Studio, to work with Haliqjan, a cinematographer at Tianshan Studio. Shanghai Studio was also supportive.
zx: What about the cast?
gc: I selected actors primarily from Xinjiang Song and Dance Troupe, Xinjiang Academy of Arts, and the Muqam Art Troupe. I made sure to match the ethnicity of the actors and actresses with that of the characters. There's something irreplaceable in each ethnicity. The first actor I chose was Turghun Achmed, who played the character Kerem. Turghun used to study in the Central Academy of Drama and made himself famous by playing Afanty.5 He is a good comedian. I invited the renowned Uyghur composer Iskender to do the score, and the actors would just dance with the music.
The film was a great success in Xinjiang, since it has brilliant performances and is truly cheerful. The major governors in the autonomous region liked the theme, the genre, the acting. Back then, officials paid a lot of attention to film, and I know artists should be concerned with politics as well. I became quite a public figure in Xinjiang, as did Tianshan Studio, through daily news coverage in Xinjiang Daily and Urumqi Evening Newspaper. The Film Bureau in Beijing also thought highly of my work. Both Cinema Newsletter and Popular Cinema wrote about my film. There had been no film depicting a modern Xinjiang; people tended to think of it as a vast, empty desert. My film presented a vigorous image of the city and the countryside in Xinjiang. The nation needed it, culturally and politically. The film's distribution went smoothly, at home and abroad. It was even released in Arabic countries. Tianshan Studio started to generate profits. Ultimately I saw more opportunities at Tianshan than at Nanjing, because there was so much to discover.
zx: What exactly did you discover in Xinjiang?
gc: While I was shooting the wedding scene in A Song of Happiness, many local Uyghur people suggested that I make a film about Xinjiang's mercenary marriage phenomenon. They provided me with many raw materials. I attended some weddings in Ili and found that the groom's family usually gave a mountain of betrothal presents to the bride's. The matchmaker also asked for a lot. Some families were torn apart by wedding ceremonies. I collected stories like this and decided to make a film to critique mercenary marriage.
The shooting of Rena's Marriage (Rena ning toyi / Rena de hunshi, 1982) was very smooth. Ghuppur, assistant manager at Tianshan Studio, was the primary producer. I discovered a wonderful actress, Mehrigul Amat. Rena's Marriage was shot in Ili, too. My hometown was beautiful—back then, it had the exotic foreign appeal and typical Uyghur courtyards. Unfortunately, that is all gone now with the passage of time. We shot a few scenes by the Ili River, a perfect place for the plot. The ethnic minorities in Xinjiang craved expressing themselves and they were very good at performing. A few hints from the director would result in powerful acting. Since Rena's Marriage criticized Xinjiang's mercenary marriage, which everyone resented, I became even more welcomed and trusted by my Uyghur friends.
zx: Your next film, The Girl Who Can't Be an Actress (Artis bolalmighan qiz / Budang yanyuan de guniang, 1983) was an influential masterpiece.
gc: I befriended many local Xinjiang people and was pretty ambitious. I came across the script The Moon Rising above Tianshan (the original title of The Girl Who Can't Be an Actress), written by a famous Han playwright, Li Hun, who worked for Tianshan Studio and had lived in Xinjiang for years. I really liked this story and wanted Mehrigul to be my leading lady again. During the shooting of A Song of Happiness, I learned that Mehrigul's dancing was powerfully expressive and she also had a vivacious personality. I was thrilled to have her play the character Mahire.
To make the film more authentic, I initiated a hearing via the Culture Bureau. Surprisingly, the room was packed with local Uyghur. The well-respected translator Zhang Shirong introduced the attendees as eminent scholars in Xinjiang. Everyone's contribution was inspiring and invaluable. The hearing lasted a whole day, covering discussions of characterization, plot development, theme, social context. Their constructive suggestions emboldened me. I realized that there was no reason to belittle local experiences; I even asked the translator for the minutes from the hearing. Starting from that day, I stopped judging the local people by their facility with Mandarin Chinese. I asked myself: Can we speak Uyghur at all? I was given so much official and local support for filming and decision making. I felt empowered with a Midas touch. During filming, I was immersed in the rich and inexhaustible cultures of Xinjiang. Every day was inspirational and exciting.
Many scenes were shot in Ürümqi, Turpan, Ili, and by Sayram Lake. No one envisioned that this film could win the government award.6 Back then, Tianshan Studio didn't have postproduction equipment; many films were printed in Beijing and Shanghai. So was The Girl Who Can't Be an Actress. It was edited in Beijing by Fu Zhengyi. But we encountered major difficulties in synchronization. It's a musical film, but we did not have the ability to do sync recording. The dancing scenes and the music became mismatched. Fu Zhengyi assigned the editor, Zhou Xinxia, to do syncing frame by frame, and she didn't sleep for days. This was probably unprecedented. I invited Ding Jianhua from Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio to dub the female lead.
zx: Did everything need dubbing back then?
gc: Tianshan Studio's productions must be dubbed. Most of the ethnic actors in my films had no acting experience, and they got nervous when speaking Mandarin Chinese in front of cameras. So I asked them to speak their mother tongue instead. Although I couldn't speak Uyghur, I could understand what they were expressing. Rather than doing dialogue sync recording, I only recorded the ambience sounds. So dubbing became a must. I was strict with the filming schedule. Since many of my actors were amateurs, I needed to teach them while filming. Due to my experience in the Beijing Film Academy, I work well with amateurs, especially ethnic minorities.
zx: The film has been very influential.
gc: Yes, it was screened abroad. Beijing Evening News reported that it was a huge hit in Egypt. I wasn't at that screening, but the cultural counselor told me that the Egyptian audience rushed into China's embassy to express excitement. They looked forward to more Chinese Muslim films. The Girl Who Can't Be an Actress served an important cultural role in establishing China's international image as a multiethnic, multi-religious country.
It was also a watershed in my career. I began to attend international film festivals. Meanwhile, the Uyghur people thought highly of this film. A renowned scholar at Xinjiang University commented that The Girl Who Can't Be an Actress “articulated what we've been wanting to express for generations—that we are proud of our ethnicity.” I further realized that there was so much to discover in Xinjiang, since it is home to thirteen ethnic groups.7 By then, women directors were also emerging. I felt a whole new world was approaching. My works became more and more unrestrained.
zx: This film was awarded Best Chinese Film at the Istanbul International Film Festival. Did you attend?
gc: That was the very first international award given to a Xinjiang film or to me. It showed that Xinjiang films have potential for a global market. I became a regular director at Tianshan Studio after The Girl Who Can't Be an Actress. The national film bureau explicitly supported this job transfer from Nanjing Studio because they wanted Tianshan to have a professional director who held a bachelor's degree from Beijing Film Academy. This was likewise unprecedented.
zx: The next film, The Mysterious Caravan (Sirlik Karvan / Shenmi de tuodui, 1985), recalls the US genre of the Western.
gc: Back from the trip to Hong Kong, Zhong Dianfei, an established Chinese film critic, kindly told me that “China should have its own Westerns like Lawrence of Arabia. You are the one to do it.” His encouragement lit a fire in me. I looked for suitable scripts, but in vain. I ended up writing one myself with two other friends.8 This was The Mysterious Caravan.
The first shot was inspired by the 1883 Portrait of an Unknown Woman by the Russian painter Ivan Kramskoi. I wanted an image just like that, so I turned to Xinjiang's famous oil painter Abdukerim Nesirdin for help.9 Abdukerim offered to paint for free. I brought Xatgul Uyghur (who played the twin sisters Aynur and Maynur) and the costumes to his studio the next day. Abdukerim let me sit next to him and humbly asked my opinions on details. Soon the portrait was done for the film. He was so talented—the painting was exactly what I wanted for that scene. We were exhilarated.
zx: In which part of Xinjiang was this film shot?
gc: We filmed everywhere in southern and northern Xinjiang, including Kashgar, Aksu, Kuqa, Wensu, and Ürümqi. I looked for the most mysterious and deserted places and shot many strikingly shaped mountains. Shooting started in October, and took four or five months to finish. I was equipped with the best staff, twelve camels, and three horses. The Mysterious Caravan was made for the panoramic screen. My crew was mostly from Xinjiang and the cinematographer was Shanghai Studio's Zhou Zaiyuan. The Mysterious Caravan resembles US Westerns: it has a sunset glow, beautiful women, horseback riding. We tried our best for this first Western, but due to material and ideological limitations, such as ethnic gender division and the mandate to maintain ethnic harmony, we could only go so far. It was a good film, but I wasn't satisfied because I wanted it to be even more romantic and legendary.
zx: How was the audience reception?
gc: The audience loved it. One time, the Culture Bureau invited us for dinner. On our way, we found the main road packed with men in a festive mood. We had to leave our car and walk the rest of the way. It happened that The Mysterious Caravan had been playing here for two days and nights until half of a film reel, out of nine reels, was worn out. These people were anticipating Guang Chunlan after the screening. However, they were shocked to see that the director was a woman, not a man. How could a woman make such a film? After staring at me for quite a while, they gradually turned around and left. I didn't know why, but I shed tears as I watched them walk away. The Mysterious Caravan's success convinced me that Westerns could be very popular in Xinjiang. I was encouraged to make more.
zx: In 1985, you made two films almost concurrently: Death of a Beauty (Mei ren zhi si) and Love of an Orphaned Girl (Gunv lian).
gc: Yes. Both had elements of the Western. Duan Baoshan and I cowrote the scripts. One scene in Death of a Beauty was set in a mosque in Kashgar, close to the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum. Initially, we were refused access to the mosque. So I asked all the women in the crew to cover their hair, faces, and bodies with black robes. An actor happened to be a local Muslim leader; he convinced the mosque to let us in. I greatly respect Uyghur and Islamic cultures. I've been very careful about representing religious and ethnic relations among ethnic groups, and ethnic sentiments in all my films, and it has paid off with local people's recognition. I learned this from working in Xinjiang. I had many Uyghur friends and felt my Xinjiang films were all blessed by Allah. This is why our Uyghur compatriots enjoy my films.
zx: Was it your intention to add some horror elements in Death of a Beauty?
gc: I would describe them as mysterious elements, not horror. I wanted it to be a mythology of western China. The mystery contains horror but is not overwhelmed by horror. Mysteriousness is what I've always pursued in Xinjiang films, even with a contemporary subject. Ethnic minorities naturally evoke Oriental mysteriousness, which makes Xinjiang alluring. Sadly, today's media vulgarly simplifies Xinjiang—they think making Uyghur people wear ethnic clothes does the job of representing Uyghur culture. It's so shallow. There is a lack of an embodied understanding of the land and the people who are living on it.
zx: Death of a Beauty was the opening film at the 1989 Cairo International Film Festival. It was very influential.
gc: Yes. The Cairo festival invited me, so I attended with Death of a Beauty. The audience loved the film. Curiously, they insisted on identifying an Uyghur castle in it as an Egyptian one. So I visited the Egyptian castle, and it was indeed astonishingly identical. As the chair of that visiting team, I stayed in Cairo for a month and a half for two events: Chinese Film Week, and the Cairo International Film Festival. That was my one and only time visiting Egypt.
zx: Was Love of an Orphaned Girl likewise a success?
gc: I wanted to engage Xinjiang's history, and my first attempt was the Western war film Love of an Orphaned Girl. I had planned to make a Xinjiang version of Lawrence of Arabia titled Osman Bandit and General Dalelkhan, but it never worked out. Love of an Orphaned Girl tells a story about the Kazakhs, who are a fierce nomadic people. It was a challenge. I got governmental and financial support. The Film Bureau was also excited.
zx: How was distribution of these two films? And what was your compensation?
gc: Of all my films, only Baby (Baobei, 1980) was not internationally released. Starting from A Song of Happiness, all my films were released both at home and abroad. Every one earned money for Tianshan Studio. My budget was low. Death of a Beauty and Love of an Orphaned Girl cost about one million RMB altogether. Unlike now, the state used to invest fully in filmmaking; the director had no budgeting pressure. Neither I nor the crew thought much about compensation. Everyone found satisfaction in the work. There was some extra pay for business trips, but it was a few thousand RMB at most. Regrettably, I didn't continue making more Westerns in Xinjiang.
zx: I understand you once intended to establish your own film and television company?
gc: Yes, a few friends and I had planned to start a company called Bogda Film and Television. Bogda in Uyghur means “peak.” Some officials in both the autonomous and Turpan areas supported this idea. An Uyghur millionaire was to be the chief executive with his five million RMB investment. Everything was ready to go: the office site, registration, et cetera. We had Castle Beauty (Gubao meiren) in mind as our first film. We were going to build a castle in the Grape Valley as the setting and turn it into a scenic spot after the filming. However, the plan was suspended because the central government issued a new policy prohibiting civil servants and artists from getting involved in commercial film and television enterprises. The autonomous area leaders passed on the message to me and berated my colleagues.
That was the end of the company idea. If we had made more films back then, we would have made tons of money. Tianshan Studio needed to support four hundred staff members. Almost all of them belonged to ethnic minorities. Our studio functioned under the socialist mode of redistribution. I was frustrated that the money I earned went into the staff paychecks, and never toward financing more films.
zx: Mehmet's Anecdotes (Maimaiti waizhuan, 1987) returned to contemporary themes.
gc: There is an interesting backstory to that film. During the China Central Television (CCTV) new year's gala in 1986, Chen Peisi performed a short sketch called “Shish Kebab.” It disturbed me, and many Uyghur friends also complained to me that it defamed their people. I shared their feelings and decided to make a film that would portray a positive Uyghur image. This should be the main theme of our era; it isn't a grand narrative but something that reflects the lives of people in our time. In this light, I composed the story of Mehmet's Anecdotes. It is a comedy, in which characters are flawed but lively.
zx: This film had a huge influence.
gc: Yes, it really did. It became far more influential than my previous films. When it premiered at Minzu University of China, the audience besieged the place. Some of them even hung on the windows. The banner at the university wrote: “Mehmet's Anecdotes, Xinjiang's pride.” After the release, the kebab stores all over Xinjiang changed their names to “The Red Rose Kebab,” taken from the film. Mehmet's Anecdotes was a huge success because it did a good job of representing ethnic minorities. As expected, it received a double award.10 I also received appreciation from the Uyghur leader Ismail Amat in Beijing, which signifies the highest honor given by ethnic minorities.11 Apart from its positive social impact, this film brought me financial benefits. It participated in Chinese Film Week in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.
zx: Western Mad Dance (Xibu kuangwu, 1988) is a modern musical film.
gc: It was inspired by Mehmet's Anecdotes. Designing the costumes for Mehmet's Anecdotes reminded me that dancing and singing are Xinjiang's biggest advantage. There were limited disco scenes in Mehmet's Anecdotes. China then was rapidly Westernizing, and Uyghur people could all mimic Michael Jackson. So Michael Jackson inspired Western Mad Dance. I refuse to separate dancing and narrative in films—that's lifeless dancing. In Western Mad Dance, dancing is a communicative language. We had the modernist breakdancing and hip-hop dance. I summoned breakdancers across Xinjiang and invited Beijing's breakdance champion to join my film. Western Mad Dance became a very popular film among youth. Young fans wrote to me about their excitement. Many students at the Beijing Film Academy regarded the film characters as role models.
zx: After Western Mad Dance, what prompted you to make The Merry World (Kuaile shijie, 1989)? It's a film about rural economic reformation—quite different from the previous two films.
gc: It responded to the needs of the autonomous region. I revised the script based on the studio's suggestions. Both the autonomous region and the studio wanted a filmed representation of the modern countryside. But there was little agricultural land in Xinjiang; the countryside had changed tremendously. The Merry World is a radical film that portrays an evil cadre in a less-developed village. I got many criticisms. Some people challenged me, saying that the widows in Xinjiang were not that miserable. However, when I was at a meeting sponsored by the China Film Association, an attendee praised this film as preciously daring because I objectively reflected the oppressions suffered by women and the slow transformation of an ethnic group.
The film also showed at the Agricultural Film Festival in Shanghai, but it didn't get any awards. A Xinjiang cadre was upset with it, saying that I shouldn't have exposed the dark side of Xinjiang officials. But I've seen so much of it across Xinjiang. I knew from reality that a divorced woman's life is very tough; she is oppressed in every way. My character had a real-life archetype. I went through several personal transformations during this shooting. After this, I no longer dared to reveal society's ugly side. I often use this analogy: our mom has a deep scar on her forehead and a pair of beautiful eyes; my job as a cultural worker is to represent mom's beautiful eyes, not the scar. I should leave it to the doctors to take care of the scar. My priority is to reveal the beauty of ethnic minorities.
zx: After The Drummer from the Flaming Mountains (Huoyanshan lai de gushou, 1991), shot for China Children's Film Studio, you returned to Tianshan to shoot Strive for Love (Qiuai beidongdui, 1992) at Tianshan.
gc: The backstory of Strive for Love started from a delicate Xinjiang rug in the collection of a German museum. There is a human figure woven into the rug's design, which is rare. I felt deeply sorry that such a treasure had been sold to another country. The rug became a symbol. With this lost rug in mind, I composed a story that describes the tough and beautiful lives of women rug weavers. We went to Hotan, a key city on the Silk Road, south of the ancient city of Loulan. I was just back from Egypt, and realized that Hotan was a special historical site that was home to excellent people like Ismail Amat and my actress, Mehrigul. Hotan was famous for its extraordinary rug making, which was popular across Xinjiang. I visited many local rug workers and they were happy to listen to the story I was crafting; they made all the rugs I needed for the film. Since it's not popular to weave human figures in a rug, I suggested roses. Uyghur people like roses.
I was very happy during the process of shooting this film. Things went smoothly. With respect to censorship, a few Uyghur officials were not so pleased because they disliked our challenge to static gender roles—it has some cross-dressing for comic effect. I wanted to interact with my audience, and the Han and Uyghur receptions were different. I believe that a film is ethnic first, then global. It's crucial to have ethnic minorities' support. I was welcomed by the local people during all these years I spent there. I got so much happiness and inspiration from the grassroots. It's a beautiful land that cultivates wise, diligent, patriotic peoples.
zx: Did the actors need rehearsal before shooting?
gc: It depended. If they were new, I would ask the assistant director to coach them. After that, I would have them tested in front of the camera, with actual blocking. If I knew the actor well from prior work, I would keep the rehearsal time to a minimum so that they could preserve their passion. I was the absolute authority on the set; no one could argue with me. My female assistant director was in charge of rehearsals. The actor would read the script aloud, over and over, until they could recite with emotion. I would check on them and make sure they got the subtext behind each line.
I thought about ethnic films a lot. After Death of a Beauty, many scholars suggested at symposiums that I should make more films about Uyghur historical figures. Uyghur culture is so rich and well preserved. I was so excited to introduce Uyghur history and culture through films. Their stories are always accompanied by splendid dancing and singing—palace dance, folk dance, et cetera. I could make films on Xinjiang's history, war, folk culture, and wilderness. I could create complicated but positive ethnic characters. Our country needs film representations of Xinjiang as entertaining and educational materials. I had the ambition, my own crew, and the support of the Film Board. Unlike my works that represent both Xinjiang's ethnic and contemporary features, many people now only see ethnic cultures as exotic. I believe that my works filled some holes in China's film mapping. Even though our constitution declares all fifty-six ethnic groups equal, ethnic minorities in films are still scarce. Sai Fu and Mai Lisi are also great directors of ethnic films. I feel proud to have raised international awareness around China as a multiethnic nation. It is not enough to capture a superficial understanding of ethnic minorities in filmmaking. We need to embody the ethnic knowledge with mind and heart. I wrote a television script based on Xinjiang ethnic groups.
zx: What's the concept of the TV script?
gc: It was written during the SARS outbreak in 2003, comprising twenty episodes. The title changed from Heyday Baby (Shengshi baobei) to Girls in the Manila Restaurant (Manila canting de nuniang men). I wanted it to celebrate ethnic integration and hardworking ethnic women, including Uyghur, Kazakh, Tajik, and Han. Finally, we centered on the career and life of a businesswoman and named the show Owner of the Manila Restaurant (Manila canting de nv laoban). It would be an Uyghur comedy with musical elements—one of my favorite genres, because Xinjiang is a land of happiness. If I ever get an investment, I will make this idea happen.
zx: Are you still making films now?
gc: I almost never take breaks. Last year, in 2013, I made a digital film A Girl from the Archery Village (Jianxiang shaonv). Qapqal county in Ili invested in this film.12 Wang Yiwen, the county secretary, was supportive. He was Han, but he respected Sibe culture. A Girl from the Archery Village is the first film about the Sibe; the archetype of its protagonist is Guo Meizhen, archery world champion, who was born and raised in Qapqal county. The film has versions in Mandarin, Sibe, Uyghur, and Kazakh. This was groundbreaking. Sibe is my mother tongue. Although I haven't spoken it much for sixty years, once I returned to my hometown to film A Girl from the Archery Village, the language of my childhood came back to me. I shocked myself. Even the local village people said I spoke with no accent. Since the Sibe language is disappearing, this film has special significance. The amazing cinematographer Behti Yakup is a Tajik ethnic. We didn't have a Steadicam. He shouldered the camera for the whole time to accomplish the Steadicam effect. We called him “Behti Steadicam.” The Ministry of Radio, Film, and Television granted us special funding. At the 249th and 250th anniversary Sibe Festivals, CCTV Film Channel played A Girl from the Archery Village through satellite television.13 It was well received.
zx: How about your family life?
gc: Before the Cultural Revolution, I decided not to marry, especially when I was studying in the Film Academy, where I devoted my life to film. I thank the Cultural Revolution for putting me in the circumstances that led me to get married and have two sons.14 Without my family, I could not have survived the loneliness and agony of those years, when film seemed to increasingly drift away from me. Occasionally I would watch a movie, but the image was blurry or ghostly.
zx: It's quite unusual for a woman director to make twenty-six films, let alone of various genres. How have you managed to be so productive over the years?
gc: I insist on using a film script and a storyboard so that I can control the overall tone of the film—it unites the whole crew, establishes the authority of the director, and economizes expenses. It is an art to use storyboards skillfully. The storyboard shows the details, the director's aesthetics, the motion and rhythm of the camera. Every little change makes a huge difference. Teamwork is important, too. The director first works with the officials and scriptwriters, then designers, producers, costume makers, and actors. After the shooting is done, the director works with professionals in recording, dubbing, scoring, and subtitling. A good director cooperates with everyone genuinely and effectively. My films always exceed the initial expectation because I get inspired by the cinematographer and actors on the spot. A director is an organizer to activate everyone and a sponge that absorbs information from all sides.
zx: What's your average shooting ratio?
gc: It's usually 1 to 3.5. Storyboards keep everything strictly under control. I am not wasteful. I have the major parts prepared, and leave only a little room for improvisation.
zx: What's been the advantage of your close involvement in the scriptwriting for pretty much all your films?
gc: I cherish every film of mine, so I always participate in scriptwriting. There's no time for me to create each original script, but I always have to revise others' work because of the large disparity between a literary script and the director's conception.
zx: Filmmaking requires cooperation. How do you see the relationships among creative professionals at different stages?
gc: The cooperation is complicated, but the unchanging principle is beauty. Art is beauty. My cinematographer and my art designer are my constant companions because they are my eyes. Only through them can I articulate my aesthetics. I work well with many cinematographers—Zhou Zaiyuan, Yu Shishan, Xia Lixing, Ge Ritu, Behti Yakup, Yuhhu, and Uula. They all have incredible comprehensive and professional abilities. Art designers are my “chief commanders.” I give my designers hard tasks; they need to draw every setting and costume according to my requirements. I designed some costumes and invited tailors to make them. I also have high standards for music—each piece needs to be a stand-alone work with a memorable melody.
zx: What is the ideal relationship between a director and the actors?
gc: It's a cruel relationship. If a director insists on something, she should not give it up easily. A good director therefore is an unpleasant one. Good actors must listen to the director carefully because they cannot see themselves. The director needs to carve the characters out of the actors. This process can be painful. I may also catch and amplify some special temperament of an actor. When I invite actors to watch the rushes, they are often surprised by their performance and potentials. I don't talk too much at the shooting site. If an actor develops certain feelings, they should communicate with the directors. Essentially, a director's job is to observe people.
zx: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a woman director, as opposed to a man?
gc: I agree with what Hu Mei said at a Women Directors Symposium in Beijing. She believes that we shouldn't encourage women to become directors because it is too demanding.15 For a woman, her family, husband, and children are inseparable from her life. But a woman who prioritizes family cannot do well as a director. I have sacrificed a lot as a woman including my femininity. The directorial profession itself is not a gendered occupation. I have as much energy as a man. I don't like the label “female director.” It is problematic to associate subtle, elegant films only with female directors. Any obsession with one's gender identity will limit one's artistic imagination.