In Zhang Yang's Quitting, matinee idol turned heroine-addicted drop-out Jia Hongsheng obsesses over repeated viewings of a well-worn video of Taxi Driver. It's not Travis Bickle that fascinates Jia, but De Niro, and he dreams of a role with such complexity and intensity. Jia Hongsheng found that role in this fascinating and sophisticated weave of real life and reel life: he plays himself in his own true life tale of drug addiction and social disconnection.
Zhang's personal history with Jia goes back to school. In 1993, he directed the actor in a stage production of Kiss of the Spiderwoman, coincidentally the occasion of his introduction to illegal drugs when a stage-hand offered him a joint. He watched Jia become an addict, drop out of acting and finally out of life. In 1995, his parents - retired actors who used to run a theater troupe in rural Northern China - moved to Beijing to take care of their son, driven by a traditional, unquestioned sense of duty and responsibility. The disconnect between the punk twenty-something son with his urban disaffection and his aging peasant parents would have been a big enough gap to bridge without the drugs. What they find is a self-absorbed, surly young man who sneers at their provincial manners and treats them like bumpkins. He's someone they hardly recognize but refuse to abandon.
Based on a script written after months of interviews with Jia and his family and friends, Quitting is anything but a conventional biographical drama. Not only does Zhang mix traditional dramatic recreations and interview scenes with a staged theatrical production and stir with a complex structure of flashbacks, he's persuaded all of the real life players of Jia's story to appear as themselves in the movie: Jia, his parents, his sister, his old friends. Zhang even appears as himself. This act of exploration and dramatic re-interpretation adds an evocative level to an already compelling portrait of paranoia, alienation and mental breakdown.
The resulting film is an unusual mix of documentary, therapy and actor's exercise, refracted through the prism of Zhang's intimate and unusually faceted lens. Through Jia's personal story, Zhang finds an insight to the culture clash of contemporary China. While there is ultimately a conservative flavor to the idea of a family - and a fractured, damaged one at that - pulling together to repair itself via the social traditions that the grown children have rejected in their urban sophistication, Quitting lacks the rosy sentimentality of Shower. There's a harder edge to his eye-opening look at youth culture and malaise in modern Beijing, and an ambivalence in his presentation of traditional cultural values.
This interview was conducted May 2002 at the Seattle Internation Film Festival, where Zhang Yang and his producer Peter Loerh had accompanied the film. Loerh, an American, started the first independent film company in China in 1996. Quitting is his fifth production. Loerh translated for Zhang and described his work in China.
Sean Axmaker: (to Peter Loerh) How did you two begin working together?
Peter Loerh: I started up a film company in China, the first independent film company in the country, in 1996, and from 1995 to 1996, I was traveling around the country, I was reading scripts, I was meeting young directors, I was trying to find the people we were going to work with. We wanted to work with young directors. We wanted to work with directors that had an urban sensibility. We were going to make movies different than the other Chinese movies that were being made at the time. We didn't want to make propaganda movies, we didn't want to make movies about poor people in the countryside and we didn't want to make period movies. So we were trying to identity young directors to work with. A good friend of mine was also a good friend of Zhang Yang's and I also ran a record company in China and Zhang Yang had shot a bunch of music videos which I had seen. We got introduced by a friend, we had dinner, we started talking about things that we wanted to do together, or maybe someday do together.
At the time there wasn't even any piracy in China so there were a lot of western films that you couldn't even see. I always used to go to Taiwan and dub videotapes and bring them back and we used to have film parties at my house. Gradually, over a long period of time, we got to be friends and then came Spicy Love Soup. I had an idea for a movie based on that overall structure. I went to Zhang and said, "What do you think about this? Would you like to do this?" He said, "Yes, that's cool, let's change it this way," and we started talking and debating the script until it was something we decided we were comfortable working on together. Then we got the writers for it. And that was Spicy Love Soup and that was the first film. Shower was the second and Quitting is the third.
SA: (to Zhang Yang) How did the story come to you and how did you convince the real life participants to play themselves?
Zhang Yang: I was friends with Jia Hongsheng for more than ten years. We knew each other and went to school together, I've known him for such a long time and I saw him gradually go through this whole process and see the changes and the effect that the whole experience had on him. So I knew the story and I knew the person, so that's how the story came to me. It was something I was interested in doing for a long time. Convincing Jia to be in the film wasn't difficult. He was very willing. Convincing his parents was a very different matter. In China, people, especially in that age group, don't hang out their laundry, don't show their lives to everyone. They try to hide things like this. So convincing them to do it was much, much more difficult than convincing Jia Hongsheng himself. Ultimately, they believed it would be good for him, that it would get him back out in the public eye, that people would know that he was okay, that he could act again. And that was the reason they ultimately decided to do it, out of love of their son.
SA: Were the interview scenes actual documentary scenes?
ZY: The questions are real. I conducted a series of interviews while preparing the script, but I didn't carry film cameras around to those interviews, so those are all restaged.
SA: Why did you incorporate staged theatrical scenes in the film?
ZY: Using the stage in the film was really a very, very important device for the film on a number of different levels. One, because it's such a long story you need to tell in such a short time, it helps to adjust the structure story to jump between periods of their lives, jump back and forth, and tell the story in a fast way. At the same time, it helped me to create a certain amount of distance between me and the story, because the story is very close to me as an individual. It helped me create some objectivity at key points for both me and the audience. At key points in the story you suddenly pull back and it's a stage play. It takes you out of the scene. Where you might be feeling very sympathetic for the character, everything might be very sad, suddenly you pull back and you can really analyze the scene. It creates a certain degree of distance for you as an audience member. So that device and that Brechtian influence is really the reason that the stage scenes are used.
SA: Did you stage a real theater production?
ZY: Originally the plan was to have a film and a stage play both, but because of various reasons - time, budget, all kinds of reasons - the stage play never came off.
SA: When the son is narrating his version, he says that when the parents came, he had stopped taking drugs but he didn't tell them. But later when he is taken to the hospital they say that he has been taking drugs the whole time. Is he lying in his narration?
ZY: It may be more clear to a Chinese audience because there are certain nuances that make it clear. Before his parents came he had really started to quit, and during the initial time that they were in Beijing he wasn't doing drugs, but toward the end, right before he went into the mental hospital, he had started to do drugs again. There was a relapse into continued drug use. Maybe that's not clear because of the time - that's a whole year and maybe by the time you're getting done playing with structure and cramming everything into the time frame you don't really notice. But there are certain things that, to a Chinese audience, are obvious, like when he doesn't come home at night, or he won't talk to them, or he walks back out at night. To a Chinese audience, that means he must be doing something. But yes, right before he went back to the hospital he was doing drugs again.
SA: There's an interesting parallel between the father and the son, because the father appears to have a drinking problem.
ZY: In the film there are scenes where Jia Hongsheng himself drinks too much. There's definitely an addictive personality problem in the family. His father has the same problem, his mother never allows his father to drink, and that was something that actually came out in the movie just as it came out in real life. Whenever his father starts talking about him being a drug addict, he tells his father, "You're just as bad as I am, you're an alcoholic." There were actually a lot more scenes that were shot dealing with the father's drinking problem, but in the editing process we cut them out, because the film was getting too long - and for other reasons.
SA: The son is constantly watching Taxi Driver and listening to the Beatles, and he has a picture of John Lennon on his wall. Were those choices specific to the actor, Jia Hongsheng, and his experience?
ZY: The real reason we picked these is because that was what he really was listening to and he really liked them. He says in the movie that he listened to one tape for an entire year. That was true. And the movie he was watching on TV over and over was really Taxi Driver. So these were very personal and specific to him. But at the same time they are very representative of a generation, because when you have rock music coming into China for the first time in the 80s, the people in that initial group, the people who listened, were very influenced by The Beatles. It was something that really had a big influence. So at the same time it was personal they were also generational.
SA: Here's a question that might be more for you (Peter Loerh). The subtitle for the song "Let it Be" is "Take it Naturally."
PL: I did that. We don't have the rights to use the original lyrics.
SA: Is that why? I was wondering if it might have some cultural significance, a literal English translation back of Chinese translation, which would be more conversational.
PL: That's actually a freehand translation of the lyrics into Chinese and back into English. In the early 90s, someone had handwritten these lyrics onto a piece of paper into Chinese. We then turned around and translated them back. And so it's a literal translation of the Chinese translation of the English lyrics, so it does get different when it comes back.
SA: Is "Take It Naturally" something more colloquial?
PL: It really means "Go with nature," which is very similar to "Let it be" in Chinese vernacular.
SA: (back to Zhang Yang) You show in the film that one of the reasons he stopped acting was that he was dissatisfied by his own performances. When he turns to watching Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, it seems that he's aspiring to that kind of intensity of performance.
ZY: That's definitely true. Part of it was his dissatisfaction with his own acting in those roles. But a bigger problem for him, and for a lot of actors in China, is the lack of good roles. Jia Hongsheng can play very cold, very pained, very tortured person very well, but those kinds of roles were not available to him. He was always cast in B movie action films or sappy love stories. That probably hurt him and disillusioned him more than his own acting ability, because he was pretty clear on how good an actor he was. So that led him to flee and say, "I just can't do anything because everything I do is terrible, none of these roles are right for me, none of these roles are good." Watching a film like Taxi Driver, not only is it, "I wish I could be an actor like that," it's a lot more, "I wish I could have a role like that, because that's a dream role for me, and I know that if I could get a role like that, I know I could do it so well - but I know I'm just never going to get it."
SA: As in your previous films, you contrast the traditional culture of the parents, who have grown up in the country, with the son who has moved to the city and became very influenced by modern culture and Western culture. Here the clash is even greater than in your previous film, Shower.
ZY: There's a tremendous generation gap in China right now. The older generation is so different from the younger generation, which has really not had such a strong communist education and has not seen as much propaganda. There's probably a bigger generation gap in China than there is anywhere else in the world. You have Western influences happening all at once in the late 80s when China opened up. The older generation didn't really get to play a part in that, so they have no access to it, and the younger generation has been raised through it, so their lives are just totally, totally different.