Critically acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou
on the making of his star-studded martial-arts flick, Hero
By STEPHEN SHORT and SUSAN JAKES Hengdian
Zhang Yimou's martial-arts epic Hero has a boffo cast, a
big budget, an award-winning crew—and the burden of Crouching Tiger,
Hidden Dragon. Responsible for such hits as Red Sorghum,
Raise the Red Lantern and The Road Home, the award-winning
director spoke recently to TIME Asia entertainment correspondent Stephen
Short and Senior Reporter Susan Jakes on the set of Hero in
TIME: Watching you shoot this morning, you looked a little stressed.
Are you worrying a lot about this film?
Zhang Yimou: I always worry about actors during the fight scenes.
About 10 years ago I acted under action director Tony Ching. Gong Li was
the female lead. And in the middle of a fight scene I broke my leg. It
was a real drag. It took four months to heal. So I'm always fretting
about the actors' safety.
TIME: When we last met in Beijing last year, you talked about making a
kung-fu movie. You hadn't made one before, and you sounded a little
trepidant. So how are you coping?
Zhang Yimou: I'm actually not doing too badly. I still have so much interest in the
project. I still have so much affection for it. And I have an action
director who's an old friend of more than a decade. That's made it a lot
easier. And then there's the cast—Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung,
Zhang Ziyi—four of the most talented actors in China. It's just a joy to
work with them. It takes the pressure off to work with such skilled
TIME: What about the pressure of making this project on the back of
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? It's a very boring question, very
predictable and all, but what do you think?
Zhang Yimou: First of all, I have so much respect for Ang Lee for making the movie
such a success. I loved it. And it sparked unprecedented international
interest in Chinese films and in martial arts. But I also believe that
just because someone's made such a successful film, it doesn't mean we
have to feel intense pressure. Everyone's imagination is different. Each
director has his own goals, his own aesthetic and dramatic aspirations.
Like Ang Lee, I'm a huge fan of martial-arts cinema. I can't get enough
of the stuff. I've been that way since I was a kid. I'm completely in
agreement with something Lee once said on the subject: "Every male
director's dream is to make a martial-arts flick." It's been my dream
since I was little.
TIME: From what we've seen the visual palate in this film looks very lush,
even sumptuous. Was that a choice that was made very early on? Or did it
come about later as a result of discussions with people like
cinematographer Chris Doyle?
Zhang Yimou: The aesthetics of this film are inextricably bound up with the plot. The
idea of using colors to tell the story came about quite early in the
process of conceptualizing the film. The look of the set, the costumes
and so on was developed in concert with the script itself. I had an
image in my head for a long time and then worked through the details of
how to realize it through talking with the other people working on the
TIME: You must be learning a whole lot of new things as a director working
in this genre. When Ang Lee started shooting Crouching Tiger he
said he was completely at sea. How are you coping with the challenges of
shooting an action film?
Zhang Yimou: I'm probably just as lost as Ang Lee, maybe more so. I love the story in
this film, but there's so much to keep in your head once you start
shooting. All these stars, all the complexities of the action scenes. I
definitely have a lot to learn. I love this feeling, though, of trying
difficult things for the first time. I love the challenge.
TIME: Is there any one shot that you wanted to shoot but weren't able to
because it was too complicated, technically or otherwise?
Zhang Yimou: Yes, tons. Some we couldn't do because of the limitations of the actors'
martial-arts ability. Others we couldn't because of safety. And then
there were scenes that were just too complicated. We're using computer
enhancement on many of the scenes. It can be a drag, because you don't
know when you're shooting, or what the scene will actually look like.
You can't see it. And then of course there were things we couldn't shoot
because of environmental conditions, the weather for instance. This
isn't unique to action films, it happens all the time.
TIME: From an aesthetic point of view, is the film going to be very
surprising? Are people going to look at it the way they looked at your
directorial debut, "Red Sorghum?" Is it going to have that kind of
effect? Are people going to see something very new here?
Zhang Yimou: That's a possibility. It's certainly what I'm trying to achieve. I've
been looking at some of the rushes and I'm confident that we'll be able
to give the audience something completely new.
TIME: You told us that Zhang Ziyi feels a lot broader to you as an actress
than she did when you were working on The Road Home with her.
Does she now give you that same sense of being able to wrap a scene in
one or two takes that you talked about with regard to Maggie Cheung and
Tony Leung? Or does she still need a lot more cajoling to achieve the
kind of performance you want?
Zhang Yimou: On this film, she's almost there. In the past, I had to spend a lot of
time talking through each shot with her. Now she catches on much more
quickly. Of course, she doesn't have the variety of experience of Tony
or Maggie. She's still young. But she's got the ability.
TIME: Do you think that's a function of her increased familiarity with your
demands on her as an actress? Is it that she simply has a better sense
of what you want from her in a performance?
Zhang Yimou: Partially, yes. But it's just as much to do with the development of her
craft as an actress. I'll give you an example. When we were making
The Road Home, there were several times in the film when she needed
to cry. And as far as I was concerned these were crucially important
parts of the movie. I'd call for quiet on the set. There had to be total
silence, because crying in front of so many people is not easy. I knew
we could only do one take. The lights, the film, everything had to be
perfect, because I was afraid that on the second or third takes the
tears wouldn't come, or the acting wouldn't seem sincere. But on this
film, she's been amazing. We have technical problems all time. There's
always one reason or another to re-shoot the scene. We're doing five or
six takes for every shot. And she cries on command. It only takes her a
few seconds to get in and out of character. It has surprised and
impressed me. This is real change in Ziyi's acting. Now if I have to
shoot her crying, I'm not afraid of shooting multiple takes, because
there's always a possibility that the last take will be the best one.
Maggie's got the same talent. And I've caught Ziyi studying her
performance very intently. It's a smart move. There's a lot Maggie can