Interview Hou Yong : Zhang Yimou’s Cinematographer
No one to be missed
No one to be Missed , which in Zhang Yimou’s words “is one of my best movies,” deals with a rural town’s school drop-out problem. Zhang Yimou is a director known for having excellent work relations with his film crew. As he said, “They have a sixth sense on whether the movie is good or not. It happened many times that if they feel like it, it is a good one.” Among the new crew members of Zhang Yimou’s No one to be missed is cinematographer Hou Yong. As cinematographer Hou Yong holds a crucial role within the crew. Alongside new crew member Hou Yong, Yimou used first time actors as a realist element to supplement the film’s documentary style.
Hou Yong and Zhang Yimou are both from Xi’an, an ancient capital of eleven dynasties and the cradle of Chinese civilization. He and Zhang Yimou were classmates in Beijing Film Academy and graduates of the 1982 class that included such legendary figures of Chinese cinema as Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Lu Yue. This is the first time that Hou has worked with Zhang Yimou. But the 38-year old cinematographer has worked on several masterpiece’s of contemporary Chinese cinema, including Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Lan Fengzheng (The Blue Kite), Dao Mazei (The Horse Thief, 1986), and Xie Jin’s Opium War. Yimou’s previous cinematographer was Lu Yue, who lensed Keep Cool (1997) and Shanghai Triad (1995), for which he received an Oscar nomination. With Yue’s departure, Hou Yong is now in charge of giving visual shape to Zhang’s ideas.
The following interview with Hou Yong was conducted on location at Zhang Jiakou, a small city about a four-hour drive from Beijing. In the interview I try to discover a Zhang Yimou that is not known by media.
I learned that Zhang Yimou and you were university classmates. I am interested to know, at that time, what impression did you have on him?
It was in 1978 when we entered the film academy. At that time, he was the oldest student in my class. We regarded him as our elder brother. For me, he was mature not only in age, but in experience. He had many exceptional qualities. I could say, in many ways, he was our role model. But he is very easy-going. He enjoyed taking part with us in many extracurricular activities, in sports. The most outstanding quality of Zhang, in my view is his memory, and his exceptional ability to concentrate when he studies. It sounds easy, but this is not always easy to do.
Do you know when he developed the idea of being a director? Did he pay special attention to advanced film theories?
Well, I do not think he pays particular attentions to theories. But, I can tell you for sure that he had the necessary vision to be a movie director. He probably developed this idea when he was in the second or third year in university. Our major was cinematography, but I did not see anyone else with that career vision, not that early. He was determined. Before he graduated, he wrote a film script based on his experience in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.
You have been working with a lot of famous directors of Chinese cinema. In terms of director’s style, have you perceived anything from him particularly different from other directors?
The most important quality as a director, in my view, is to maintian effective communication in the team. I have had a cooperative relationship with a variety of directors, among them Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang are the best ones in terms of this. They are both easy-going and very democratic. They are always open to communication with other people in the film crew. In my view, I think, they are democratic directors, and are open to challenges. They encourage people to think differently, and present their own opinions. During the filming they would always discuss problems with the crew. Zhang is also open-minded, and feels free and direct to express his opinions. If he likes my viewpoint, he would say so directly. But, if he had different view, he would explain to me why he thinks that way. Then, we would decide which is better. His ideas are very enlightening. He is a good director and is not afraid to point out the problems. Besides, he is very patient in directing the actors, those with or without experience. He is very nice with children.
Could you tell me in the visual aspect, what style you used to express the film’s theme?
From the very beginning, we decided that the movie should have a documentary style. Something similar to the special documentary programs produced for television. This was decided in the process of the script discussion phase and during location scouting. But after about a month of shooting we felt in some way, that it was too much of a documentary. After all, it was still a feature film and we did not want to lose this characteristic. We did want to remain simple, and a documentary style would be the best. This became our guideline. Later, we learned more on how to handle scenes, and other details during actual filming. Of course, at times, we had to do modifications.
Do you have any specific examples on how Zhang Yimou directs the kids in acting?
One interesting example is his magical appraoch to directing, Zhang Huike, an eleven year old boy who drops out of the class and runs off to the city. He is the troublemaker. The actor Zhang Huike was raised by his stepmother and in his home life had to take care of his little sister. His experience made him somewhat of an introvert. Since he was the “man” of the family, he was never allowed to cry. At the beginning of the filming, Zhang Yimou did not spend much attention on this little boy. The boy had a somewhat funny look, with big teeth, and did not speak standard mandarin. But gradually, he began to stand out in many ways through his quick-wit, and turns out to be a wonderful actor. Gradually, his role became more and more important in the film and was given special attention by Zhang Yimou. But there is something that gave us a hard time in directing Zhang Huike. According to the script, at the end there is one scene that required Zhang Huike to cry. The scene takes place after Zhang Huike has run away to the city. He sees a missing child advertisement posted by his teacher Wei Minzhi who is looking for him. The poster touches him to tears, and he decides to return. In order to make the boy cry, Zhang Yimou discussed a special strategy with the assistant directors. They send a small group of people to Zhang Huike’s home to film his family: his grandmother, his father and his little sister. Those who knew this kept it secret from Zhang Huike, since we were all wishing this would work. During the filming, when he started acting, we placed a monitor in front of him and asked him to watch the TV. I focused on his face with the camera. What Zhang Huike saw was the video we filmed of his family. His little sister shows up, telling Zhang Huike how much she misses him and then bursting into tears. Zhang Huike has been away from home filming for quite some time. Suddenly he seems to be home sick, and tears begin to drop down. I quickly start the camera and record everything. You can see why Zhang Yimou is one of the ten best directors in the world. In the end, I wish the audience likes the movie we have made.