Born in 1967, Zhang Yang grew up in Beijing, studied until 1988 at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong, from which he graduated with a degree in Chinese literature, and then went to the Central Academy of Drama, graduating in 1992.
After graduating, he entered the Beijing Film Studio and start to work as a director. His feature films premiered and won awards at acclaimed festivals. In 2015, Zhang Yang has moved into documentary filmmaking, with Paths of the Soul, his first feature documentary. Up the Mountain (2018) is his latest documentary: a meditation on the beauty in simplicity.
Artist Shen Jianhua moved from Shanghai to a mountainous village, near Shuanglang, Erhai Lake region, with his pregnant wife and teenage daughter.
His home is an open house for his painting guests, where he offers drawing lessons. The master painter has made an impact on community villagers that come to ask for his advice.
Grannies from Bai ethnic minorities, in their sixties to eighties, become his apprentices. They produce in their colorful canvases nature, traditional way of life, capturing and creating for the joy of creation.
The village in Yunnan province, in the southwestern part of China, is geographically far away from the rest of the country.
This allows Zhang to show a different angle of view, a fast-disappearing way of life, remote from the growing economic power of larges Chinese megalopolis.
Ancient traditions, rituals, seasonal ceremonies, give guidance on everything in their daily lives.
Artwork flows from the imitation of nature and life.
Their living style is minimalist, slow.
Simple gestures, poses, and faces, in the entire film, are presented like a painting in a square-framing style: portraits of intimate portraits.
Zhang environment idyllic warmth portrait creates a sense of intimacy that makes everything particular but also universal.
Up the Mountain infuses a sense of human connection.
Interview by Dominique Musorrafiti
China-underground: How the idea of making a documentary on artist and teacher Shen Jianhua came to life?
Zhang Yang: I’ve known Shen Jianhua for ten years, that is, since he and his family moved to Shuanglang, in 2009, and in this decade Shuanglang has experienced its fastest development.
During my stay in the area, I was able to deepen my knowledge of the life and culture of the Bai people.
I always wanted to make a movie about Shuanglang. Shen Jianhua and the Peasant Painting Society are those who can best show the change and culture of the area over the past decade.
“To restore life through the lens. Record the changes in a small village from an anthropological and sociological perspective.”
The choice of the themes of your latest works “Paths of the Soul” and “Up the Mountain”, differs from the aspects that make China famous nowadays. The locations are linked to tradition and to the rhythms marked by the relationship between man-faith-nature and man-nature-art. Why you chose these themes?
China is experiencing really fast development. In the cities, most of the money is spent on keeping the family. The competition is aggressive.
Money over time has become a kind of belief, and people have become indifferent. However, China is very large, and outside the big city centers, it is still possible to find relatively traditional or preserved places, such as Tibet or the place where the Bai people live.
Because of this imbalance in the development, they have maintained something more traditional. People in this region seem to have a slower and simpler lifestyle, but they feel that their spiritual life is very rich, they have their beliefs, a way to measure their own happiness, and their happiness comes from the richness of their spiritual life.
“Up the Mountain is a reflection on slow-paced life, art, and culture of a village in DaLi, Yunnan Province.”
You made films that were very close to Chinese people’s lives, films that focused on relationships and feelings. Do you think young Chinese can identify with the thematic of “Up the Mountain”?
First of all, I believe that that reality is very powerful, so in the last few years, I have tried to collect real-life moments using the comparative documentary method.
Although most young people are rushing into cities in search of opportunities, there are also many young people who flee the city and go to the countryside to discover another kind of life. No matter where you live, in the cities or in the countryside, people’s emotions are connected.
The wealth of the spiritual world is probably the highest goal that everyone tries to pursue. Therefore, the life and values shown in the film could attract these young people. People will look at it and share the message.
What has changed for you after “Up the Mountain”? What do you hope the audience understands?
After shooting the film, I gained a new understanding of “Up the Mountain”. I hope I can spend more time slowly observing and understanding life, presenting life.
My aim is more to introduce the public to real life, through an objective narrative, not to try to teach the public, but to allow the public to find the answers for themselves.
“Zhang with precision explores the value of the details through observation and interaction with nature: the rhythm of life follows the rhythm of nature.”
“Getting Home” was shot in Yunnan, and the beginning of the journey to Lhasa in “Paths of the Soul” too. Yunnan is the same Province of “Up the Mountain”. Do you have a particular connection with this Province?
I have been enjoying Yunnan for about twenty years now. In the past, I generally went to Dali two or three months each year, or to other places in Yunnan, or traveled to Tibet.
Since I liked Yunnan, and I liked the simple style of rural life, I moved with my family from Beijing to Dali seven or eight years ago. Life has become simpler, more in contact with nature, while another culture has nurtured me, and inspired me to create. This is why many of my films are related to Yunnan or Tibet.
Can you share with us any story that happened behind the scene of “Up the Mountain” that has influenced the development of the documentary?
The whole film is shot in an informal way, without a script. There are some things you can predict in advance, but other difficulties are completely unknown, so we have to wait for things to happen, and then you have to try to shoot.
“Zhang Yang is one of the most active Chinese directors, that uses a realistic style. That made him garnered critical acclaim domestically and abroad.”
Fading traditions and the impact of a rapidly changing modern China was a key in “Shower“. The remote mountain village where Shen Jianhua moved appears as a bastion of the traditions of the past, carried out by the Bai women that following art classes. Do you believe that in China there will continue to be areas far from global capitalism, where the relationship between landscape and people remains a fundamental element?
Globalization and modernization are a general trend throughout China, but in remote areas where roads do not arrive, or where communications are relatively underdeveloped, traditional lifestyles and work can still be seen.
And the people who live in these regions are the heirs of these local cultural traditions. At the same time, more and more attempts are being made to protect these traditional cultures including the protection of ethnic minorities. Moreover, in this process, the tradition itself is revitalized.
“‘Up the Mountain’ premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).”
From the time since you did your first work, until now, what do you think are the main difference and changes in relationships and the traditional sense of human connection?
Although we can say that interpersonal relationships have become more materialistic and more indifferent, however, the essence of people has not changed so much. China is still a society built on family relationships and with neighbors, colleagues, friends, and other people. This is a difficult thing to change.
Thanks to Fortissimo Films for the collaboration