Directors Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee Talk Censorship, Hollywood Partnerships at NYU Event

Acclaimed filmmakers discussed their lives and work in an intimate, career-spanning conversation.

Zhang Yimou
Getty Images for IWC

East met east Thursday night in New York as directors Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou took to the stage for an intimate dialogue about their lives and careers, organized by New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and Beijing-based online video portal LeTV, whose movie arm LeVision Pictures produced Zhang’s latest film, “Coming Home.”

It was a fascinating meeting of the minds between Zhang (pictured), who began his career as the oft-banned enfant terrible of the “fifth generation” of mainland Chinese filmmakers before going on to direct the international blockbuster “Hero” as well as the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics; and the Taiwan-born Lee, himself an NYU-Tisch grad, who started out in the American indie cinema of the early 1990s and has since climbed the Hollywood A-list with his double Oscar wins for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Life of Pi.”

Although the 75-minute, Mandarin-language event had a moderator in the form of Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Christine Choy (“Who Killed Vincent Chin?”), it consisted mostly of Zhang and Lee engaging each other directly, beginning with Lee’s praise for “Coming Home,” which he had just come from screening.

Adapted by Zhang from the novel “The Criminal Lu Yanshi” by author Yan Geling, “Coming Home” tells the story of one Chinese intellectual’s tragic life from the 1920s to the 1990s, and marks Zhang’s first film with longtime leading lady Gong Li since “Curse of the Golden Flower” in 2006. Already acquired for North American distribution by Zhang’s longtime distributor Sony Pictures Classics, it has been heavily rumored to premiere at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival.

“Everything is very real and well-defined,” said Lee. “Not only the characters in that time, but this sense of humanity, of what it’s like when you’re depressed and have no choice.”

Asked by Lee about the absence of the color red — a signature visual trait of Zhang’s early films — in his latest, Zhang replied that he was trying for a more stripped-down, back-to-basics approach in “Coming Home,” citing Lee’s own early films “Pushing Hands” and “Eat Drink Man Woman” as a partial inspiration. “For me, because I started with ‘Red Sorghum’” — Zhang’s visually dazzling 1987 debut feature set during the Second Sino-Japanese War — “I had to reverse what I did before. I went back to the root, to the family, the smallest unit, in order to reflect on history and the past.”

Unsurprisingly, much of the conversation turned on the subject of Hollywood and its pronounced desire to forge alliances with the expanding Chinese market.

“The Chinese market is very large, but the movie culture there is very different,” noted Lee. “China has been changing very fast, and there’s a lot of pressure on people in the movie industry there. But you need to naturally let it grow. If you push it too fast, you’ll have unhealthy results.”

“Ang Lee can inhabit two worlds — this is very rare,” Zhang said with a touch of envy, before going on to ask his fellow director, “How do you put your Chinese world into your movies, if you’re making a movie for the world and you want the world to understand you?”

“You have to master the Hollywood style,” Lee responded. “When America built the movie industry, they also built the culture of movies. These are the basic rules of making movies that we all understand.”

Zhang, who has been linked to multiple American studio projects, including Universal’s “The Parsifal Mosaic,” Warners’ “Quasimodo” and Legendary’s “The Great Wall,” would only say that he continues to be in negotiations over “a project in Hollywood, a large-scale project, a big challenge for me.” Especially, Zhang noted, because he doesn’t speak English.

Lee was similarly mum on the subject of his own new projects, mentioning only the 3D boxing-themed film first announced last summer, of which he said, “Right now, we have some difficulties, money-wise.”

“Ang Lee doesn’t look like someone who watches a lot of boxing,” Zhang joked. “That means it’ll probably be a very interesting movie.”

Both directors also commented on the subject of censorship, which affects both how movies are made in China and which foreign productions can be distributed there.

“There are many compromises when you are doing movies in China, starting with the choice of topic,” said Zhang. “But even when I am forced to compromise, I ask myself, ‘What was the original thing that made me want to make the movie to begin with?’ And I try to insist on preserving that thing.”

“When you make a movie in Hollywood, you have to make sure the audience will be happy,” said Lee, who cut several minutes of explicit and politically sensitive scenes from his 2007 “Lust, Caution” for its mainland Chinese release. “When you make a movie in China, you have to make sure the leaders will be happy.”