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Chinese Director Diao Yinan Drills Down on ‘The Wild Goose Lake’

Diao Yinan is the only Chinese director with a film in the main competition this year at Cannes. He’s already a known entity on the arthouse circuit, having won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2014 for his hardscrabble, coal-blackened detective thriller “Black Coal, Thin Ice.” Now he’s made the leap to the Croisette with a bigger-budget, more choreographed gangster film.

Diao had the idea for the film even before “Black Coal,” but it wasn’t until afterwards that he saw a news item so similar to his original concept that he knew he had to go ahead with the project. “My first idea — about a character wanted by the police who hopes to give the prize money for his capture to the woman he loves — was overly romantic. It was a bit too sweet and I don’t like sweet,” he told Variety, with a laugh, in Cannes.

Why return again to film noir? What do you think it allows you to express about China today?

China’s development — its societal changes and its gap between the rich and the poor, between the urban and rural regions — has given us so many stories that we can create from. These stories align themselves easily with the essentials of film noir. It’s not that I’m forcibly fitting the framework of film noir onto a Chinese story; it’s that Chinese society is such that when I go to tell a Chinese story, it very naturally comes out as film noir.

This film was heavier on style than it was on a broader message or social commentary. Is that kind of commentary important to you?

I’m not so interested in dealing with sociological questions, because I feel that’s the job of sociologists. What films express is the experience of life and living. Movies give no answers. They’re not fieldwork. Films are just there for you to digest, to give you inspiration, to become yours as part of your memories. That’s enough. 

How was the film impacted by censorship?

It was all routine business. The fact that we’re here at Cannes shows that everything was very successful. The film as it stands is pretty much as I imagined it, because it’s mostly just me telling the story of a particular incident.

Is it easier for you to finance your work after winning the Golden Bear?

Yes. This one had a higher budget, which allowed us to do things like the nighttime motorcycle-gang chase scene. We had to shoot a whole month to get those few minutes, because the time you’re able to shoot at night is very short, and it’s very hard to shoot action sequences — you’ll shoot forever and can only use a few seconds of it. If you’re doing a small-budget, smaller-scale production, your shooting schedule won’t allow you to work in this fashion.

How have you innovated within the film noir genre?

Other film noirs like those by Howard Hawkes (“The Big Sleep”) mostly just portrayed the bare bones structure of a story — that is, they tell the story without a single extraneous word or detail. Now, what I want to do is not just give you the bare bones of a story or just a single plot-line. I also want you to see a whole world, to see the things that are happening all around this story. So there’s a lot of information I’ve included that you could still tell the story without. But I hope to pull this information in to make it seem like this is a really immersive world. This is the point where I think I differ from previous film noirs.

What interests you most as a filmmaker? 

I’m more interested in a film’s formalism, not just its realist elements. I’m more into a film’s style. Of course there’s art that moves people, that elicits empathy. But there’s also art that makes people think, where a lot of your feelings about it come to you afterwards – art that doesn’t affect you at all because of its story, but still touches you emotionally nonetheless. I think the purely formal can also be just as touchingly beautiful.

What’s next?

Of course I’m preparing my next project, to come out in two to three years. It’ll still be in my own style, and again about a real event. I’ll wait until I’m old to shoot costume dramas, because you can shoot most of those in the studio.

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