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Interview with Ning Ying about her new film "The Double Life"

By Sheng Taotao

Ning Ying doesn't much care about being lumped in with the Fifth Generation [of Chinese cinema]. Her better-known contemporaries, at least in the West, include the likes of Zhang Yimou with his bombastic blockbusters. Ning's smaller-scale and dryly-funny studies of contemporary life in China have set her apart from the others in her generation of Chinese filmmakers.

Her new movie, The Double Life (A Mian, B Mian) will premiere countrywide April 30. A black comedic take on a love story, the movie's finale may prove controversial to some, although she doesn't seem to worry too much. She's still waiting to see it herself. "The producers have the right to do the final cut. There's no bargaining [ for the director]," says Ning.

Crazy love

The Double Life is a slapstick take on obsessive love: A young woman meets her ex, they contrive to get rid of her current beau by means of poison and a trip to a mental institution, and shenanigans ensue. "Doesn't sound entertaining at all? We'll wait and see," Ning says. "I interpreted some sort of primitive romance out of the screenplay when I first read it. Crazy love somehow is always one of my favorite subjects. To me, romance could mean extremely insane, or cruel or even violent."

Ning is confident about The Double Life, which she quips, "absolutely entertains enough" to ensure box office success. But it's still a Ning Ying film. "Sort of Ning Ying's style of slapstick, in a very black way," says the director.

Ning says that she submitted her director's cut to the producers last April. It has taken a year to be passed by the censors, which is not usual for most Chinese movies.

"I wonder what's there to censor about [the movie]?" Ning says. "It's a comedy for God's sake."

Ning clearly realizes her role as a film director in the current Chinese film market is barely more than a contractor for hire. "It's changing from a director-dominated era into more of a Hollywood filmmaking system, in which producers' words count," Ning explains.

"Auteur cinema, in the current Chinese film market, is absolutely no way out. Contemporary Chinese cinema is much of an "audience's cinema": the audience is a younger, open-minded, consumerist generation who grew up fast in an economically developed society. They are looking for fun and entertainment."

Ning says that she feels like she is in a huge wave of "ren hai" (people sea), where people's mass taste in cinema is only for throwaway entertainment. "I need to push for a new direction [of commercialized cinema]."

Cinema obsessed

Born in 1959, Ning wanted to become a concert violinist but ended up attending Beijing Film Academy (BFA) in 1978 to study sound recording. She speaks frankly of her days in BFA as being confused and grinding because she couldn't cope with the necessary advanced math and technical courses.

In her senior year at BFA, she passed the entrance exam for a governmental educational exchange program and found herself studying film directing in Rome's Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (CSC), the oldest film school in Europe.

She first went to Perugia, a charming medieval town in central Italy to enforce her language before she started her course at CSC. Leaving her violin at home she started to dawdle around the town and happened to watch a film in an art house cinema: "It was Luchino Visconti's La Morte a Venezia and I saw it four times that day. Ever since I seemed to get over my violinist dreams and suddenly became obsessed with cinema," Ning recalls.

Her professor at CSC, Gianni Amelio, introduced Ning to Bernardo Bertolucci in 1984; by then he was in the process of writing the screenplay for The Last Emperor and looking for an assistant. Ning landed the job.

When asked about how she feels about working for one of the most renowned film directors in our time she says: "Too much to say. I can only say that it's important to work with a real master in one's lifetime."

Ning was not just an interpreter for Bertolucci. She was a researcher, information collector, interviewer and sometimes needed to write reports for him. She also recommended historians and composers to him.

In return Ning got some surprising rewards from her mentor on set. "He would sometimes call me over in front of the monitor and explain to me how he did the trick. He always said, 'You are different. You are a film student, you should know', " Ning says.

Love, kung fu, laughter

In 1987, then 29-year-old Ning finished her film studies, and returned to China to work at the Beijing Film Studio. She wanted to make art house movies, but was told to prove herself with a commercial project first. "I asked my producer what exactly a commercial film is and was told it would be a mixture of love, kung fu and laughter. So I tried to make one, [Someone Loves Just Me, 1990]" Ning remembers. "And it sells! They even considered making a sequel."

Ning had not wanted to make a comedy as her first film, as she firmly believed that comedies are about lightness of being while she wanted to make films about the unbearable heaviness of life. But it was the success of Ning's first "commercial" film that funded her following "serious" films.

One can't easily label Ning and her films. She displays a versatility reflected in her works. They could just as easily be an art house drama as a comedy with Chinese black humor. Much influenced by avant-garde and Italian neo-realism, her Beijing Trilogy films (For Fun, 1993; On the Beat, 1995 and I Love Beijing, 2000) tell stories of Beijing, the changes in its people, environment and social life. It's a kind of auteur direction that has led to comparisons of her "knowing Beijing the way Martin Scorsese knows New York."

Returning to China after six years in the West, Ning observed her native country with a distanced and ironic yet affectionate eye.

When Ning's independent film Perpetual Motion was selected by the 62nd Venice International Film Festival in July 2005, subsequently premiering in North America at the Toronto International Film Festival, Ning's mentor, Bertolucci held a special screening at his house.

Set over 24 hours during a Chinese New Year, the four female protagonists gather together to talk about life and love. Bertolucci told Ning that he particularly liked the relatively long sequence with lots of close-up shots of "eating chicken feet" saying that "you Chinese are masters of metaphor".

From a cinema auteur to a commercial film director, Ning has not lost her way. She knows exactly what she wants. So no matter what she directs, they are still Ning Ying films. "Lately someone asked me if I might be interested in making a thriller. I was like, 'why not? As long as I could visualize the plot, in my Ning Ying way'," says the director.

Source:Global Times