All Change in China

All Change in China

April 20, 2023

The Director’s Chair

Award-winning film director Dalei Zhang meets DQ to discuss his small-screen series Why Try to Change Me Now, a six-part Chinese project that blends a sweeping intergenerational drama with a crime story and luscious visuals.

Berlin is a special place for Chinese director Dalei Zhang, who won the Berlin International Film Festival’s Silver Bear award in 2021 for his short film Xia Wu Guo Qu Le Yo Ban. But he only visited the German capital for the first time this year when he returned to Berlinale to present his latest project, six-part television drama Why Try to Change Me Now.

Based on Xuetao Shuang’s novel Moses on the Plain, the beautifully composed series is set in an industrial city in north-eastern China in the 1980s and 90s. When the cold case of a taxi driver’s murder resurfaces, Shu Zhuang (Zijian Dong) is the rebellious youth-turned-policeman left in charge of the investigation. He soon learns that the evidence points towards his neighbours, a father and daughter of whom he has fond childhood memories. Then when Shu discovers a key piece of evidence – a cigarette butt – he realises that he might also have been involved.

The cast also includes Qing Hai as Shu’s mother Dongzin Fu, Tian Qiu as Fei Li, Baoshi Dong as Shu’s father Dezeng Zhuang and Chen Zhang as Xiaodong Zhao, with Haosen Zheng and Ziameng Zhang as the younger Shu and Fei, respectively.

As well as directing, Zhang writes the series – which is produced by Chinese streamer iQiyi – alongside Tao Guo, Rui Xiao, Rongrong Hu, Anyang Zhang and Bo Pang.

Speaking to DQ after the series had its international premiere during Berlinale Series, Zhang discusses the adaptation process behind the project, building the cross-generational cast and why he chose to employ an often fixed, static directing style.

Dalei Zhang

As a filmmaker, do you consider film and TV to be very different mediums?
From a purely practical point of view, they are different because the means of accessing the medium determines the audience. Most series are made with a view to a particular type of viewing habit, that’s clear. But from a creative point of view, they are the same to me.

So when it came to adapting the novel, how did you decide on the medium?
The first time I read the novel, I was seized by a strong urge to turn it into something audiovisual, to film it, but it didn’t matter very much to me at the time whether that was to be a series or a film. That was my thinking at the beginning – I just wanted to film it.

What was it about the novel that made you so keen to adapt it?
The thing that moved me the most about Moses on the Plain was that Xuetao Shuang was very good at making those choices between what to say and what to leave unsaid – the blanks that are filled in by the reader with their own life experiences and parts of them. The book was like a tunnel or a door that would bring you into that world of possibility and, having finished it, it gave me a lot of inspiration to combine its content with my own life experience, to put myself in there. That was, in a way, regardless of its actual content or narrative form.

When it came to the writing process, was there a lot of work involved in shaping the story for television?
We did have to adapt it, and it wasn’t a process of direct translation for the screen. A lot of the plot is set in the 80s and 90s, going up to the early 2000s and those eras my team and I have also experienced. When the protagonist is a child, we were children as well. So a lot of it is about the way children, and then teenagers, view society and the world.
I felt this immense resonance when reading the novel, and what we finally came up with was something that felt almost like our own story. We put in a lot of our own experience and emotional content. To that extent, it can be said our series is an original creation.

The opening episode begins with the meeting and subsequent wedding of Zhuang and Fu. How does this set the scene for the show’s world and characters?
It’s a question of point of view. The approach I adopted was not one that focuses on one or two characters but more on a disparate group of people that divides into maybe three groups. The first is the two children, Zhuang Shu and Fei Li, the second is their parents, and so on. But if you watch to the end of the series, you will find a thread that links all their fates. It is coherent in that sense.
It’s a relationship of cause and effect, but I wouldn’t say some are prioritised at the expense of others. You see the way they are introduced as marriage partners, which is very different from the way life is later on, but even that causes things to happen later down the line that are important for characters like the male protagonist Shu.

Zijian Dong leads the cast as Shu Zhuang

How do you consider your role as a director when you’re working on the screenplay?
It took three years for us to complete the screenplay. What we wanted to do was take everything from the novel that really inspired us – the flashes of light it gave us – and put those in the screenplay. But there wasn’t a transformation process like you have with normal screenplays, where the writers complete that and then the director turns it into ‘footnotes.’ We created much more of what was already a director’s screenplay.
If there’s a difference from traditional screenplays, it was that there were affective elements added to it, because I wanted the crew members to feel that same sense of inspiration I felt when I read Moses on the Plain. I wanted that to be their guiding force rather than giving them orders and dictating movements, lines and so on.

How would you describe the shooting style you used on Why Try to Change Me Now?
I worked with a one-camera approach and most of the lenses we used were mid-range and long-range. We very seldom used wide angles, but alternated between mid- and long-range to give a sense of the characters in that space in a very natural way, like you would observe them in real life. There was very little switching from one angle to 180 degrees in the opposite direction – in fact, not a single occasion.

The camera appears largely to be very still, and the actors move in and out of the shot, but this is juxtaposed by chaotic news reportage.
The news reportage style appears when it’s necessary, and not for stylistic reasons. It’s mainly when there is news reporting taking place, and it is used to give a sense of it being a live report in that place. It later appears in different ways, sometimes on TV screens that happen to be in a particular scene in the series. But the main approach adopted is a fairly static camera – and also it’s the same rationale for sound. Sound works in the same way. The audio and the visual choices made here are equally important.

Ziameng Zhang plays the younger version of Fei Li

How did you work with the large, intergenerational ensemble cast?
In casting terms, we first tried to find people who were already very close to the characters. It wasn’t so important for us whether they were professionals or amateurs. Step two was to establish trust with them and make sure they were able to establish relationships with each other as well. We got to the point where, before we actually started shooting, they were all more or less on friendly terms and could talk to each other not just about the screenplay but non-work matters.
That brought us to step three: the screenplay was more like a work of literature, something you could read easily like a novel. That led to people having all kinds of different reactions to it, which became part of the creative process.
I did not demand that the actors strictly memorised a series of lines. In fact, we preferred actors who did less of that. But it was very important that they be aware of who they are, what situation they’re in and where they are in a particular scene. And no, we didn’t have rehearsals or previews before shooting. We tried to trust instinct as much as possible. Actors have to be in the zone to have that kind of instinct.
I really wanted to give space to the cast. If there were things me and my crew were doing, it was directing people when they were veering off a bit, but the cast gave us all kinds of surprises during filming.
Ultimately, we found they were all talented. It wasn’t about whether they were professional or amateur actors – they all had talent they brought to the table. We had all kinds of people in the cast: musicians, rock ‘n’ roll singers, teachers, civil servants.

What obstacles did you face?
Perhaps the biggest was that it was a non-genre production, so a lot of existing approaches, methods and experiences were insufficient to meet the challenges we faced. What we had to do – not just myself but the producers, artistic directors, the DOP and casting directors – was bring as much of our own experience as possible to bear on what we were doing for it to actually work. That’s something we can’t quantify as an approach.
It was hard from start to finish, but enjoyable at the same time. Ultimately, we were recreating a certain time and people were then able to relate to that as if it were real. Choosing the locations was also difficult because a lot of the places changed, some of them very quickly – we would scout a location, only for it to be demolished a few days later when we tried to go back to it. This was very valuable experience and there are a lot of memories we will look back on. Covid was also sometimes an insurmountable obstacle.

Baoshi Dong as Shu’s father Dezeng Zhuang

What themes or topics do you hope will resonate with viewers beyond China?
Post-2000 China is probably not much of a mystery to people. You’ve got the internet – it’s all out there. From a historical point of view, people should be fairly clear what kind of place it is. It’s more the 1980s and 1990s China that may be unfamiliar to a western audience, but some of the things China went through then have happened in other places, just at different times.
If you take the 1990s, there were a lot of institutional reforms, which meant large state-owned enterprises [SOEs]being reformed and turned into much more commercial operations. A very collective way of life was suddenly subjected to market forces, and there was no longer what they called the ‘Iron Rice Bowl.’
There was a lot more competition and people had to go it alone. That led to a lot of differences down the line. But that phenomenon is probably a common one, it’s just a question of when places have undergone it. In China’s case, they started doing it quite late but it also happened extremely quickly. You could hardly pause for breath. So my focus is more on humans, because we are all humans.

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