Initially, his films were naturalistic–almost documentaries–as in his second film, Beijing Bastards, (1992), an exploration of Beijing’s underground, focused on musician Cui Jiang. Zhang even made documentaries (Crazy English; Demolition and Relociation; and The Square / Guang Chong (1994)), but he has increasingly added more narrative cinematic elements to his work such as Green Tea, for example, which stars actor and director Wen Jiang, another member of the “Sixth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers with a complicated relationship to the Chinese government.
Zhang was banned from making films in 1994. In 1997, Chinese border agents confiscated his passport and placed him under house arrest to prevent him from promoting his film, East Palace, West Palace, / Dong Gong, Xi Gong, which explored the power relationship between a young gay man and a police interrogator. More recently, in 2008, Zhang was arrested for drug possession.
Beiing Bastards, played the Toronto Internatoina Film Festival in 1992 and Zhang returns to Beijing–and Toronto–twenty years later with Beijing Flickers. Zhang discussed Beijing Flickers in an interview at the 2012 Udine Far East Asian Film Festival:
In the process of doing Beijing Bastards I was young myself and all the musicians with me were all young as well whilst now we are all grown up so I personally wanted to see how young people in Beijing live nowadays. At those times things were very different. I arrived in Beijing in 1985 and at that time the population there was only 8 million people whilst now is 20 million so of course there is a certain difference in the youth now and then. Also, at that time Beijing was a big metropolis but it had nothing in common with New York, London, Rome or Paris. Now however, even though Beijing is still a socialist capital it is very similar to those big cities.
Zhang sees film as a universal medium, capable of creating understanding by showing an audience, with great immediacy, how people in other places live. In a 2002 interview, Zhang was asked how a foreign audience can understand his film. He replied:
Of course foreigners have their own cultural viewpoint in watching movies. But I think filmic language may be the simplest artistic language that lets people from all over the world communicate with each other. By watching a movie, you can easily know how people live in different countries. When you see many films at a film festival or film exhibition, you will find that everyone’s life is interlinked in some respects. Some people even share the same living conditions. Film provides a good opportunity for people to understand each other.
Catch a glimpse of a not often seen Beijing in Beijing Flickers and maybe glimpse something of yourself and your places in the films flashes of light.
BEIJING FLICKERS screening times:
Mon., Sept. 10, 9:00PM: The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Wed., Sept. 12, 2:45: Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 7
Sun., Sept. 16, 9: 30PM: TIFF Bell Lightbox 4