Interview: Gu Changwei

The Academy Award-nominated director on Love for Life

Gu Changwei may have produced some of China’s biggest films, but he’s never been as famous as film school classmates Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. With his star-studded Aids drama Love for Life in cinemas now, Nicola Davison meets the unassuming director.

Appropriately enough, I’m meeting one of China’s veteran filmmakers, Gu Changwei, in one of Shanghai’s oldest cinemas. The Stellar International Cineplex – once the central propaganda centre of the Kuomintang – has a grand, butter-cream Art Deco facade. Inside the marbled lobby, cinemagoers are waiting for the next screening of Gu’s latest film, Love for Life, featuring superstars Aaron Kwok and Zhang Ziyi. Littering tables are popcorn buckets plastered with Kwok’s face.

In a conference suite upstairs, Gu is finishing a television interview. Dressed simply in a baggy, stone-coloured shirt and navy trousers, his appearance is a stark contrast to the hostess’s caked foundation and strappy platforms. When we settle in a strip-lit office for our allotted 15 minutes, he places an iPhone – the only extravagant thing about him – onto the desk. With slightly protruding eyes, cropped hair and sticking-out ears, he resembles a middle-aged 5ft 7” Yoda.

You may not be familiar with Gu’s name, but his contribution to Chinese cinema – mainly as a cinematographer – casts him as one of the most important filmmakers in China. Now aged 53, he graduated from the Beijing Film Academy (BFA) as part of the now-famous class of ’82, alongside luminaries such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, members of China’s Fifth Generation – a group of filmmakers who re-defined Chinese cinema, bringing it to the world’s attention. He also worked as cinematographer on some of their early films: with Zhang on Red Sorghum (1987) and with Chen on Farewell My Concubine (1993), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.

Despite graduating in the Fifth Generation master class, Gu says he doesn’t belong under that banner. ‘Everybody is talking about “Generations” these days,’ he says in softly-spoken Mandarin. ‘But when I thought I must belong to the Fifth Generation, I didn’t find my name on the list. I don’t think you can categorise my films.’

It’s true that Gu’s three self-directed films are at odds with those of his BFA peers. His directorial debut, Peacock (for which he scooped the Berlin Film Festival’s Jury Prize in 2005), made a year after Zhang’s House of Flying Daggers, is a case in point. While Zhang’s classic Fifth Generation epic delves into Chinese mythology, Peacock is more humble: set in the ’70s and ’80s in a small town, it’s a character-driven film revolving around three siblings trying to make it. His second film, And the Spring Comes (2007), follows a small-town girl trying to become an Italian Opera singer.

With his focus on ordinary, often marginalised, people, his films are more akin to the work of the realist Sixth Generation. It might have something to do with his background. Growing up in humble surroundings in Xian, his father, a PE teacher, was a stern disciplinarian, and Gu a timid child with a prolific stammer (‘Partly because of that, I don’t like to talk too much’). He was a proficient painter, and in his sparetime worked at a local cinema, which was where he fell in love with film.

Though he went on to a high-flying job at Xian Film Studio upon graduating from the BFA, Gu never forgot his everyman roots. ‘Ordinary life is beautiful, including those of underprivileged groups,’ he says. ‘So I like to focus on ordinary people in my films. It’s important to me to make ordinary Chinese lives visible, and I like to choose people and lifestyles that I’m familiar with.’

Gu’s much-hyped latest work, Love for Life, continues that tradition. Set among the bleak hilltops surrounding a remote village in the 1990s, the film follows Aids sufferers Shang Qinqin (Zhang) and Zhao Deyi (Kwok) as they struggle to come to terms with a mysterious ‘fever’ that has, the film’s narrator tells us, ‘swept through our village killing people like leaves falling from trees’.

'In contemporary China, people still turn pale at the mere mention of Aids,’ says Gu, whose actress wife, Jiang Wenli, is an Aids ambassador. ‘You know there is an old saying in China that people “turn pale at the mention of a tiger” [meaning that people grow fearful if something bad is merely mentioned]. This film is attempting to get people over that fear.’

Gu achieves this by focusing on the emotional lives of his characters, particularly the discrimination they face. When Zhao Deyi buys some fruit, he is given his change with pincers. Shang Qinqin’s husband says she’s too ‘filthy’ to be buried next to him, which condemns her to an afterlife alone.

'When you only have a short time left in the world, your core humanity is magnified,’ says Gu. ‘I want my character’s humanity to shine through; to show that everybody fights for life, everybody loves, and every individual has the right to live with dignity. I just hope that audiences share in the emotions of my characters, and that the film helps cut down discrimination in China.’

Love for Life, which is part-funded by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), is also the first film in mainstream culture to feature the blood-selling scandal of the 1990s, when tens of thousands of people in rural China were infected with HIV.

In that period, entrepreneurs known as ‘blood heads’ started collecting blood from peasants to sell on the blood’s plasma. After extraction, they returned the blood to the donor, but in the interim the blood was mixed in contaminated pools while equipment was reused, spreading the HIV virus through rural parts of Henan, Shanxi and Anhui provinces. In a revealing scene in Love for Life, Qinqin explains how she sold her blood to buy expensive shampoo. ‘Another girl in the village had it,’ she says, shrugging. ‘I wanted my hair to be as shiny as hers.’

Love for Life also marks a U-turn for the Government, which has leapt from blocking media coverage of Aids (such as banning Yan Lianke’s novel Dream of Ding Village, see Books, page 56) to backing a blockbuster detailing the disease’s murky past. ‘The film has the support of the Government,’ says Gu, ‘because they’ve realised if people still turn pale at the mere mention of Aids, it will be difficult to control the spread of the disease.’

Gu’s assistant approaches and hands him a plate of melting Haagen-Dazs cake from the television crew. We’ve run ten minutes over our allotted time, so I squeeze in a final question: does he think film should be for arts’ sake or the greater good of society?

'I don’t know what others think,’ he says. ‘But for me, I think I make films for myself and for my friends around me. I think the biggest challenge is how film directors retain artistic merit and survive in a commercial environment,’ he pauses, grinning – ‘because, obviously, every filmmaker hopes their film will attract huge audiences.’

Nicola Davison

Additional reporting by Li Luxiang.

Love for Life is currently in cinemas. See event details

See our interview with Zhao Liang, director of Love for Life's accompanying behind the scenes documentary Together