Yao Chen and Cao Yu forged very different paths on their way to success in the Chinese film industry, but after 20 years of work each, they sat down for a chat about where their careers were headed, and they came to the same conclusion.
“We’d reached a similar stage in life,” explains Yao. “We were reflecting on certain work, certain issues of our own. We decided when it comes to genres, we wanted to have a more diversified, more colorful palette. All our projects now center on the predicament that human beings face — we are interested in exploring the difficult choices that people face.”
Partners already in life, Yao and Cao became partners in film by establishing the Bad Rabbit Pictures production house, with Yao drawing on the experience gained from an acting career that has brought acclaim for her television roles that have arguably cemented her as China’s most popular star, with a following on China’s Twitter-like Weibo social media platform of more than 85 million.
Cao, meanwhile, can lean on his experience as one of China’s most acclaimed cinematographers, through award-winning work with such acclaimed directors as Chen Kaige (Legend of the Demon Cat) and Lu Chuan (City of Life and Death).
They have arrived in Cannes — both for the first time — to showcase the most-recent Bad Rabbit release, the sweeping, Mongolia-set drama The Cord of Life, which will screen for market badge holders at 6:45 p.m. on Friday, May 20 at the Palais E theater as part of the China’s New Talents Going Global Program.
The Cord of Life tells the story of an aspiring musician and how he deals with both his mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s and his own desire to make his way in the world. First-time director Qiao Sixue takes a nuanced approach to a very human and relatable tale, and it comes framed by Cao’s quite stunning camera work, which shifts between the intimacy of family life and vast, open steppe vistas.
The film is part of a slowly growing trend that sees China’s more seasoned filmmakers taking an active role in nurturing the careers of those starting out in the industry. Another recent example of this was first-timer Kong Dashan’s sci-fi-tinged black comedy Journey to the West, which was produced by box office smash The Wandering Earth’s Frant Gwo and which won multiple awards at home and abroad before getting a general release last month.
“Chinese art house directors seem to only care about story and subject matter while sacrificing the technical quality,” says the 48-year-old Cao. “I see cinema as a comprehensive audiovisual art form, where expression through technique is critical. When working with the director of The Cord of Life, I was aiming to produce an art house film where the audiovisual language matches the profound subject matter and emotional connection.”
He points to the domestic and international acclaim afforded to the likes of Kaige’s Palme d’Or winner Farewell My Concubine in 1993 as an example of the heights Chinese art house cinema should reach for.
“It seems some young directors think they need to produce very gritty images and subject matter that maybe is not actually that interesting,” says Cao, who believes these films have lacked visual style and creativity. “It seems there has been another mindset since the [artistry] of Farewell My Concubine, but I want to show them a different way of approaching art house films.”
The 43-year-old Yao says the move into producing came at a time in her own career when challenging roles were becoming scarce. She had first emerged in wildly popular TV series like the period-set comedy-drama My Own Swordsman (2006) and the spy thriller Lurk (2009), and found roles in box office hits like the blockbuster Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (2017), but says she felt a growing need to explore roles that tapped deeper into the human condition.
“When you’re an actress, probably in China, probably anywhere, when you reach the age of 35 you feel that you are marginalized by the industry,” says Yao. “In the current market, there are fewer female roles that are complicated for actresses — accomplished actresses — in that age group to interpret. Being a filmmaker is more about exploring humanity and the human experience — exploring the psychology of different people — and so I wanted to take a more active role in the creation of projects, in determining and shaping how they develop artistically.”
Yao’s role in 2019’s Send Me to the Clouds was an indicator of where she hoped her acting career was headed. She played a middle-aged woman coming to terms with age, sickness and her sexuality, in a film that surprised critics and audiences alike with its measured approach to issues not usually explored in mainstream Chinese cinema. It picked up the best actress award at the Tokyo Film Festival and a Golden Rooster nomination in China and generated praise for the strength of Yao’s performance.
“I will still seek out challenging and interesting female roles because I still love my career as an actress and I’m still extremely interested in personality studies and exploring human psychology,” says Yao. “But a lot of people wrote to me and said Send Me to the Clouds restored their confidence — it actually inspired them. Because of feedback like this, we are confident that although the experiences of audiences overseas are somewhat different than Chinese, some human experiences are the same. So if domestic audiences can connect with these stories, then we have faith that audiences overseas will connect as well.”
For The Cord of Life, the duo was able to recruit the likes of acclaimed editor Zhang Yifan (Crazy Racer) and sound editor Fu Kang (The Eight Hundred) to work with a first-time director on a film that doesn’t hide its art-house sensibilities — and which the filmmakers knew would be entering a relatively small domestic market for such productions, simply because all involved wanted “an opportunity to express themselves through their skills.”
“Whereas not everyone can be a director, we all want to express ourselves through a project,” says Cao. “And so if the time is right, if everything comes together, they will be interested in working with international filmmakers who feel the same.”