Rolex Meets Chinese Cinema: Zhang Yimou Chosen As Rolex Art Sponsorship Mentor

Zhang Joins Other 2010-2011 Mentors, Choreographer Trisha Brown, Record Producer Brian Eno, Writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Artist Anish Kapoor And Stage Director Peter Sellars

Zhang Yimou, arguably China’s top filmmaker, has been named as one of an elite group of arts mentors chosen for the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, along with a prominent group of artists that includes Anish Kapoor and Brian Eno (himself no stranger to China, having worked on solo projects thereand guested on a Beijing band’s debut record).

The biennial sponsorship program, which pairs the appointed mentors with their chosen proteges for one year, was launched in 2002. The program’s stated aim is to perpetuate the world’s artistic heritage by pairing some of the world’s best artists with emerging talent. As the program organizers explain:

Rolex invites masters in dance, film, literature, music, theatre and the visual arts to provide individual guidance to gifted young artists. In six disciplines, a senior artist (the mentor) agrees to foster and counsel a young artist (the protégé) for one year. Each pair decides the most effective way of interacting.

Over the course of the next five months, each mentor will choose a protégé from a small group of finalists identified by Rolex international nominating panels, arts insiders who scour the world for the most promising young artists. The six mentor-protégé pairs will then participate in a one-to-one creative collaboration, an exchange benefiting both mentor and protégé.

The program costs the Swiss watchmaker about $700,000, a significant amount amid the current economic climate, but Rolex has stated that the company intends to continue its support indefinitely, as BusinessWeek pointed out this week:

The Rolex patronage continues even as watch exports from Switzerland dropped 26 percent in value terms in the first 10 months of 2009, according to the Swiss Watchmakers’ Federation. Rolex is “suffering from the current economic crisis,” Managing Director Bruno Meier told French daily L’Agefi in October, though he said he expected a pickup in 2010.

Zhang’s protege — whomever he or she happens to be — will be in for an interesting ride over the next year. As a recent China Daily Q&A illustrates, Zhang has been a busy man over the past few years, from the epic Beijing Olympics ceremonies he created in 2008 to the new movies he filmed in 2009 which are set to be released over the next year. Although Zhang is best known in the west for his ancient dramas, his newest film, A Simple Noodle Story — a remake of the Coen Brothers’ 1985 classic Blood Simple — is his first foray into comedy:

The poster for "A Simple Noodle Story," Zhang's remake of "Blood Simple"
The poster for “A Simple Noodle Story,” Zhang’s remake of “Blood Simple”

Q: Are you worried about comparisons between the two films?

A: Some will think it’s better than the original work, and some won’t, definitely, but that’s not important. The fact that I dared make it this way is the most fun part. No one could have imagined a remake of Blood Simple would be like this.

Q: Some might say directing slapstick is unimaginable for someone who enjoys the prestige you have.

A: I stepped into hell when I decided to make the film a slapstick version. It was clear to me that when you make a comedy, one third of the jokes will be considered vulgar.

It is like when you raise a herd of horses. You try your best to make them all winged steeds, but it always turns out that only a few of them will make it.

I am fully prepared to be criticized because I know it is hard, even impossible, to make a perfect comedy, in which all the jokes are appropriate and are flawlessly woven into the storyline.

If you want laughter from the audience – which is harder than eliciting tears sometimes – you have to be prepared for criticism.

If the audience laughs 20 times when it watches the film, I will consider it a success.

Q: Any ambition for the overseas market this time? A: This film is totally for the domestic market. Comedy is so local, especially with the dialogue. I am not at all confident this film will appeal to international audiences. The mainland market is the target. Even Hong Kong andTaiwan audiences may not find the film amusing.

The rise of the mainland market has made Chinese directors change their focus. Today a Chinese film can make 10 times the money it makes overseas.

Ten or 15 years ago my films relied heavily on the international market, but it is totally different now. Five years from now, or maybe less, a Chinese movie might make $100 million at the local box office. I am not exaggerating.

Zhang’s choice of protege will be announced next spring. For more information on the program, see the FT’s interactive feature.

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