Directors casting their spouses is as old as cinema itself, and one of the best modern teams has long been Chinese director Jia Zhangke and actress Zhao Tao. Starting with his 2000 film “Platform,” Zhao has been one of his regulars, and she established herself enough that she eventually started acting abroad, appearing alongside Maggie Cheung and Benedict Wong in Isaac Julien’s 2010 film “A Thousand Waves” and winning a prestigious David di Donatello award for the Italian drama “Shun Li and the Poet.” She returned to Jia’s films with 2013’s “A Touch of Sin,” the year after they were married.
In Jia’s latest, “Mountains May Depart,” Zhao plays Tao, a woman seen in segments set in 1999 and 2014. She starts off bubbly and naive, but when we catch up with her 15 years later she’s weighed down by her bad decisions, including a failed marriage and a son who wound up moving with his father from her hometown in northern Fenyang to Shanghai. We spoke to both Jia and Zhao during the film’s appearance at last year’s New York Film Festival.
These films have long concerned the way technology is creating a disconnect between people, especially in China. As we see in the 2014 segment in the films, a lot of what you showed in films like “The World” seems to have come true.
Jia Zhangke: Because of the fast pace of the society in China right now, the way we relate to our loved ones is very different. There’s a lot of separation. You’re rarely spending quality, meaningful time together, face-to-face. That’s why I put in that particular scene on the slow train — we somehow need to slow down sometimes. We’re texting each other or talking over Twitter or using emoticons. But these are just symbols; they can’t replace seeing someone’s reactions. This digitization, this simplification of human emotions means not a lot of people get to see our inner feelings anymore. Everything is superficial. In the future we might feel like an orphan abandoned because of the technology around us.
Tao, can you talk about the difficulties of playing a character over a long period of time?
Zhao Tao: I wanted to find specific characterization for each period and each age. For Tao in 1999, I wanted to portray her as someone who’s very pure, very naive, who only looks at the bright side of things. I raised my pitch when I spoke, so there was youth and vitality in my voice. I would be clapping, I would be jumping around. When she was in middle age I wanted to portray her without makeup. [Jia] said, “You need to realize your face will be in close-up on the big screen, in 4K. You’ll see everything.” But it just made sense. If she was going through a divorce and difficulties with her son, she wouldn’t be someone who wakes up every morning to put on her face. By showing my wrinkles, my freckles, it makes me more convincing.