Casually, without fanfare, Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke lets the bomb drop. He's about to do something that will shock art-house devotees.
Widely considered the leading figure among China's Sixth Generation filmmakers, Jia's work so far has rejected the lavish tendencies of the previous vanguard filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou and his commercial, martial-arts films - Hero , House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower . Instead, Jia trades in hyperrealism.
He shows the enormity of China's transformation through his everyday characters, regular folk buffeted by government policies and sweeping economic forces. It's an approach similarly used by other auteurs testing the limits of state censorship in China.
Three of Jia's films - Still Life , The World and Platform - are included in TIFF Cinematheque's list of the top 30 films of the last decade, voted on by international film programmers and historians. His influence is huge, and his style epitomizes the current art-house vogue for long takes and roaming, naturalistic storylines. Audiences are forced to gear way down, as the camera slows to a crawl, as in one arresting moment in Still Life , where it pans across a richly dense scene of labourers simply eating and smoking. The effect is like a painting from the Dutch Golden Age unfolding on screen.
So what's on his list of upcoming projects? In the Qing Dynasty , he says, a kung-fu film.
I stop the translator right there. I check with him repeatedly as Jia listens over the phone from Beijing. Did the director really say that? It's as if Quentin Tarantino announced a switch to romantic comedies, or Atom Egoyan declared that he's hankering to direct an Iron Man sequel.
But Jia confirms the news without hesitation. "This is my first kung fu genre film … but I'm still going to be dealing with change," he says. In other words, his career-long theme of China in flux will remain but will be transposed from contemporary times to the 18th and 19th centuries.
Jia characterizes In the Qing Dynasty as merely an extension back in time from another film he's currently working on about Shanghai.
"My work in the last 10 years has occurred in the most chaotic, fast-changing time of China. And my work has reflected the changes and effects on the average individual. Moving forward, my next film [prior to Qing ]is called I Wish I Knew , and it has more of a historical view. It deals in the history of Shanghai," the director says.
"A lot of the problems we've had, in the past, have been in not dealing with history and not asking the right questions. So [ I Wish I Knew ]will deal with 100 years of history in Shanghai."
He will keep the focus humanistic and documentary-like, he adds, depicting individuals' stories and how people tell those stories in different periods of the city's history.
"The thing about Shanghai is that you have all sorts of individuals, all sorts of professions. Even mafia members. That's the great thing about Shanghai, these diverse points of view," he adds.
But with his upcoming projects, is Jia moving into territory his generation had repudiated - films with historical storytelling and House of Flying Daggers -style flying kicks?
"My Shanghai film might be about 100 years of history, but the change really began in China in the Qing dynasty," Jia says. "And after that, I'm still going to go back and focus on more modern China, and focus on contemporary changes."
Nevertheless, he indicates that In the Qing Dynasty will be much more commercial than anything he has done before and will be along the lines of Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon . Clearly, this marks a shift in Jia's work, even if he suggests that he's not abandoning the intensely realistic style that brought him to the forefront.
Why the big change? The director says he wants to examine the origins of China's current transformation. But a lot has to do with reaching larger audiences, and that means state approval.
The two works that cemented Jia's reputation internationally, Still Life and The World , were both approved by state censors. Unlike Lou Ye - another highly regarded Sixth Generation director whose recent films have been banned, forcing him to work underground - Jia has been content to stay on the censors' good side. He emphasizes that artistic freedom is paramount, but he also wants to reach Chinese audiences.
"Ever since 2003 with The World , I've spent a lot of time working very hard in getting my films approved by the government. It's not work I like to do. It's not a part of my job that I enjoy. But it is obviously very important to have my films [reach]as many people as possible."
Still Life screens tonight at 7 p.m., followed by a Q&A with Jia, at Jackman Hall at the Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas Street W., Toronto. The World screens at 9 p.m.