BEIJING – Chinese director Jiang Qinmin is sick of World War II films that tap into the bitter history his country shares with Japan.
“It is easy to make such historical films since we all know what happened, but they just make Chinese people hate Japan,” Jiang said in a recent interview.
That’s the reason Jiang’s most recent film, “Tokyo Newcomer,” is set in contemporary times and focuses on a positive historical connection — the two countries’ shared love for the ancient board game go, or “weiqi” as it is known in Chinese.
“Tokyo Newcomer” is about a Chinese student struggling to make ends meet in Tokyo who befriends an elderly Japanese woman selling vegetables who turns out to be a master at the game.
The student, played by Qin Hao, learns about the subtleties of the mind-bending strategy game from the woman, played by veteran actress Chieko Baisho, and helps her reconcile with an estranged grandson in the process.
The movie is currently showing in China and is scheduled for release in Japan in September.
Jiang, 48, says he wanted to make the film ever since he arrived in Tokyo to attend film school in 1992.
Although Jiang is not an expert at go, much of the film mirrors his own experiences.
“After arriving in Tokyo 1992, I had to do a variety of cleaning jobs in department stores and capsule hotels to help pay for my studies,” he said. “It was during this time in Tokyo’s Akihabara district that I became friendly with old women who carried vegetables in bags on their backs from outlying areas to sell in the city center.
“People at that age in China would already have retired, so I was impressed with the way these women continued to work hard even at their age.”
Jiang finished the script and was ready to start filming in 2002, but he was forced to abandon the project after a Japanese investor went bankrupt.
The film was finally shot over 30 days in a number of Japanese locations starting last October, this time with Chinese investors providing 80 percent of the backing and Japanese contributors the rest.
Jiang said the financial support reflects the economic fortunes of the two countries — China overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy last year.
“During the 1980s, people in Japan were quite cold toward the Chinese. But Chinese people have more money now, so Japanese people act more politely toward us,” he said.
“Still, too little has changed during the past 10 to 20 years as there has been little progress in improving communications between people of the two nations. It seems many Japanese people are wary of China’s rising power and, unfortunately, the historical issue is still unresolved.”
Jiang said a major goal in making the film was to encourage understanding between the two countries, whose close ancient historical ties are reflected by the spread of weiqi to Japan around the fifth century.
But grievances over Japan’s brutal occupation of China during the war continues to fuel animosity between the two countries.
In one of the more recent reminders of underlying hostility and distrust, the Chinese were infuriated when Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura in February questioned whether the Nanjing Massacre took place. This was during a visit to the city by a delegation from Nanjing.
Nanjing responded by suspending exchanges with its Japanese sister city.
World War II has certainly served as inspiration for a number of Chinese films in recent years.
The nation’s most famous director, Zhang Yimou, based his newest film, the most expensive in China’s history, on the Imperial Japanese Army’s brutal assault on Nanjing in 1937.
The $100 million (¥8.3 billion) “Flowers of War” features Hollywood star Christian Bale masquerading as a priest holed up in a church trying to protect convent girls from marauding Japanese soldiers.
Despite receiving mixed reviews worldwide, China has entered the movie in the best foreign film category for this year’s Academy Awards.
While avoiding direct criticism of Zhang’s focus on the dark aspects of the two countries’ shared history, the lesser-known Jiang said it is time artists focused on China-Japan relations in a contemporary, future-oriented way.
Jiang’s achievements are certainly more modest than that of Zhang’s, who achieved international fame by making edgy films challenging Chinese political conventions.
However, Zhang has since been criticized by some for going too mainstream, especially after orchestrating the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Jiang has made a number of low-key films focusing on human relationships and is not yet considered a major director in his country.
Although he maintains a keen interest in China’s complicated relationship with Japan, his next project will focus on basketball enthusiasts living in remote mountain areas of Guangxi Province.
“I am not really interested in commercial films, but I suppose as a director one day I should make one,” he said.