Chinese director defends break from art-house

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A Golden Lion-winning Chinese director best known for portraying working-class struggles defended on Saturday his decision to try his hand at commercial cinema as he prepares to make his first kung fu epic.

Jia Zhangke made his name with realist films that describe how China’s youth and workers cope with the country’s rapid economic growth. The 40-year-old filmmaker won the top prize at the 2006 Venice Film Festival with "Still Life," a drama set against the destruction of a Chinese village to make way for the Three Gorges Dam.

But now Jia, whose credits also include "Pickpocket, "The Platform" and "The World," is getting ready to shoot a big-budget martial arts epic set at the beginning of the 20th century.

The native of the northern city of Fenyang says the budget will be at least several million US dollars — huge for the once underground director — and he will hire a Hong Kong fight choreographer. Veteran Hong Kong director Johnnie To, best known for his stylish action thrillers, is his producer.

Critics are wondering if Jia is abandoning his roots. It’s the same charge that was leveled at Jia’s predecessors like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. Chen and Zhang won critical acclaim in the West with stark stories of rural hardship but have gravitated toward commercial blockbusters in recent years.

Jia told The Associated Press in Hong Kong on Saturday that his fans have nothing to worry about.

"I will be back. I will not be making period movies forever. Old China is just one part of my imagination. The reality of modern China still attracts me a great deal. I want to prove over time that a director can enjoy a wide repertoire," he said.

The Chinese director, who was visiting Hong Kong to promote his documentary "I Wish I Knew," said he won’t follow the career paths of filmmakers like Chen and Zhang.

"They have already taught us a very good lesson. Why would I want to take the same path? I have seen that that path is no fun," he said.

Jia said he will start shooting his new project, called "In the Qing Dynasty" in Chinese, in March or April in and near his hometown. The story follows changes in a Chinese city after the abolishment of the imperial examination system and growing Western influences. The cast is still being decided.

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