TIME: Daggers is your second martial-arts film, right?
ZHANG: Yes. This time around I'm more accustomed to the genre and braver. I pay much respect to the tradition, so you can say this film is a tribute to kung fu movies. I want this film to look very traditional, but with a very modern story.
TIME: A lot of people were surprised that you cast Andy Lau. Do you think of him as a serious actor?
ZHANG: Andy said to me himself it had been more than 10 years since he'd done a really serious film. He's a great actor he can cry on cue five takes in a row, which isn't easy and he's improving. This is a good chance for him to do serious drama, especially compared with some of his previous acting.
TIME: Anita Mui [the legendary Hong Kong actress and singer] died a few weeks before shooting began for her part as Big Sister in Daggers. How did that change the project?
ZHANG: Her death had a big impact on filming. We needed this character, a "big sister" in the Mafia world. Anita was perfect. There was no one who could replace her, so we decided not to.
TIME: How do you deal with censorship in China and still convey your message?
ZHANG: Critics say I'm not being sharp enough or not cutting deeply enough. But any director in China knows in their heart how far they can go and how much they can say. If anyone tells you that they always say what they want to say or film what they want to film, it's a lie. Even underground movies have a limit they know where they have to stop. I hope in the future we have more freedom and artists are given more space. But the question now isn't whether you're good at balancing things: it's a must. It's a reality you have to face.
TIME: How important are the Oscars to you?
ZHANG: I've been to the Oscars twice. And sitting there during the awards ceremony I felt like it was a purely American game. It didn't have a lot to do with me it's very much about American style and standards. I can understand why European directors say Hollywood is poison. And it's interesting and sobering for me to sit in the Third World, watching the [Old] and [New] Worlds argue about how European movies have no values and American movies have no culture. And I worry about the influence Hollywood has on the young people in China. I think we need to make our own movies and do a better job of protecting our industry.
TIME: What is it that you want people to remember most about your films?
ZHANG: The visual spectacle. I've tried using realism in movies before, in the cinematography. But I am most in love with the Chinese style of visual presentation. If in 20 years, after I've made a lot more movies, they write one sentence about me in a textbook, I'd be satisfied if they said: "Zhang Yimou's style is strong visual presentation in a distinctly Chinese fashion."