Zhang Yuan

"Young is always right." – Zhang Yuan

Unspoiled Brats is an art project begun by the well-known director Zhang Yuan in 2010. Ten people born in the 80s and their lives were documented in a combination of photo and film. In the spring of 2010, the project opened at the UCCA gallery in Beijing and shown for a month's time with great success. Sans Jérôme, the director at UCCA, writes in the exhibition catalogue:

"Zhang Yuan is one of the most interesting directors in China today. He has a keen sense of observation. He sets his gaze on a youth culture and the outcasts of society that most people don't care about. In this is a challenge and criticism of mainstream values. His photo art and films help us recognise the surrounding society."

Zhang Yuan is numbered among the leading representatives for the "sixth generation" of directors (names such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige are of the "fifth generation"). His films have garnered many international awards, including for best direction at the Venice Film Festival. Time magazine has included him in a list of the world's top 100 young leaders. His interest in youth culture and the outcasts of society started as early as twenty years ago. In 1992, he shot the film Beijing Bastards, featuring China's first rocker generation, Cui Jian, He Yong, Dou Wei and others. At the time, he was not yet thirty. He was a close friend with all the rockers, who stood for a kind of "uncontrolled disorder". Zhang's films, which like rock music and contemporary art were not officially permitted in the early 90s, and were often denoted as "underground art", a term seldom used today. Unspoiled Brats is a continuation in the same spirit: "It's been twenty years since Beijing Bastards; that generation is no longer young. I'm curious about the new young generation. How do the post-80s kids live in China's big cities? What do they think about and how do they view life?" For Zhang Yuan, "Young is always right".

Zhang put up an ad on his blog looking for "young people who feel worried and restless and are dissatisfied with the conditions of the day", and wanted to share their experiences and lives. For three days, he and his team interviewed more than 200 post-80s youths. They included musicians, artists, actors, stock brokers, bodyguards, social workers, university students, monks, and unemployed people. All had dreams that they wanted to fulfil in Beijing. Their different life stories surprised him. "They talked on camera, without inhibition, about the difficulties of supporting themselves, about their imaginative future plans… Their stories often made me laugh, and just as often brought tears to my eyes."

Three of the interviewees are gay: a lesbian couple and a gay man who has never experienced love, and who in pursuing love undergoes one facelift after the next. Their stories about their lives, about how they came out of the closet, make you happy and sad in equal measure.

Zhang Yuan is very positive to the Secret Love exhibition. Of the ten pieces in the Unspoiled Brats portrait series, he has allowed me to use the two concerning homosexuals. During my time in Beijing, he also took the time to help me get in touch with other artists who could be of interest to the exhibition.

Zhang Yuan is not unfamiliar to the subject of homosexuality and gender diversity. In Beijing in 1996, he shot the film East Palace, West Palace, the first Chinese feature film with homosexuality as its subject. It was shown in 1997 at the Cannes Festival, and critics worldwide considered it to be a breakthrough in Chinese film history. In 2000, he shot Miss Jin Xing, on the first Chinese person to undergo a sex-change operation, a dancer who became a woman. Jin Xing is now a famous artiste who often appears on TV shows. But East Palace, West Palace can still not be shown publicly in China, which shows the complexity of this problem, in which tradition and the system are not the only variables.

I asked Zhang Yuan why he is interested in this subject. He replied: "It isn't so simple for a straight person to approach the subject of homosexuality; you have to identify and learn different aspects of it. It's something that writers and artists often face – identifying with something you have no experience of, understanding the situation and the emotions, and engaging in it whole-heartedly." He also said: "Different people who live outside the mainstream of society are all a part of society, and should be shown the same respect and not be underappreciated. It doesn't matter if it's people in prison, or people with another sexual orientation – everybody has the right to respect, everybody has a starring part to play."

Zhang Yuan张元

1963: born in Jiangsu
1989: graduated from Beijing Film Academy
Lives and works in Beijing