Tian Zhuangzhuang ran afoul of Chinese censors with "The Blue Kite," a critical look at the first 17 years of Communist rule told through eyes of a primary school teacher whose three husbands die from political persecution or famine. He released his next film, "Springtime in a Small Town," in 2002.
Promoting his new movie in Hong Kong, Tian said Thursday he used the nine years to learn about foreign cinema.
"I spent those years not making movies watching movies. It was a great pleasure. Even though there weren't that many good Chinese movies at the time, there were quite a few good movies from all over the world," Tian said at a talk at the University of Hong Kong.
The 57-year-old director also served as a producer for young Chinese filmmakers during the period.
Tian added that he realized shooting movies was a tremendous burden.
"Intentionally or not, you bear the responsibility of spreading your culture. It's quite difficult. If I could choose again, I'd rather be a viewer than a filmmaker," Tian said. "My biggest revelation was that I could live without making movies."
Along with fellow Chinese directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, Tian is a member of modern Chinese cinema's most famous graduating class. The trio were among the first students to enter the prestigious Beijing Film Academy after it reopened in 1978 in the wake of the ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution, when millions who were suspected of opposing the Communist government were persecuted.
But unlike Zhang and Chen, Tian, whose credits also include "On the Hunting Ground" and "The Horse Thief," has not shifted from art-house to mainstream blockbusters amid China's booming movie market. His last film, "The Go Master," was a slow-paced profile of a Chinese master in Japanese chess.
Based on a Japanese short story, Tian's new movie, "The Warrior and the Wolf," is a mythological epic set in ancient China about a general who becomes a wolf after making love to a tribal woman. It stars Vietnamese-American actress Maggie Q and Japan's Joe Odagiri.