The days of frozen dreams: an interview with Wang Xiaoshuai.
In April of 1989 student-led protesters gathered in Tiananmen Square demanding the government institute economic and political reform. In the early morning of June 4th the army entered Tiananmen Square and crushed the student-led movement. The government reaffirmed its control of the arts. Fifth generation directors who had the support of the state-run studios were still able to make films as long as their ideas did not run counter to government policies but the new generation of more freethinking and radical directors were completely shut out. Being denied freedom of expression only toughened their resolve and so they began their journey as illegal underground filmmakers. Chinese officials condemned the grim subject matter of their films, disregarding the fact that it was precisely their ill treatment of these directors that had fuelled their discontent. As most of them were born after the Cultural Revolution, their personal life experience may not have been as austere as the fifth generation directors but their artistic journey was one of frustration and turmoil. These personal experiences are duly portrayed cinematically by Wang. His stories are down to earth and his characters are close to reality like the loser next door, the confused school kid or the regrettable stubborn father. For Wang to have succeeded as a sixth generation director and to have consistently produced quality films is a testament to his talent, passion, and dedication.
Today, Wang is still modest, passionate and approachable, despite the fact that Shanghai Dreams (2005) garnered the "Prix du jury" in Cannes. In my conversations with him he takes us on a journey of how a young artist who took film as just another form of aesthetic expression, like painting or sculpture, found his calling as a filmmaker. He is still looking for the optimum balance between his artistic vision and public recognition, a challenge that has remained with him since day one of his film journey, like a dream frozen in time.
The following article has been assembled from material gathered during two conversations I had with Wang, between September, 2005 and February, 2006. The interviews were conducted in Chinese and I'd like to thank Yan Woo and Winny Zhang for transcribing the Chinese text.
AS: Why did you choose film as your career?
WX: I learned drawing when I was young. It wasn't because I wanted to have fun, but it was my father who pressured me into it, and I complied. It wasn't my real inclination. Maybe the pressure was too much when I was a boy, I somehow rebelled against it. Later I went to a high school which was tied to the China Central Academy of Fine Arts to study professional drawing, but when I was applying to university, I hesitated in choosing fine arts as my future career. I felt that my interest in drawing only came out of harsh discipline, and my basic techniques had flaws. I didn't feel much sense of achievement while doing drawings, so my inclination slowly shifted.
At the time, I hadn't actively pursued other universities, as all our graduates would apply either to the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, or the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now renamed The China Academy of Art). I was trapped. Then suddenly I learned of the emergence of the fifth generation directors and films like Zheng Jun-Zhao's One and Eight (1983) and Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth (1984). These films took the nation by storm, including us students. We were only aware of the Academies of Fine Arts, Music and Theatrical Arts until then, and we were thrilled by this new knowledge of the Film Academy. I discovered that I had more inclination towards films. I was hanging out with friends who loved to tell stories and we even did stage plays at high school. I had developed a deeper interest in this art form.
AS: You were influenced by the fifth generation directors but your films are very different from theirs.
WX: Yes, we are very different! Film was a new art form to us at that time. We didn't have enough knowledge about films then. When arts are created with a strong unique style, artists are all excited! For those of us who studied fine arts, this groundbreaking experience only laid down a starting point. This new shooting style influenced future filmmaking, and in turn affected all frontiers in China. Yet when I explored the fundamentals of films, I did not necessarily want to follow the same path as the fifth generation.
AS: Your films are also different from most sixth generation directors. For example in Frozen (1996), the story is about an artist who chooses death as his final form of artistic expression. Other artists usually don't look at art from this dimension; they usually find artistic expression as an outlet, not as a dead end. Can you talk about that?
WX: The reason why I turned to film was exactly because I felt I was inadequate in my fine arts training and it felt like a dead end for me. The social perception of artists was far from prestigious at the time as arts were only considered a sideline career. No one took artists or artworks seriously. When I was conceiving Frozen, modern arts had just landed in China. Things like performance art and installations were unheard of before. Chinese artists tapped into these new ideas and expressed themselves through these new means shortly afterwards, even though these attempts were imitations of the West.
Since it was a new era, we wondered if we were really so behind the times that we couldn't accept these new ideas or even if we should be welcoming these strange methods to express these new art forms. So we looked at the art scene with reservation and set up alternate standards, as we were trained to deconstruct and focus on fundamentals while at art school. In fact, an artwork was just a representation of the artist's viewpoint at the time. The lack of consensus was a manifestation of the instability created due to the emergence of a new art form, unlike today, when these art forms are recognized by a lot of people, more artists have experience and the Chinese art collectors hotly pursue these artworks. This process merely reflects the normal path of development.
AS: There is a common thread in your films, and that is suicide. Why is that?
WX: Suicides appeared in my films after 1994, after I finished my first underground independent film The Days (1993). Documents were handed down that put my name on the black list together with some other filmmakers who were also forbidden to make films. I wanted to continue filmmaking by way of independent productions but suddenly I found that it didn't work. Moreover, the whole arts and cultural scene was suppressed after the Tiananmen Square incident, and the issue of filmmaking was a very sensitive one. Therefore I felt oppressed and depressed. It was then I stumbled across this story of an artist who chose to end his life for the arts. Thwarted by the oppressive atmosphere around me I was inspired to explore the difficulties young artists had to overcome to express their artistic ideas in public.
AS: You prefer non-professional actors over stars, even for complex characters in So Close to Paradise (1998). How did you bring out such powerful performances in them?
WX: I consider that there are two types of actors, professionals and the rest. Even though some professionals have gone through proper training, they may not have grasped the true essence of acting. Only more talented actors can capture that. There are also a lot of people who lack training but possess some "acting" genes in their body. It is very important to see who has these "acting" genes during auditions and to liberate their potential. Through this process, you can find possible candidates who could portray your characters. In fact, you are trying to make that person expose his or her inner self. That would be my ultimate accomplishment. It is almost impossible for the non-trained actors to express big swings of complicated emotions; but since our stories are very close to their lives, and the actions close to their own, they should be able to openly liberate these emotions. Some of these actors slowly become professionals after working with me.
Unlike professional actors who are more likely to pull off great performances after intense rehearsals, non-professionals would get scared if you put them through this repetition. It's better to rely on their instinct or their direct response. I usually do limited rehearsals but start shooting promptly I'll let them act and rehearse at the same time. Therefore my shooting ratio is greater than most Chinese films. I use the actual camera to stimulate and enhance the performance.
AS: It has been more than 10 years since you made your first feature The Days (1993). Can you still recall how you felt then as a first time director?
WX: I feel that films are becoming more and more commercial nowadays, like a market commodity, soliciting expectations. Filmmaking was very simple then. If I wanted to shoot with my own ideas, I had to become a director. Back then, there was only the still camera that could record images on photo prints. If I wanted to turn my ideas into moving images by recording images in series; then only the film camera could materialize it. It was that simple. This was a result of my basic primitive impulse of liberating beautiful still imagery into moving imagery. Nowadays there are DV cameras and other video equipment which were non-existent in the early 1990s in China. I transformed myself into a filmmaker after going through the whole process of camera-rental, film stock purchases, shooting, processing, and printing, just to answer the instinctive call to create moving images.
AS: How did you raise money for The Days and other underground productions?
WX: At first I borrowed about 50,000 RMB (Chinese dollars) from friends. I then worked to save some money and put in my own personal savings until it was enough. When the film was completed, it went to film festivals across Vancouver, Rotterdam, Berlin and New York. I also got help from friends in Hong Kong like Shu Kei. He helped to introduce my films to film festivals worldwide. He even lent me some money for my second film. Some friends in the film industry chipped in even though they themselves were having a hard time. They recognized the hardships in this field. Some other friends who had made a small fortune in business dealings were also willing to help. We slowly built up our resources from a humble start.
AS: Why did you use the alias "Wu Ming" early in your career, for example, Frozen?
WX: I was already on the black list of forbidden filmmakers when Frozen was completed, and I was planning for my next shoot which I was hoping to have approved by the government. I was waiting patiently and to avoid complications, my attitude was to acknowledge the presence of the film but not its director. I only wanted the film to meet the public and I chose to stay anonymous.
AS: You started your artistic expression in the 2-dimensional arts. That is very different from the more complicated art form of film which also incorporates a narrative structure, characterization as well as a temporal element, in addition to the 2-D aesthetic requirements. How did you master the crossover?
WX: Yes, films and drawing are totally different. Drawing is two-dimensional. It is static, one composition with only one element. Film images are constantly moving with a temporal element. The aesthetics of one particular frame is not that important. The essence of film is to communicate your ideas through a chosen narrative form, through the appropriate structure and expression of the actors within a time limit. Colours, composition or the look come second in this art form.
AS: I see that your narrative structures are evolving throughout the years. For example how the story unfolded in Shanghai Dreams (2005) as compared to Frozen. Can you take us through this evolution?
WX: I was searching for the purest form of sensuality in Shanghai Dreams, which I had first encountered in The Days, my first film. It has been more than ten years and a lot of social changes have taken place. Tons of commercial or Hollywood films have managed to enter China and people consider that as the new standard of excellence. I chose to believe in the director's emotional expression. I wanted to go back to a primitive state of expressing my thoughts and I needed the purest method, and I found it in Shanghai Dreams. How it was expressed was just like The Days. It captured a similar flavour. That was very important for me.
After Shanghai Dreams, I'm now exploring and searching for a new form of narration that is meaningful to me, which can still preserve my attitude and sensitivity towards people and the society. That is what I have to do next.
AS: In your last two films Drifters (2003) and Shanghai Dreams, you portrayed two very prominent Chinese father figures. Both would stop at nothing to dominate over his child. Are you trying to explore the role of the Father in the Chinese family as an extreme absolute power figure?
WX: When we were growing up, what we encountered or heard of the most was how to rear and educate the children for their future. This has been mostly the decision of the father in a family. Fathers probably carry more on their shoulders, including which direction a man should take to satisfy his needs, or deciding how to balance various priorities in life. I am not clear if this is the so-called powerful father figure, as I am not a philosopher. But in my own family, my mother has always been doing housework, apart from going to work. As for the rest, like what a kid should do at leisure, making me take up drawing, work arrangements or relocating the whole family from Guiyang, they were entirely my father's schemes. I see that all fathers carry these important responsibilities.
AS: A lot of your protagonists have flaws and problems, as in Drifters, Frozen ... They all seem to hit dead ends wherever they go. Why are you interested in these flawed characters?
WX: Humans are basically vulnerable. We are all fragile deep inside our heart and soul. To survive the relationship of the individual against the universe and to withstand social pressure from the outside, people must train themselves to be stronger than the world around them. These mechanisms are acquired after birth but we are born weak. How we battle this complicated society differs from person to person, but I prefer to explore how the weak side is manifested in life. I sympathize with these flawed characters. As for the seemingly strong and successful, they are only wearing a superficial disguise. When they face illness, death or social changes, they become vulnerable as well. It doesn't matter if you are an important figure, a president, a senator or extremely wealthy. You are still human and get perplexed and experience emotional upheavals. The weaker people often find the society working against their interests and fail to find a way out. I find it easy to portray these sentiments in my films.
AS: Do you think that these characters in different continents, facing the same problem, would react differently or not?
WX: I suppose they would respond differently after all, social development is not structured the same everywhere. I feel that the Chinese people struggle with their confusions, directions in life, and their survival against the environment without awareness. They are fighting blindly without being conscious of what is really causing the problem. They think that by having money or social status all problems will be solved. So the whole nation struggles unscrupulously to gain the wealth and recognition it thinks will solve this vulnerability, instead of stopping to self reflect
AS: Do you think that the younger generation like those in Beijing Bicycle (2001) is being pushed to face the same harsh problems as the adults are struggling with now?
WX: Yes, this has a particularly important effect on the youths. The future relies much on the condition of the next generation and their attitude. Are they contemplating the present or are they merely going through the same motions as their fathers or the crowd for money and social status. It is unsafe for the future if this phenomenon continues to dominate.
AS: You were a blacklisted director not too long ago. Which is your first official release in China?
WX: In reality, So Close to Paradise was approved after three long years of censorship in 1999. I heard it only played for one screening and then it was pulled. I don't consider that a normal release. Beijing Bicycle also took a few years for approval and missed the chance to open. So I have to say that Shanghai Dreams was my first official release. I felt really good about the experience. Although the box office revenue could not compare with the Hollywood or commercial films, I could reach out to attract a new audience. My films used to play only to a European crowd, so it felt fabulous to meet the Chinese finally. I got a lot of positive response. The Chinese audience has no problem following the narrative and they find the story close to their lives.
AS: What are you working on now?
WX: I'm devoting my time on the script of Record of the Peach Blossom Spring, (Tao Hua Yuan Ji: working title). It is a story probing youth problems, like the effects of the worldwide web on them. The web has created an enormous virtual world of diversity and discussions. Surfers find it fascinating and want to stay inside as long as possible, like the idealized world of the ancient Peach Blossom Spring. There are so many people who frequent internet cafes in China, and some of them learn useful skills and knowledge. But more people are becoming addicted to games instead, and social problems are emerging. Youths stay out all night and parental communication is breaking down creating dysfunctional families. This ultimately leads to criminal offences as these kids got out of control. This is the theme of my new film.
AS: When do you plan to start shooting?
WX: I haven't decided yet. If things go smoothly, I hope to start shooting in August or September of 2006. I'm not in a hurry. I'm doing research for the script. I visited some internet cafes and mingled with the youths there. My next step is to establish a good story and turn it into an original screenplay in the next few months.
AS: What do you think is the most important need in Chinese cinema now?
WX: Balanced and diverse development. We produce about a hundred films a year here in China but there are usually only two or three known to the public. The rest remain unknown. There are some films that are negligible, but not all. Some may not be very commercial or may lack adequate marketing and promotion, but could be very good nonetheless. It would be a pity if these films slipped away unnoticed. I advocate a balanced development approach for all genres of films, not to concentrate only on a few blockbusters.
AS: What is the most difficult thing you're facing as a Chinese director?
WX: Being a director is not so difficult, but to become the kind of director who can realize his own thoughts involves tough explorations. I believe that society needs films like ours but this need is not very urgent at the moment. So what do we do at this point? This problem is not mine alone; some other really good films are struggling to find their audience in the theatres too, and this I think is a real problem.
AS: The fifth generation directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige are now moving towards big budget commercial productions. Do you want to make your own blockbusters or you are going to stick to your artistic vision?
WX: Subjectively speaking, of course I would very much want to preserve my ideas, my style and get the recognition from the audience. This would be an ultimate blessing. That is why I said that the film industry has to develop in a balanced fashion to accommodate films with personality and opinion. These alternative films should be allowed a market share, not necessarily a big one since the mainstream commercial films audiences would still be supporting the market primarily. These unconventional films should have their own audience, in an ideal situation.
I would imagine all directors have a different temperament and personality. Every one of us looks at the world in a different way, and is good at making certain kind of films. We should be allowed to make films that we excel in.
Filmography as Director:
2005: Shanghai Dreams (Qinghong)
2003: Drifters (Er Di)
2002: After War (Seolnal) (short: made for Jeonju Film Festival, Korea)
2001: Beijing Bicycle (Shiqi Sui De Danche)
1999: The House (Menghuan Tianyuan)
1998: So Close to Paradise (Biandan, Guniang)
1996: Frozen (Jidu Hanleng) (credited as "Wu Ming")
1994: Suicides (Da Youxi)
1993: The Days (Dong-Chun De Rizi)
Alice Shih is a film critic for Fairchild Radio, the only national Chinese broadcaster in Canada. She is a board member of the Toronto International Reel Asian Film Festival, and specializes in films from Asia, the Asian Diaspora and Canada. She has been published in film magazines including Cineaction and POV.
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2006|
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