Last year an obscure film called Seafood (2001), directed by Zhu Wen and shot on handheld digital video, blindsided me with one of the most transgressive visions of China I had ever witnessed. A Beijing prostitute (Jin Ze) goes to a seaside resort to kill herself. Her attempt is intervened by an affable police officer who tries to save her from her own morbid thoughts, with a steady diet of fresh seafood and sexual assault comprising the rehabilitation program. In a swarming sea of upstart Sixth Generation Chinese filmmakers thumbing their nose at government censorship and wearing their sociopolitical consciences on their sleeve, this film stood out, if only because it was hard to pin down. Perhaps one could read Seafood‘s scenario allegorically, as the relationship between underprivileged Chinese people and their government. I was more taken by how the story and the characters seemed to reinvent themselves from scene to scene.
Only later did I learn that Zhu Wen is an established writer, having published six books in China, as well as having written the screenplays for Zhang Ming’s Rainclouds over Wushan Mountain (1996) and Zhang Yuan’s Seventeen Years (1999). Many famous writers (Faulkner, Chandler, Hemingway) have leveraged their talents to make forays into the film industry, but how many have gone so far as to direct, and with such flagrant disregard for convention as depicted in Seafood? Not only a disregard for the studio-minded conventions of mainstream Chinese filmmaking, but also the increasingly formulaic tendencies of the underground movement. As someone who considers Jia Zhangke’s Platform (2000) one of the very best films this decade has seen, I’ve become both weary and wary of the overabundance of emerging Jia imitators who appropriate the superficial trappings of his aesthetic: a plaintive laundry list of social outrages dramatised in stoic long takes, with public loudspeakers blaring in the background. What was originally intended as a reprisal against the stuffy, airless academicism of government-approved filmmaking is now becoming mired in its own set of cliches. Is Zhu Wen someone who could point to a new direction?
Zhu’s new film South of the Clouds (2004) has been making the rounds of this year’s festival circuit, most notably winning the FIPRESCI Critics’ Prize and the Firebird Award for Young Cinema at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, as well as the Best New Director award at the Shanghai International Film Festival. I caught up with both the film and its creator at the Berlinale. At first look, it felt nothing like Seafood: instead of a prostitute and corrupt cop having it out in a seedy hotel, here we have a kindly old retiree (Li Xuejian) who gently excuses himself from his family to pursue a lifelong dream to visit the exotic western province of Yunnan. It is sensitively rendered and immaculately composed, somewhat in the manner of Tsai Ming-liang, but compared to the reckless abandon of Seafood it felt geriatric and deliberate. Still, there were amazing visuals – one shot, of the blue sky reflected upon a lake’s surface as two boats float upon the lake, so that they appear to be drifting through the reflected clouds, was hands down the most beautiful image I encountered at the Berlinale.
It wasn’t until my second viewing that I could see in this film some of the same elements that characterised Seafood, such as the protagonist’s need to travel to a touristy resort area, only to come face to face with his utter powerlessness in the world and its mysterious systems of oppression. The film floats effortlessly across the line dividing fantasy and reality: just when the old man arrives at his destination, the narrative slips imperceptibly into a dream sequence that plays as though it were the idealised version of his odyssey. Somehow we never quite wake up from this dream, even when it turns into a horrible Kafkaesque nightmare. This time it was clear that I was contending with a strong voice and a unique vision.
Of course the natural reaction to originality is to couch it in terms of the familiar – I kept wondering if Zhu had seen Tsai’s or Rossellini’s movies or Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). Upon interviewing him my first question was about his influences, to which he replied: “One must realise that when watching a film they are losing 90 minutes of time they could be spending in the world.” It was apparent that I was not speaking to a cinephile, and as the following interview attests, Zhu’s life interests have taken him through several careers (engineer, novelist, filmmaker – he also writes poems and songs), of which filmmaking appears to be only his present station.
One would think then that such an iconoclastic creative force would be content to spend his filmmaking tenure, however long it will prove to be, with little to no intercession from the government, working squarely in the thriving Chinese underground film scene. But South of the Clouds is one of the first “legitimate” uncensored mainland productions by an underground filmmaker, marking a growing trend towards a kind of uneasy reconciliation between the Film Bureau and a generation of maverick independents (in this respect, Zhu was ahead of Jia Zhangke, who this year completed his first government-approved production, The World).
It is unclear how much Zhu cares about this groundbreaking development in Chinese cinema, or the part he plays in it, or the state of filmmaking in general. It seems to him that these matters are less important than creating memorable art. Talking with Zhu about his career path, I came away feeling that a professional’s knowledge of the craft of a given medium isn’t as important as simply having a clear vision of what one wants to accomplish; once an artist has this in mind, it’s just a matter of getting it done. “I always find my way”, Zhu said in a slow deliberate English that underscored his point. This was the second time I’ve heard a filmmaker say that seeing movies isn’t important in order to make good movies (Bruno Dumont was the first). It takes a pretty confident person to make this kind of assertion – and Zhu’s confidence is apparent in both films he’s made, in how they make sudden, radical shifts in their narratives and still manage to feel natural and organic.
– Kevin Lee
* * *
Kevin Lee: Let’s start by talking about you and how you got to be a filmmaker, because I think the path you took to filmmaking is an unusual one, especially in China.
Zhu Wen: I worked in a factory for five years as an engineer. You know in Chinese, “movies” is translated as “electric shadow”. Someone asked me why do you make films if you’re an engineer. My answer to him was that my major in Chinese was “electricity” and films are “electric shadows” so obviously there’s a connection.
KL: Did you find it difficult making this transition?
ZW: You can study it by yourself. For the first film, perhaps it was a little difficult. But I think now after two films, I am a professional filmmaker. Filmmaking as a technique is easy. Talent is the hard part. One part, the technique, I can understand. The other part I can’t understand, because it’s me. When I was a child I liked to write things. When I graduated from university I made the decision to write.
KL: How did you get published?
ZW: One of my friends saw my stories and wanted to publish them.
KL: Are any of your writings translated into English?
ZW: Some of my novellas and stories have been translated into English but currently none of them are published in English translation.
KL: So for those who are familiar with your stories, how would you compare them with your films?
ZW: No matter whether it’s a film or a novel, I think you can tell it’s the same style. When I finished my sixth book I thought that I wanted to find a way to improve but I felt I could not. I felt like trying filmmaking, so I did. And suddenly, everything is interesting, everything is new, and you are excited again. You have passion again.
KL: But what were the steps that you took?
ZW: It’s easy, really. Once I decided, I told a friend that I wanted to make a film. My friend really enjoyed my novels so he lent me support. It’s that simple. I had written a couple of scripts for two directors. Rainclouds over Wushan Mountain (also known as In Expectation), directed by Zhang Ming, and Seventeen Years, directed by Zhang Yuan. So I had some knowledge of film through these experiences. And there were friends I knew through Beijing theatre companies. The people who helped me make Seafood, a lot of them were my friends.
KL: The cinematography of Seafood is extremely different from South of the Clouds.
ZW: I think it’s because the stories are very different. I have to decide what style is appropriate to the film. But you know, the first scene [in Seafood] was shot by me. It was my first time to ever touch a movie camera. I didn’t know how to control it. And I shot it. We saw it in play back, and the cameraman said he couldn’t shoot it like this if he tried, but the style and that rhythm was completely natural. So I kept it. So I did the first shot in my first film.
KL: Are there any directors who particularly influenced you?
ZW: Many directors gave me an influence. Before I made films, when I watched films, I didn’t think about the director. But after I started, it became something I thought about. But there are no directors who had a real influence on me.
KL: What about among Chinese directors?
ZW: “Bu cuo ye bu hao”. Not bad, but not great. I think many directors are successful, but they are still not good directors.
KL: What do you mean by this, “successful” vs “good”?
ZW: “Bu tong de biao zhun”. It’s just a different standard. When you watch a movie, you don’t care which prize it gets. A movie is just a movie. If you feel it, just look at it, then maybe, you might think it is not good enough.
KL: I’m still not sure what you mean by this.
ZW: In Chinese film, give me an example.
ZW: Jia Zhangke is my friend. I think his films are the best. I think his first film, Xiao Wu  was his best film. I think Platform is good, but not as good as Xiao Wu.
KL: Can you explain why?
ZW: Xiao Wu is very natural, and has many new things that were never before seen in Chinese film. It was a new experience. Platform to me seems to repeat some things in Xiao Wu. And also I think with Platform, Jia Zhangke wanted to tell the story of our generation. But I think we are still young, after only ten years, I don’t think one can make such a film that says everything about our lives.
KL: Do you think you would want to make an epic?
ZW: I’m not interested in this. I don’t want to make it important or large. I’m more interested in small things, intimate things. A small film is enough if it’s good, if it’s pure.
KL: What do you think of the Fifth Generation of filmmakers?
ZW: I have no real interest in them. Jia Zhangke and other filmmakers, perhaps they are more interested in them, because they trained to be filmmakers. I am occasionally interested. But for me, I am someone who happened to be a filmmaker, it was an “accident”. Perhaps one way to say it is that filmmaking itself is simply not important to me. I only want to express myself, whether it’s film or fiction or poetry.
KL: I think with Seafood you expressed yourself quite differently from any other Chinese filmmaker. Because of some of the things you showed in the movie, like rape, the murder of a police official, and prostitution. Were you afraid of the consequences?
ZW: I don’t care. When I was a writer I didn’t care if people would criticise or censor my work. I would just do it.
KL: So you had no expectations from an audience?
ZW: I do care about the audience. But ultimately I don’t think their reaction is anything I can control. I can only express myself honestly. Perhaps in some ways it’s better if you don’t care.
KL: I think the idea of freedom is very strong in both your films. And this idea of the lead characters in both films, how they both must go away from their home in search of freedom.
ZW: Just like me in my real life. I like to travel because when you travel you can get some fresh ideas and renew your imagination. Just like when you’re a child and discover something new.
KL: So you think in regular life you cannot find this kind of freedom?
ZW: Never. I know how to live a regular life. I know how to be a useful man, an honest man. But I think this cannot be enough. It’s boring, it’s unfulfilling. That’s why I think art is important, why it’s necessary.
KL: When you worked with the actors, what was your approach?
ZW: I don’t know, I just did it. I can control it. I think it’s just like in real life. Like with this interview, if I want you to understand something, I’ll do what it takes. I think it’s quite simple, and is not a professional matter. It’s just like life. You just try to make people understand you.
KL: The ending of Seafood is very…
ZW: Sudden. It’s a joke. It’s to let people know that I’m a new hand. I’m not a master. I treat it as a joke. I think the film gets a bit heavy towards the end, so I wanted to do something to change the feeling. It’s not my job to tell people how heavy our lives are. That’s silly. I think it’s more important to keep things interesting, to give people something new. People think it’s about just telling the truth. Jia Zhangke, I think his films have a lot of truth, but I think maybe this is like a documentary, not a fiction, not a film. Perhaps with art, we expect more than truth.
KL: So how did you feel after Seafood was finished?
ZW: After Seafood, I got a strange feeling, because the film couldn’t be seen in China. Perhaps I could get prizes and flowers from the West, but for me, a man who is 35 years old, I can’t do that again. It felt like nonsense. So I wanted to make something that I could show to my parents and my friends in China.
KL: Did you feel you have to compromise your vision in order to make a film that could be seen in China?
ZW: No, not at all. I think sometimes you have to work within limits. You have to push against something to make something new and interesting.
KL: What kind of production company is China Film Assist, who produced South of the Clouds?
ZW: It is one of the first independent film companies in China. This is their first feature.
KL: Did you work with them because they would help you with potential difficulties with the government?
ZW: We didn’t have any difficulties with censorship because we did everything according to the rules. The production codes dictate what to do and what not to do, so you work with them as best you can.
KL: The police in the film are not presented in a positive way; their treatment of the main character is cruel and oppressive, though not in a brutal way. Concerning the depiction of the police here, is there a potential for running into any difficulty with the authorities by having this scene in the film?
ZW: Perhaps in the production. Real police uniforms are not allowed in Chinese films. So in the film the police characters don’t wear a real police form, it’s a security guard uniform, or “civilian volunteer militia”. It’s okay to use those uniforms.
KL: How did the idea for this film come about?
ZW: I visited Yunnan province [the setting of the film] many years ago. I was astonished by the beauty of it. And I also wanted to make a film about my parents and their generation, and dedicate it to them. I didn’t feel I understood them. Before I was a filmmaker, I was a writer. All six of my novels are in the first person. But in my films, they are people who I don’t think I am immediately close to. In Seafood the lead character is a prostitute, in South of the Clouds the character is an old retiree.
KL: Since you wrote the story and the characters are yours, did you put your own emotions and perspectives into it?
ZW: I’m more objective. Though sometimes it’s hard to separate myself from the story.
KL: How so specifically?
ZW: Sometimes you think you’re the person you are writing about.
KL: Why did you end the scene/movie on Xu Daqin’s face? Why did you not go on and continue with the story?
ZW: It was a particularly interesting moment to end. I felt it was appropriate. I wanted to freeze it so it will stay in time, into a picture. A teary smile is the quintessential Chinese parent, Chinese person, Chinese father, especially from that generation.
KL: Why do you have this perspective? It seems sentimental, which I don’t think of you as being.
ZW: Concerning Chinese society, I’m more of a pessimist, but that doesn’t mean I won’t do my best to change society’s problems. But in this scene, it’s very natural. It’s like how you express your feelings toward your parents. Like how you express to other people. Like how all people express themselves. It’s just a way of communication. You say what you feel.
KL: Perhaps you’re using a younger generation’s perspective to view the older generation. You also had just said you want to overcome emotions so you chose to not be judgmental.
ZW; No, I think all artwork is judgmental. It contains an element of judging the way things are done in the world. But because it all contains such an element, there isn’t a reason to emphasise it anymore. Concerning the younger generation, I don’t really make a distinction between the older generation and the younger generation. I think it’s a never-ending chain or circle.
KL: The main actor, Li Xuejian, tell us something about him.
ZW: He’s a very famous film star in China. He always plays the role of the very simple Chinese man, so he’s very loved in China. He’s known for playing a working class everyman type of character. Sadly, a few years ago he suffered a heart attack and retired from the entertainment business. But one day I heard he had recovered and was planning to resume his career, and right then I knew that he would be wonderful as my lead, because of his recent hardships.
KL: Can you say something about the northern city where the first half of the film is set?
ZW: The film plays in a mid-sized northern city, but it has no name.
KL: And how about the beautiful place where Daqin travels? Does this place really exist, and do the Moshu people really exist in this kind of place? You film it as if it was a fantasy.
ZW: This area for many years was not developed, and at that time I got to visit it. Now it is very well known but I still visit it often. One thing about this area is that it is a matriarchal society. In North China, or in other parts of China, it’s patriarchal. But in this matriarchal society it is better.
KL: The male character is weak and everyone else is strong.
ZW: When men reach that age they are very pitiful.
KL: It seems to me that in the film, whenever Xu Daqin tries to do something good, he is punished. But when he decides to do things his own way, those are the moments in the film when he is happy. It struck me that in this world, the selfish get what they want and the selfless are victimised.
ZW: I think that reading is too simple. I think that people will go through happiness and sadness regardless of whether they are selfish or selfless. Everyone must go on their own path.
KL: My impression of your work is that you want to keep changing things in order to make things new and interesting. This is true of your career, and I think it’s true of your films. Seafood and South of the Clouds are very different from each other, and even within each of them there are radical shifts in the story. You said with South of the Clouds you wanted to do everything you didn’t do in Seafood. What do you think you want to do differently from South of the Clouds?
ZW: I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll become a painter.