Before Shooting
December 2005

An imaginary landscape as the main character – that’s what I want to present in this film.
And then I need a man, or a man’s voice rather than my own voice, to take us into this imaginary landscape, where the audience can paint their own imaginary reality.

I want to set this imaginary landscape in a village on the border between China and Russia, a place Chinese schoolchildren know of, called Mo He. Mo He is in the mythical northernmost point of China, where one can see beautiful northern lights – that’s what is written in our school textbooks. 

I want to introduce this place in an unusual way: to look at it through this man - my scriptwriter friend Rao Hui. He is a writer who really writes, a writer who has an uneventful writer’s life, because he only writes but doesn’t live. He has been stuck in his flat since the day he came to Beijing, and he has spent his days and nights creating stories set in remote places he has never been to. Following his imagination, the narrative of the film will twist and turn and reshape itself constantly, as the scriptwriter changes his ideas about the places and problems of his characters.

Let’s come back to the imaginary landscape. Ever since Rao Hui and I were students at the Beijing Film Academy, he has always kept talking about specific places he’s been reading about in his favourite novels. For example, Patrick Modiano’s book Dimanches d’Aout is set in Nice in France. Because he loves that novel so much, he dreams of spending his life in that French town, so remote from Beijing, and he is prepared to work very hard and save money so he’ll be able to sunbathe on the beach of Nice when he grows old. Will that day ever come?


During the Shoot
January 2006

“The house has been ruined by all of your camera stuff!” Rao Hui protests, standing in the middle of his once cosy living room. 

We’ve been living with Rao Hui since the first day our small film crew arrived in Beijing, on Christmas day 2005. It was freezing cold, minus 10°C, and snow was threatening to fall from the heavy clouds. We have been holed up in his flat with the heater on twenty-four hours a day. In Rao’s fish tank the fish are dying, week in and week out.

Rao Hui has written many different versions of the script in Chinese, though each one has only been a few pages long, while I wrote my English version when I was in London. Of course Rao Hui didn’t bother reading it. Why should a Chinese writer read an English script for a film set in China? That’s only for western producers. We were flooded by so many ideas. At one point, I even thought we could just eat delicious hot pot and make our whole 90 minutes film by taking still pictures and editing them together. We could be Chris Marker too.

We were changing our script every night – mainly because we were already weary with the story we had invented the day before, and also, we didn’t have any money to shoot fiction scenes. Our very patient and happy Swiss soundman was sitting on the sofa and starting to worry that the final film might be about two writers discussing how to write a film, so he started recording each of our conversations, even in the middle of the night, without understanding a word of Chinese. He heard us talking about Trans-Europ-Express by Robbe-Grillet. But eventually he got bored too, gave up recording, and began to study Chinese instead. 

And then, our cameraman would arrive every morning, after having been stuck for two hours in the notorious Beijing traffic. His first question when entering the door would always be: “What are we shooting today, fiction or documentary?” After reading a page of the story I had written the previous night, he’d get upset: “But this is totally different from what you gave me yesterday. Where is our continuity girl? I need a continuity girl!” We didn’t have a continuity girl. We had only one actor. So the cameraman himself had to play a role while his camera was running, and our producer had to play a bad guy too, and then I put on a red coat I had found in the market and I played a role too. Only the Swiss soundman didn’t need to perform a double job, since there was no way he could look like a Chinese.


After shooting
June 2006

Returning to Europe, my Italian editor was very troubled with the footage. He went on a course to study Chinese and tried to understand the famous eastern logic. 

It took us months of West-East philosophical discussions to come to an agreement that the film’s structure was made of three storylines:

A: a fictional story that the scriptwriter Rao Hui is working on - a criminal flees from southern China all the way to the northern border. 

B: the scriptwriter’s isolated reality in Beijing. 

C: the Russo-Chinese border village of Mo He where the writer meets his character.

Before the film got locked, my editor dropped his Chinese class. It was too much for him to be bombarded by weird Chinese logic in his working hours as well as in his spare time. Then one day, when Rao Hui eventually obtained a visa and flew to London for the first time, we three sat down and ate rice together, and we came to be more clear about the language of the film - it would start and end in landscapes; urban scenery contrasting with village images; inner landscape conflicting with social landscape; we should see a scriptwriter’s inner world drowned and reshaped by the randomness and accidents of reality. 

With the way our film is now, people always think the filmmaker’s intention was to mix documentary and fiction in a film as an exercise in style, but that is not true. What we really believe is that there’s no difference between these two languages. We didn’t really weave these two realities with a specific method, we let the situation decide for us, because that’s what the nature of life teaches us – we live in a subjective reality and it’s not possible to define what is reality and what is fiction. We live in our dreams, and everything is Belle de Jour, everything is about fantasy invading reality, or reality breaking into fantasy.


Guo Xiaolu 2006
Beijing and London




  © Xiaolu Guo