HOW IS YOUR FISH TODAY ?
An imaginary landscape as the main character – that’s what I want to do with this film.
I want to set this imaginary landscape in a village between China and Russia, a place all Chinese schoolchildren know of, called Mo He: the mythical northernmost point of China, where one can see beautiful northern lights – that’s what is written in our school textbook.
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 a poor 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 never went to. Following his imagination, the narrative of the film will twist and be reshaped all the time. The story will move, take different turns each time the scriptwriter changes his idea about the places and characters.
Come back to imaginary landscape. Ever since I’ve known Rao Hui, when we were students at the Beijing Film Academy, he always keeps 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 to spend his life in that place so remote from his own, and he is prepared to work hard and save money so he’ll be able to sunbathe on the beach of Nice when he grows old.
During the Shoot
“The room looks so shit with all of your camera stuff!” Rao Hui, standing in the middle of his cosy living room, is complaining to me.
We’ve been living with Rao Hui since the first day we arrived in Beijing, on Christmas day 2005. It was freezing cold, minus 10°Ê, and snow hung in the dusty clouds waiting to fall. We kept hiding in his flat with the heater 24 hours a day. In Rao’s fish tank the fish would die, week after week.
Rao Hui had many different versions of the Chinese script, but each one was only a few pages long, while I wrote my English script when I was in London. Of course Rao Hui didn’t bother reading it. Why should a Chinese 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 just taking still pictures and edit them together.
We were changing our script every night – mainly because we were already bored with the story we had invented the day before, and also, we didn’t have any money to make fiction scenes. Our very patient and happy Swiss soundman was sitting on the sofa and started 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. 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 be: “What are we shooting today, fiction or documentary?” After reading a page of the story me and Rao Hui 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 on 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.
My Italian editor was very troubled with the footage. He went on a course to study Chinese and tried to understand the famous eastern logics.
It took us months of West-East philosophical discussions to come to the agreement that the film’s structure was made of three storylines:
Before the film got locked, my editor dropped his Chinese class. It was too much for him to be bombarded by weird Chinese logics in his working time as well as 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.
The way our film is now, people always think the filmmaker’s intention was to mix documentary and fiction in a film as a form, but that is not true. What we (at least me and Rao Hui) really believe is, 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
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