THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
Guo Xiaolu has defied the poverty and obscurity of her youth in rural China to deliver a breathless string of novels and documentaries beloved by the European art house circuit. In Pusan she presents her first scripted feature “She A Chinese” and her latest documentary “Once Upon A Time Proletarian.” The self professed “village punk” talks to Patrick Frater.
Why and how did you become a filmmaker?
Guo Xiaolu: There are two reasons. One is romantic and one intellectual. I wanted to tell stories through cinema. As a teenager you see these Soviet films or propaganda films and think how wonderful it would be to tell stories like that. Then I went to the Beijing Film Academy and somehow managed to stay for 9 years, going from undergraduate to teacher. So, I was trained as a filmmaker and an intellectual. I actually avoided making film for a long time. I started as a poet at 13 or 14 and had them published regularly. And I’d completed a novel before I went to film school. I was worried about financing and producing films, so I kept putting it off. Eventually I had to.
To get in to the Beijing Academy is not something you do lightly, however.
Guo: I’m a highly competitive Chinese village person. I often describe myself as a “village punk.” Very straight, very strong, but also full of anger and things to tell. I tried for three years to get into school and failed the exams. The three-year journey from the provinces to Beijing, trying to get education was a very big thing for me. I was alone, aged 17 or 18. I remember a three-day train journey and stayed in Beijing in the basement of a hotel paying RMB8 ($1.20) a night. Some of this I put into my novel “Twenty Fragments of Ravenous Youth” about a teenager who came to Beijing with the ambition to become a movie extra.
Did you always want to communicate?
Guo: I guess I had a mute childhood. I was suppressed. My father was caught up in the Cultural Revolution and in a prison camp. For more than 15 years. I had never seen my parents while I was growing up. They sent me to my grandparents who were real peasants, made a living from fishing and couldn’t write their names. It was an extreme non-cultural life, without communication and love. My books talk about love and the lack of it, yearning and solitude. Loneliness is a big theme in “She A Chinese” and “How is Your Fish Today?”
Where is home for you these days?
Guo: I left China six years ago and live now in Europe between the U.K., France and Germany. Because of the work. I went to London for the National Film School. I went to Paris because of the (Cannes festival’s) Residence program and now am in Germany because of my film production company. There is no physical home for me. I keep an apartment in Beijing where my books are gathering dust. I spend a lot of time on airplanes and home is a nice table or a good bed. The man I feel love for is my home. So too is my work – I feel truly at home with myself when I’m writing novels and making films. That may be solitude but it is not the same as my childhood which was truly lonely. I’d like to settle down. But it is not a one-person thing. My life is spent chasing after new passions and new adventures. Now I’m 35, but have gone back to being a teenager and my lost youth. I’ve still got punk energy and inspiration. Maybe in a few years I’ll slow down.
Can you easily flip between documentaries and fiction film?
Guo: A lot of people start with documentaries. They buy a camera, film their parents, then their family problems before broadening to more political and social issues. My first “Country Revolution” is a feature length film with a Chris Marker-like, French New Wave style and an author’s voice. It is about poor peasant workers who come to Beijing to construct the roads and infrastructure for the Olympics. That had a political passion and a personal voiceover. It won some prizes and then got distribution in France. That encouraged me that I could combine a personal, feminine voice with a big political context. After that with “How Is Your Fish Today?” I shot it as a documentary about a Beijing writer thinking of his character like a fugitive in the north of the country. It was invited to Sundance in 2006 where it was programmed as fiction. Then it won a prize in Rotterdam as a fiction film and another in Creteil. After that I got a phone call from my documentary producer, saying “Hey! This is bad for our reputation as documentary company.” For me this is wonderful. I can play with storytelling. I’m a writer, a novelist. It is just a story either way.
What are the two films in Pusan?
Guo: “She A Chinese” is my first real film, with actors and actually scripted. Before that I’d try and avoid the sheer boredom of working on a script for ages. Then working with the U.K. Film Council and Channel 4, they think of script before and above everything. The journey of the girl from the village to the big city then is quite tightly woven as she discovers what is the meaning of freedom, youth, love and free love. Accidentally, her desire takes her even further, to England and London where she discovers a foreign culture with her body. It is a kind of wanderlust from a small remote place. I was trying to get rid of this traditional Chinese definition of what a peasant is. Youth just wants to be a youth, irrespective of nationality. The title comes from her Communist, agricultural environment. After that she tries to get rid of this shadow. There is a problem today. Youth in China today wants to have its youth and be able to say “I can have an IPod, listen to the Sex Pistols, or I can be gay, fuck around without getting married,” and wants this youth without restriction. Of course, the clash of that is violent, physically and emotionally, and follows you all your life.
And the documentary “Once Upon A Time Proletarian”?
Guo: It is quite dark and like the companion piece to “She A Chinese.” I love to work and made it during the weekend while I was making “She A Chinese.” Much of it is without sound as I forgot to turn on the microphone.
Nine years in film school and you forget to turn on the mike?
Guo: Yeah, I spent too much time in school reading Marguerite Duras novels. It has 12 chapters and each unfolds a social class or one character who each present a facet of China.
So this was an “underground” film.
Guo: Of course it was. I had an idea to make it as a film essay or a poem, more than a classical documentary with just one character. All Chinese docs are like that. I wanted to make one with different, even contradictory, voices. For instance, I have a chapter about two millionaires, they are really tacky. That is a mirror of the chapter on factory workers who lost their jobs. I wanted to do a film where people speak in their own voices, and without commentary. Between the chapters are black and white scenes of little children reading funny tales about China. It is more poetic and takes people out from the film.
You criticize, you make underground films. What are your political relations with China these days? Are you discouraged by people in power?
Guo: Underground is the wrong word. In China today you are only official if you make propaganda films or if you are Feng Xiaogang or Zhang Yimou making blockbusters. We have 3,000 independent filmmakers making good and not so good films. But in China we don’t have an independent art house distribution network even for films that have passed censorship. “She A Chinese” could be fine, there is no explicit sex scene, it could have a release. But distributors tell me it is not commercial. It is not a question of political censorship, rather my film doesn’t have a star.
Is it important for you to have your films released in China?
Guo: I’d like it. But it doesn’t upset me if they are not. I feel happy if my films go to festivals and onto the educational circuit. I’ll be taking the film to New York and UCLA to do lectures. Often my films show in film museums. They achieve their place because of their special intellectual quality, I guess. “She A Chinese” now has six country distribution.
The Hollywood Reporter, Wednesday, October 14, 2009
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