Part of
'PJ Harvey and John Parish take over the Guardian'
30 March 2009

John Parish says: 'Having scored Xiaolu Guo's new film, She, A Chinese, I thought it would be great to have her involved in our takeover.' With this in mind, we asked the Guide's film buff Steve Rose to interview her




Steve Rose: You came to Britain in 2002, and seem to have used your first impressions of the country in the voices of many of your protagonists. Now that you are better acquainted with the UK, how have those impressions changed?

Xiaolu Guo: Rather than say those impressions have changed, I would say those first surprises just become a part of daily life. Now, they are embedded into my reality. Nothing is more shocking than the things that happen in my own country, but then, everything is surprising as long as I am living and dealing with life.

SR: Most people expect Chinese artists to be preoccupied with cultural identity but you seem to be saying something different about those issues, particularly in your latest film, She, A Chinese.

XG: As this world becomes smaller, culture, information and lifestyles have become increasingly mixed. So I think that a person's relationship with society is more about how an individual deals with this mixed and chaotic world. One cannot live in his own land and remain isolated. I don't believe that isolation will do any good. She, A Chinese is a film about the concept of leaving and longing. The more you look out and look forward, the stronger you will survive.

SR: How did you come to work with John Parish? And how did you get backing from the UK Film Council and Film 4?

XG: I listened to a lot of PJ Harvey songs when I was writing the script for She, A Chinese, especially a song called Desperate Kingdom of Love. I wrote the film ending with that song in mind. Later I learned John Parish had been working with PJ Harvey, so we asked him to be our composer. He did a great job.

SR: Do you find British and Chinese audiences react differently to your work?

XG: Of course, since they look at things with their own understanding of the cultural background. But I can't write my novels or make my films with other people in mind – I need to make them for myself.

SR: When people think of art in China, they also immediately think, of censorship, but you have spoken about commercial censorship, not just political – is either one of them still a problem for you?

XG: Yes, they both bother me. They can stop good work being published. I think commercial censorship is more dangerous for an artist, because that is the strongest power that capitalism has – the whole market functions because of the commercial value. So for good art, which has a necessity to be produced in the market, there is an unavoidable difficulty if the work is does not have commercial value.

SR: You studied at the Beijing Film Academy, which has produced China's most internationally recognised film-makers sich as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, but your work seems nothing like theirs. How was your time there? How does the British approach to film-making differ?

XG: Well, I tried my best to avoid film-making because I was scared of all the cables – and financing. Anyway, the film-makers I respect are the first generation who brought Chinese cinema to international attention. But in China that generation means everything. They were born in the 1950s, or even earlier, and came from a communist background with state film studios. They worked with 35mm cameras. I was born in 1970s and had western influences, so I started making documentary films using a small DV camera. I didn't use actors or sets, everything was an individual and independent action. Lack of money also meant my films suffered from difficult distribution. Therefore, my view is different from that generation, as I am not interested in old topics with heavy historical shadows and I am not interested in costume dramas. I am more interested in exploring the dilemmas of modern life, such as isolation and loneliness when the world changes around you, and confusion towards love and longings. I think these themes are universal. Going to a UK film school hasn't changed my view.

SR: Not many people achieve recognition in one artform, but you've achieved it in several – how did you do it? Did you always plan to be such a polymath?

XG: I didn't plan that, and I don't feel I'm that recognised. When I was young I wrote poems – not because I wanted to be a writer, but in order to kill time. I was very lonely in my small boring town, so writing is a way to avoid the pale reality. After that, I wanted to go to Beijing to study art, so almost randomly I chose film school. There I realised I had to make films, as cinema is such a seductive artform.

SR: Your latest book, UFO In Her Eyes, addresses China's rural/urban transition and its recent history – are you going back to your roots?

XG: I am glad that I managed to write this novel. Roots is a good
word. I am interested in exploring a rooted emotion that people lose when they re-plant themselves on another land. They drink water that tastes differently and suck soil that contains different elements. That is a profound feeling for a peasant culture. I am from a peasant background and I will always write about that feeling.

SR: Writing or film-making – which do you find easier?

XG: Nothing is easy, I guess.

SR: Which film-makers, writers and artists do you admire?

XG: Many, and they change over time, but some are always important to me, such as Kafka, Kundera, Celine, Mikhail Bulgakov (I wrote UFO In Her Eyes while reading him). I will always love Boris Vian, a French writer and musician. Film-makers like Godard, Fassbinder and 50s, 60s and 70s film-makers who work with passion and innocence, which I don't think many contemporary film-maker have.

SR: Are you happy to be described as an outsider?

XG: I am not happy with any title.

SR: Where do you spend most of your time? And where would you like to be?

XG: Paris, London and China.

SR: Is life getting better?

XG: This is the most difficult question. Let me think.




The Guardian, 30 March 2009



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