By Boris Nelepo and Celluloid Liberation Front 9/22/2014: We were saddened to hear of Peter von Bagh’s death on September 17, 2014. In Citizen Peter, More →
If Chinese filmmaker, poet, and novelist Li Hongqi’s two previous films, So Much Rice (2005) and Routine Holiday (2008), did yet not place him alongside the much less funny Michael Haneke among the top figures of misanthropic cinema, then his third and most accomplished feature, Winter Vacation, has guaranteed his membership for life. And the hearty string of awards and recognition the film has been receiving since its premiere this August at Locarno—from a Golden Leopard to the Red Chameleon Award at the fourth Cinema Digital Seoul Festival—now positions Li at the forefront of independent Chinese cinema. Not bad for a young man from the northern countryside who came to Beijing to study painting at China’s Central Academy for Fine Arts.
Among Li’s creative projects, though, his writing first garnered attention: he has published an acclaimed poetry anthology titled Cure and two novels, Lucky Fellow (2003) and Smells Like Teen Spirit (2004). Yet from an early age Li was drawn to cinema, and in 2005 made So Much Rice. Shot on the dusty outskirts of Beijing—predominately in the artist village of Songzhuang where Li and thousands of other artists find cheap rent and space to create—Li’s debut begins with a prologue, adapted from one of his poems, about the night Mr. Mao played hide and seek with his girlfriend but suddenly ended the game by walking out to start a new life. The taciturn Mr. Mao then turns up at the home of his friend Xiao He (played by filmmaker Zhang Yaodong), an indolent police officer in search of a woman’s company. Through the help of a dating service Xiao He brings Xiao Zheng home and introduces her to Mr. Mao. As the threesome inaugurate their short-lived co-residence over a solemn meal of steamed buns, Mr. Mao mutters, in the classic gloom of Li’s vision, “Eating and eating everyday, it seems like a trap.”
Inevitably conflict arises, though the exact details remain unclear, and Xiao He calls Xiao Zheng a loafer, kicking her out of his apartment. In reaction to Xiao He’s abusive outburst, Mr. Mao knocks him unconscious but then nurses his friend back to health. The beating was for Xiao He’s “own good,” they conclude. Xiao Zheng eventually returns to their doorstep with a large bag of rice to cover the expense of housing and feeding her. She lodges with Mr. Mao for a few days before he decides to continue searching for a place where he can find himself “a stranger.” At Xiao Zheng’s request, Mr. Mao promises to take the rice with him, but eventually leaves it hidden inside a concrete sewer pipe. Shot in black-and-white video—except for Mr. Mao’s nightmare sequence that appears in colour—So Much Rice lays the groundwork of Li’s signature style: minimalist aesthetics, black comedy, stilted dialogue, bed-ridden humans, senseless slapping of faces, and soundtracks by the musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou, whose eclectic range of compositions have also been featured in films by Jia Zhangke and artist Ai Weiwei.
In his follow-up, Routine Holiday, Li hones these core elements of his miserablist cinema. Again, the plot is skeletal. It’s China’s national holiday. A man and his impassive son, who carries a plastic pail filled with unseen squawking creatures, travel to the barren grasslands so the father can point out a “F-I-E-L-D.” On the bus ride back, they bump into an old friend, Tuo Ga, and accept his offer to come over for a visit. While they are there on “vacation,” several other lonely visitors also drop by Tuo Ga’s drab living room, including Beijing experimental musician Xiao He, playing a lovelorn man. Through the starts and stops of these characters’ unsuccessful attempts at exchange, Li delves deeper into his arresting combination of philosophically morbid pronouncements dispatched with deadpan precision. Echoing the suspicion of food consumption in So Much Rice proclaimed by Mr. Mao (to whom several characters refer but who never actually appears onscreen), Xiao He says, “I feel sick absorbing nutrition since childhood. Don’t you feel sick of endlessly absorbing nutrition from other lives?”
Filming in gorgeous 35mm, Li assembles a pastiche of challenging scenes that accrete towards a bizarre and suffocating atmosphere of disconnection and malaise. This stands in striking contrast with the grand-scale celebration associated with the week of China’s “National Holiday”—the film’s original English title before government censors stepped in. A literal translation of the film’s Chinese title Huang Jin Zhou is “Golden Week,” the holiday’s other government-sponsored name that underscores the push for citizens to bolster domestic consumption by engaging in increased commerce and tourism. In Li’s treatment of this national week, nothing is celebrated and very little is consumed except for a preserved chicken in a bag which has been brought as a gift. Pondering the chicken’s pathetic condition, Xiao He says, “If this chicken had known one day he would be like this, his heart would be broken.” Drawing from the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, Tuo Ga responds: “You are not a chicken, how can you know its thoughts?”
In Winter Vacation, Li turns another national holiday on its head and reveals an absurd, Kafka-esque world full of bullying and boredom, devoid of any warmth, human understanding, or meaningful purpose. With the concentrated power of late Beckett, the film very slowly unfolds against the wintery backdrop of a dull town in Inner Mongolia during Spring Festival—a two-week holiday so important for Chinese families that migrant workers go to great lengths to cross the country to be with loved ones. Winter Vacation gives us the opposite of a tender family gathering: a parent is disregarded because he “hasn’t taken his medicine” and two others apply for divorce with perfunctory ease; a group of teenage boys loiter in the snow, ruminating on the ways of teenage love and stupidity, and curse one another for want of something to do while school is out; and in a living room where none other than Routine Holiday plays on TV, a young boy and his grandfather carry out a protracted battle which gives rise to the grandson’s dream of being an orphan when he grows up. Operating under the pseudonym Qin Yurui, Li shot the film himself, and his rigorous widescreen HD cinematography transfigures the cold characterless exteriors into mesmerizing if forlorn tableaux and, in his treatment of interior space, reflects a pervading sense of emotional deprivation and existential hollowness. With a masterful mix of philosophical pessimism and dark humour, all delivered by local non-professional actors, Winter Vacation responds to the failures of human interaction with a kind of laughter that disturbs rather than uplifts.
The resumption of school marks the film’s end, and the point where Li’s despondent view of human civilization reaches not only its peak but also its most direct expression. The listless youths are all at their desks while the teacher (who still hasn’t taken his medicine) begins a science lesson. He suddenly abandons the lesson and launches into a diatribe against the fundamental ignorance and self-absorption of humankind and the utter futility of any notion of progress. His scathing critique of humanity is undercut, however, when another teacher enters the room and instructs him: “Teacher Wu, you are in the wrong classroom.” The wooden students are then subjected to their daily English lesson. As the teacher writes out on the blackboard the loaded topic, “How to be a useful person for society,” an abrasive, percussive track by a screaming Zuoxiao Zuzhou explodes over the image of the seated students. The end.
Cinema Scope: How does it feel to have received such overwhelmingly positive feedback for Winter Vacation?
Li Hongxi: I am a little surprised. The number of people who like my films has always been very, very small. The approval is like a kind of compensation. Whether here in China or abroad, I have already accepted that I will always be working on the margins. I don’t really carry a hope to find my audience. I just keep doing what I feel I have to do.
Scope: In your films, the possibility for human communication seems bleak and there are often misunderstandings, as if there is no hope of anyone ever genuinely connecting with anyone else. But, at the same time, you also seem to admit of nascent slivers of hope, such as in the scene in Winter Vacation when the young boy proposes to the little girl that they both run away from home and be orphans together.
Li: Right. This is more or less what I want to express. But this hope is not meant to make people feel somehow lighter, somehow relieved. The young boy’s idea seems like hope, but it actually leads to an even more painful situation. It looks like a ray of light, but when you stare at it, you realize it’s just like a black hole. The little boy urges the little girl to go with him because they have feelings for each other. Misunderstandings between them have yet to arise, but sooner or later they definitely will. What’s more, the wish that the little boy carries is unrealistic and impossible. In the film, the things that the adults and youths do, and do to each other, depict a world with neither reason nor communication, and the little boy has yet to experience what this world is like. His wish is so important for him, but for the rest of the world it’s absolutely worthless. So, you see, this wish, this hope, isn’t the kind found in normal movies offering people an escape. This scene shows the darkness of the world, and this wish is a darkness darker than the darkness of the world.
But my intention is not to make everyone sink into a state of despair. If people are still unwilling or unable to open their eyes and see their true condition, then all their so-called optimism and hope is more terrifying than desperation. Only when you have the ability to confront your true condition in this world, then perhaps you can know that what you’re doing is correct. Or maybe it’s better to say that it’s only when you know which direction is wrong that you can begin to at least know the opposite, and only in that opposite direction can correct understanding emerge. But when people tell me this or that way is correct, then I get very suspicious. Since the beginning of humanity, countless people have told others the right thing to do, and yet our world is more and more hopeless, people are more and more hopeless, and relations between people are more and more hopeless. Everyone is just looking for an easy way to waste one another’s time, to waste one’s own time, and continually search for more and more excuses.
Scope: When I watch your films, especially Winter Vacation, there are many occasions when I find myself laughing. But you say that the humour is not an escape.
Li: You can’t do anything about humour…it’s unavoidable. If I’m still using humour in my films in the future, then that will mean it’s only gotten more unavoidable. I don’t use humour to bring a bit of happiness into the lives of others. My humour is because I am deeply depressed. I don’t think there is anything in this world to make people laugh; it is completely immersed in pessimism and desperation, and nothing seems to be of any use. In this kind of condition, humour is the form I feel compelled to work with.
Scope: And at Locarno you said you hope your humour does not make the audience feel more comfortable but rather uneasy.
Li: Right. Normally, when people accept something as humorous, their reaction is to laugh. I laugh too. I am not always hanging around with a long face and feeling awful all day. So, in the process of watching the films the audience does indeed laugh. They may want to stop themselves but can’t. So when something funny happens, their natural reaction is to laugh, and that’s actually something that I want, too. If they didn’t laugh I would think I had failed. But my hope is that, after they have finished laughing and the film has ended, they feel uneasy about all the times they have laughed. In the end, I take away all the objects of ridicule for the audience and they can only face their own feelings, face themselves as individuals. I have no idea how people will actually look at their lives and examine themselves after seeing the film, but I want to be able to express this through filmmaking.
Scope: Many viewers have pointed out your film’s unique treatment of architectural space and the built environment. Do you place a lot of importance on architecture, interiors, and the atmosphere of place?
Li: What is an image constructed of? Besides people, it is composed of interiors and architecture, and so it’s a matter of arranging humans within their interiors and their architectural spaces. Natural landscapes are so rare these days, and it seems as though this world is already devoid of natural things. I don’t try to depict such scenery, and I think for me to do so would seem somehow disingenuous. So I definitely spend a lot of time and energy considering questions related to architecture: what kind of architecture and from what angle? Does this architecture in the frame fit with what I want? Does it work with the rest of the story? If it doesn’t, what adjustments do I need to make? Actually I’m not very interested in architecture in and of itself: it is a material fact, and in filming I have to confront it. When I film a particular space, I have to consider its function and its appropriateness within the scene and the entire film. It can’t be too distinct, it shouldn’t stand out, and its physical presence can be neither too powerful nor too weak.
Scope: You chose to shoot in Inner Mongolia, and even though that province has its own characteristics, the actual locations you selected are generic non-places; they could in fact be anywhere in China. These locations, rather than clearly representing Inner Mongolia, might be places here on the outskirts of Beijing, which look similar to many small cities all over the country. So, on one hand, your work shows considerable attention to how architecture—both interior and exterior—is depicted, but as for a sense of place, you chose to film in a remote location in such a way as to render it generic.
Li: I tried hard to find a location with no distinct features, no special characteristics, nothing that definitely places it in China—a place that could be anywhere on the globe. Had I filmed just a few steps outside the exact locations I chose, audiences would probably have discerned right away that the film takes place in Inner Mongolia because there are grasslands all around and that unique Mongolian sky. But I was very careful to not allow the unique qualities of the place to emerge. All over the world—even in small towns—there are usually typical examples that situate a place, like tons of advertisements. I made sure to leave them all out of the frame, so that all is left is a place where people live—not a place where Chinese people live. Of course the people who appear in the film are Chinese, but that is simply by chance. First and foremost, they are human beings.
I spent a long time searching for the right environment before finally choosing Inner Mongolia. In the end, it was more convenient for production because there are fewer people there and it’s a much quieter place, so it seems a little more unfamiliar, a little stranger than other places. Also that kind of architecture was drawn up in the Soviet Union in the ‘50s and also used to construct housing all over China. But now that kind of architecture is almost no longer being built. So the buildings themselves constitute an unfamiliar kind of environment. The people living there may feel they know that environment well, but there is actually already a considerable distance between it and them. But I wasn’t making a ‘50s period film. And although the film is contemporary, the filmic environment is different than today’s environment and gives rise to a feeling of unfamiliarity, of estrangement. I don’t want the audience to experience the film as taking place in a familiar reality, something seen through the eyes of ordinary people. It is only something that I imagine has happened.
Scope: From conversations we’ve had before, your approach to shooting seems quite exceptionable. Could you describe your production process?
Li: I don’t think my approach is exceptionable. I’m just searching for a way that’s appropriate for me. I ask myself, in light of my ability, my personality, and what I want to express, how to find a suitable way of working. Everyone is special, unless of course one is particularly drawn to a filmmaking style because one admires it or believes it to be somehow beneficial, and in that case people will readily find a way to categorize the work. People place me in a category, in this genre or that genre, or say my work resembles so and so. But throughout the creative process, I work hard to avoid making films that are similar not only to other filmmakers but also to my previous films.
As for the specifics of my approach, well, the nice way of saying it is that I’m pretty meticulous. The other way of saying it is that I am very controlling, perhaps overly controlling. If I set a time to begin production, say two days from now, then no matter what I will begin filming on that exact day. Even if there is no budget, or if some problem comes up over those two days, I’ll still begin shooting as scheduled. Before production, I make sure all the preparatory work is finished, including things I suspect might happen which fall outside of my original plan. In the actual production process, my way of directing the actors is also rigorous, strict, and demanding. The actors have to follow the script closely—not one word can be wrong. Their movements are not their own; they must fall within the movements I stipulate. This includes their facial expressions as well. But I don’t make any excessive demands, for example, asking them to perform difficult actions—to cry with great emotion, to laugh in an exaggerated way, or tell them that I need them to give me more sorrow or more joy in their eyes. You only need to have eyes, that’s all. If I tell you to look in that direction, you only need to look in that direction, and when the time comes for you to shift your eyes to another position, you just need to shift them. I am clear and concrete with every direction, and the actors never have any difficulty in performing them. But I can be very strict, and I don’t give them any kind of freedom. There is no room for freedom to come into play, and I don’t give myself any room either.
Scope: How long was the script-writing process?
Li: Before writing, there was quite a bit of preparation. I kept a lot of notes and wrote small scenes, and the actual writing process lasted about two years. I finished the first draft very quickly, in about half a month. I focused my energy and then wrote. When I finished, I put the draft aside for three or four months. Around the time that I started to forget the script, when it became a little like a stranger to me, I took it back out and began revising. After this first revision, I put it away again and let three or four months pass without thinking of it. Then, again, only when I’d practically forgotten all about it, I took it back out for more revisions. I’m afraid that if I constantly sit in front of the script, only giving myself three months to write, then all I’ll do for those three months is sit and stare at it. I prefer to write up a draft and then wait until I already feel distanced from it before picking it back up again. It’s a kind of relationship, like getting to know someone. After it’s been created, if I’m holed up with it day and night, then I begin to lose all feeling for it. But when it begins to be a bit unfamiliar, when a distance develops, then when I look at it again I will have a new understanding of it, a new aim in revising it.
Scope: But the process of actually shooting is different, because there are limits on time and resources for production.
Li: Yes, I can only work within the realities of external conditions and the confines of my abilities. In the case of each film, my ability has not been the same. For So Much Rice, I could only make a film at that particular level. For Routine Holiday, I could do perhaps a little better. And for Winter Vacation, I had accumulated more experience and my ability to bring into being what I wanted to express had grown stronger.
Scope: During the press conference for Winter Vacation at Locarno, some journalists asked if the film uses an indirect method to discuss political problems in China. One notable moment in the film finds one kid deadpanning that his goal in life is to “contribute to the struggle to build socialism with Chinese characteristics.” You refuted these interpretations, but are your films absolutely void of political dimensions?
Li: I don’t intentionally express any kind of political message. But it’s impossible to live in this world without any relation to politics. I live in China, and China is this kind of country, so every day I have to face these kinds of problems. But I don’t intentionally express the political dynamics of China because politics isn’t this world’s fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is humanity. And humans are the ones who brought politics into the world. But politics not only fails to resolve any problems on this earth, but is also itself a problem because humans place their hopes in politics. Of course a political system or method can be deemed wrong and others come along to oppose it, but this kind of process is never-ending. No matter if you’re talking about those who are involved in the current political establishment or those who oppose it, they all discuss politics as if it were fundamental. I certainly can’t identify with them. But I also can’t say I think my life is disconnected from politics. It’s just like the daily need to eat, to eat food manufactured by humans.
Scope: At any of the various stages in the making of Winter Vacation, did you ever think that it would achieve this kind of success?
Li: Not at all. If I had this kind of idea, I’d think something was wrong with me. In the making of a film, the first and most important thing is that I feel a need to do it, and that it is something I need to express. If I operated with the idea that if I make such and such a film to win the praise of others, then I would despise myself. Of course, in the process of creating the work, during the script-writing process, for example, there are times when you feel happy with what you’ve written, that by chance you’ve disclosed something in a way that others may like. But I try to be very careful with ideas like these because I think they can only hurt the strength of the work, dirty its quality, and weaken creativity. I can only examine myself as a person who has a lot of problems. I first want to deal with these problems.
Scope: You’ve said your ability to make the kind of films you want is always progressing. In what ways has your approach improved?
Li: The obvious improvements are in terms of technical skills, from sound to image, from my control over the actors to my overall experience as a filmmaker. After every film, you take inventory of what you’ve learned. I see every filmmaking experience as a lesson in failure. That way, every time you take a few steps forward, your skills will grow more and more mature. If you see every film you’ve made as an example of success, you will only go backwards. You will never move beyond that “successful” film. So I take every film as an experience of failure, because in reality it is. There is no way it can be a success; it can only be an attempt to express more accurately, more clearly. No matter if it’s a question of ideas or techniques, there is no way to always pull off success because life continuously presents us with more and more problems, and it’s only in the face of problems that one can take a step forward by seeing clearly one’s weaknesses. And the whole point is to avoid making the same mistakes in the next step.
Scope: You’ve told me that at this time you don’t have any plan to make any new narrative films, and want to focus on another kind of filmmaking.
Li: Yes, temporarily…I want to give myself a pause and first make some documentaries.
Scope: Why this shift?
Li: I’m afraid if I continue working like this some bad habits will form in my process. If I keep making films this way, then the work will go more smoothly, and this sense of ease will start to spread and I will have stepped into my own trap. I also worry that I am too controlling and that, in a short time, I could become quite unbearable. So for now I want to extract myself from my way of thinking and do something that is the complete opposite. In making documentaries, I’m not following my own ideas for the most part, but rather following the people I want to film. I’m also concerned that I might neglect my own problems, thinking that I don’t have any. But in fact maybe the problems are very serious. It’s analogous to how the Communist Party controls local officials. If an official stays in a locality for a long time, then it’s easy for him to become corrupt. The longer he stays in an environment, the more he gets used to it, gets comfortable, and turns into a local despot. So after the official has already been in a place for a couple of years, the Party makes a change and sends him to an unfamiliar place where he has to start from scratch. This is not necessarily the best method, but I like to think of this shift to documentary as an assignment that will allow me to experiment and to inspect myself.
Scope: Can you talk a bit about your recently completed documentary, Are We Really So Far From the Madhouse?
Li: It is not, in the strict sense, a documentary. It’s more like a music video. But it is long, an 80-minute music video. The film has no dialogue; it has only lyrics and music. All the images are from the Beijing band P.K. 14’s tour, but I didn’t edit it in chronological order. If I was asked to give it a definition, I don’t think I’d call it a documentary. And it isn’t really an experimental film either, because the category of experimental is far too wide anyway. To say it a little more precisely, it is just a long music video.
Scope: What kind of documentary projects do you plan to focus on?
Li: My plan is to follow the standard approach to documentary production, filming specific situations and spending more time shooting than usual, to enter into the world and the lives of the people I am filming. The first thing I want to film is a mental hospital in Hunan, which I will probably spend two years filming.
Scope: You’ve mentioned that you’re preparing a move to Hunan. Why? Is this because of the documentary?
Li: No, it’s because I need to find a more convenient way to work. Well, it’s not exactly about convenience; it’s more a matter of my current situation. I have a family and there are many things I have to take care of, so I can’t just do as I please. If I were a bachelor, I could travel around anywhere I wanted with no problem. But now I don’t have this opportunity. So all I can do is draw material from my surroundings, from where I am. So it’s because of this that I plan to move to Hunan. I want to look for subjects there. And I don’t want to continue living in Beijing. I never liked Beijing. I’ve already spent too much time here. Not to say that I want to stay in the Hunan countryside forever, but I do want to change how I live and how I work in order to really examine myself.
Scope: Why Hunan?
Li: I have friends there, and in the past few years I’ve been going there a lot. Hunan is a mountainous region: I like mountains. I like the kind of tall mountains that form a great range, not just one or two mountains, standing on their own. And it also probably has to do with my child. I want my kid to grow up in the countryside, to have the chance to be wild, to develop in a more natural way, in a natural environment. I think raising children in a city is no different from raising chickens in a coop.
I lived in the countryside in Shandong province from when I was born until I graduated from primary school. But I don’t feel some special connection to the land. When I was young I hated the dullness of the northern China countryside: flat land, total boredom, and when you step outside there’s nothing in sight. Just like the content and atmosphere of my films. You start to think this world is really too dull. But I like the countryside in the south.
Scope: How did you move from being a writer to a filmmaker?
Li: My desire to make films started early on, but at that time I thought making films was way too complicated. It’s not like painting or writing where you rely only on yourself, and if what you create is no good, you can only blame yourself. And of course filmmaking introduces many external constraints, such as financing, how to handle the technology, or how to work with the actors. And the actors are living beings, not at all like words. For writing, all you need is to know the word and it will serve however you assign it. But actors are alive, and their thoughts are all different at every moment. So filmmaking appeared very complicated to me. But before making films I was already a cinephile and watched many films.
Scope: Are there any filmmakers whose works you like or who you admire?
Li: Edward Yang is the Chinese filmmaker I most respect, if Taiwan can be considered a part of China. As for other Chinese filmmakers, they are all worth viewing, especially since now I will watch any film from beginning to end. Basically, besides Edward Yang, there aren’t any Chinese filmmakers I really like, and none that I really dislike. As for filmmakers from other countries, I like Lee Chang-dong and Michael Haneke. If we are talking about filmmakers I respect, then it is probably only those three filmmakers. These days I am not very willing to directly absorb nourishment or experience from other films. I’d rather be inspired by other things, such as my own life, or other fields like science, music, art, or photography. For me these other related modes of expression and inquiry foster a better understanding of cinema, and a new way to relate to it.