Send in the Clowns: Qiu Jiongjiong on “A New Old Play”

By Shelly Kraicer

The brightest light in the Chinese independent cinema world at this moment is Beijing-based filmmaker and artist Qiu Jiongjiong. In an atmosphere in China of increasing surveillance and control of non-official, unauthorized artistic activity in China, Qiu, now 44, stands out as an artist with a powerful, complex, engaging vision who has found a way to continue to work without compromise. His new film, A New Old Play, premiered at the 2021 Locarno Film Festival and is now having a series of screenings in North America, after following its pickup by Icarus Films via their dGenerate Films Collection. 

Qiu grew up steeped in the backstage atmosphere of traditional Chinese theatre, and most of his works remain infused with the sounds and sights he absorbed there. He first became famous in Chinaachieved domestic fame among art collectors, who buy up, at rather high prices, his semi-fantastical, humorous (and perhaps faintly menacing) portraits of bald, bulbous-headed men. He aAcquireding a mini -DV camera in 2006, and he started filming his family and friends, who were prominent in the traditional Sichuan opera world of Chengdu and Leshan. Portraiture is one of the constants in Qiu’s art, both on canvas and video: he makes playfully experimental family portraits of his aunts, uncles, and grandparents, and has also made a series of three portraits of extraordinary individuals—a retired cop, a transsexual performer, and a persecuted elder “rightist.” 

Qiu’s six, mainly black-and-white documentaries (four feature- length, one short) climax in A New Old Play, his first work of (semi-)pure fiction. Based on the actual life of his grandfather Qiu Fuxin, a celebrated Sichuan opera “clown,” the film tracks a mythicized, fictionalized version of his life through an epic course of Chinese history from the Republican era of the 1920s through the Maoist ’50s and ’60s, to the beginnings of reform at the end of the ’70s. Qiu’s works’ density and range—with a tonal variety spanning the deeply mournful to the resplendently comic—accommodate unprecedented evocations of the darkest episodes of China’s recent history. But he insists on embedding these in something else: a celebration of creative popular arts, whose vitality and persistence offer emotional reassurance, ideological provocation, and moral inspiration.

Qiu has thought through the theoretical and political dimensions of his craft and storytelling strategies, and explains them in fascinating detail in the discussion below, carried out via Zoom between Toronto and Beijing in May 2022. Cao Liuying provided on-the-spot interpretation; Robin Setton translated this slightly condensed transcript of our talk from Chinese to English.

Cinema Scope: I’d like to ask you first a bit about where you grew up and your early influences. how How did your childhood shape you?

Qiu Jiongjiong: I was born in Leshan, Sichuan. My parents and grandparents were migrants to Leshan, but I was born and raised there. I grew up in the theatre, and it was through theatre that I was initiated to the whole universe of the arts, from fine art through literature to drama. The theatre and everything around it—both the stories told onstage, and my life offstage—naturally and unconsciously shaped my first impressions of the world. My grandfather, an actor who specialized in the “clown” roles, was a major influence: he is the Qiu Fuxin of A New Old Play. During my childhood in the ’ ’70s, cultural policy was relaxed somewhat after the end of the Cultural Revolution and the arts began to revive, including access to film. Theatres were also used as public movie houses, so as a youngster I watched a lot of films, including silent ones. My grandfather was familiar with actors like Charlie Chaplin; we would watch movies together, and that’s how I discovered cinema. My initiation was chaotic and piecemeal, but I guess that’s how I began to learn about art.  

Scope: When you were still young, did you have any aspiration to be an artist? A painter, writer, or filmmaker? Or was the art and culture world, especially the world of Sichuan theatre, so natural to you, since you were constantly immersed in it?

Qiu: I had too many different ambitions, really. Growing up in the theatre, I was full of curiosity and admiration for the professions of theatre director, playwright, or stage artist, and I yearned to be one of these. Maybe because you could be an artist or a writer by yourself, not dependent on the cooperation of others as in some other professions, I started with writing and painting. Before even graduating from high school, I left for Beijing to be an artist, while at the same time writing scripts and novels, waiting for an opportunity to make them into films. In 2006 I used some money I had saved from my work as an artist to buy a film camera, and started shooting. After making that first film, I found out there were some independent film festivals in China where I could show my work and discuss filmmaking with others. There, to my amazement, I discovered a whole community of kindred spirits, all busy making films, just like authors who have to keep writing. That was the tipping point, the spur that propelled me into filmmaking. 

Scope: One way your own work seems very different in style and approach from what one might call the “typical Chinese independent documentary style” is that these Chinese indie documentaries often seem very objective, observational, fond of very long takes; resembling a “recording” of reality, that immerses viewers in a kind of “pure” experience of reality. But that’s very different from your practice.

Qiu: Yes, I think it is different. I couldn’t explain what I would consider “objective” or “true,” but very intuitively, I think I’m just a very personal, direct author, with my own way of understanding the world, my own grammar. All I can do is use my own personal grammar to understand the world I see. In that sense, I think every author is different. Trying to define norms of what is objective, or true, would be reductive and would probably misrepresent the intentions of those indie filmmakers. 

All my films are about the people around me, about my family members and friends, whom I know well enough and who are interesting enough to film. My films belong to the same genre as my paintings: they’re all portraits. Each of them portrays a person, an individual. And the grammar, the prism I see them through, is consistent too, shaped by the theatre and my life experience. Like my painting, it has something of the caricature: it’s cartoonish, flavourful, comical, and a bit crazy. 

Scope: First, we’ll let’s discuss your three family portrait films, Moon Palace (2007), Ode tTo Joy (2008), and My Mother’s Rhapsody (2011). Moon Palace is a portrait of your father, but also much more than that. We can see workers in his restaurant, poems, impromptu opera performances by retired singers, a “Fat Boy” in a bed, a naked baby in the water, swimmers in the river…It’s an amusing and apparently loose mix of different elements. Talk about the variety of different elements in the film, and how you assemble and juxtapose them to construct this portrait of your father.

Qiu: My father loves good wine and literature—a literary bon vivant, you might say—and that’s influenced my way of painting group portraits. In these films, I wanted to describe an atmosphere that is already fading into history, and a character who muses anxiously about the body and the soul. 

For this group, wine brings release not just from the pains of the body, but helps to transcend personal memories—which are also collective—of the suffering and hardships they have lived through. Those who know about Chinese history can imagine the violent upheavals that my father’s generation went through, from the Cultural Revolution to “Reform and Opening-up.” Their lives were like a roller coaster. So now they really need to kick back, be “free and footloose,” as the old Taoists would have it; that’s a life choice, I guess. 

Drinking also helps ease the passage from this world. In Moon Palace, there’s a lot of discussion of life and death, or what follows this life. The camera also dwells on the alcoholics of our own generation, or on a baby soaking in water, and lingers metaphorically on flowing water, all expressions of our attachment to this life in the prospect of death. 

Scope: Your second film is the short documentary Ode tTo Joy,. And it which introduces a key figure who will become the centre of A New Old Play

Qiu: Ode To to Joy records a performance that was staged in remembrance of my grandfather, Qiu Fuxin, 20 years after his death. We invited all the clown actors of a generation, most of them his students, back to Leshan to perform in the event. This memorial meant a lot to me. I wanted to use it to draw a last portrait of Sichuan opera, now that all the good actors—and much of the traditional audience—have grown old or passed away, and the historic contribution of this art to our society is drawing to a close. So I really wanted to capture the moment on film. 

As I began to shoot, I suddenly felt that I had entered a time tunnel. The players from the past whom I met there looked back at me as if at a child, a child raised in the theatre, instead of a film director or an intruder. That experience is the heart and soul of the film. 

Scope: It seems in fact to be a double portrait: of your grandfather, but also in a way an auto-portrait? You add a poetic voiceover, which inflects the film in a different way. Your third family portrait documentary is the important My Mother’s Rhapsody. It’s in fact not about your mother, but rather your father’s mother, 85-year-old Liu Zhiguang, and all of her family, her children, and her incredibly rich and complicated life experience. Why did you decide to make this big family portrait centred on her?

Qiu: Well, I’d always filmed family, and my grandmother was my only surviving relative of that generation on my father’s side. I knew that she had had a fascinating life, and one of my strongest motivations in making documentaries is to capture the people around me. So, filming her was a very natural choice. 

Why did I choose to make a documentary and focus on an individual? Because I use the camera as a tool to communicate with another person, and through the camera, forge a new relationship. Even when you think you know someone through and through, subtle processes are at play through the camera that can deepen your understanding of that person. Moon Palace was the first of a series of studies of people close to me that really enriched my relationships with them. When my grandmother heard that I was about to make a film about her, she was really excited, and wanted to tell me all the hardships she’d been through in her life. The camera brought her a kind of redemption, and that made the process very meaningful to me. Now whenever I watch a film like that, I think about the relationship between the two people on each side of the camera, and I find that profoundly interesting. 

There’s nothing particularly exceptional or unusual about the lives of the people I film:; they’re just ordinary people who were swept along in the tide of their epoch. As a filmmaker or an artist, when painting these portraits as carefully and meticulously as I can, I’ve felt the strength that flows from each of these individuals, from their stubborn attachment to life—a powerful, almost religious strength. That has increased my respect for “ordinary” people, which in turn has strongly influenced A New Old Play, and may also influence my work in the future. It’s a powerful motivation.

Scope: I also felt that in this film you were building what would later become the core of A New Old Play: the individual living through social and historical change, and the power and strength of an individual who can survive this. I could feel the new film inside the old, like a seed or bud. A question about the structure: the film does not focus purely on your grandmother. There are other “strange” elements whose connection to her is not obvious, such as the Cupid figure, the plump boy with wings who runs around the riverfront,. And and the band and chorus, who emerge in the second part of the film in concert.

Qiu: The films highlight oral narratives, but in my family, we put a lot of emphasis on family relationships. My father and grandmother were very close, so I wanted to make the film like a kind of cross-talk, using the dialogue between my father and my grandmother to give the story a narrative structure. Characters like the plump Cupid are clearly a personal stylistic feature. Some people may find them too comical, but they’re actually a signature, a director’s statement of style. The band and chorus represent the group of people from my father’s generation—the descendants in my grandmother’s narrative—so it seemed appropriate that they should appear here as a backdrop when she starts talking about them. It was also an opportunity to film my mother, who was one of the performers. When I shot the band I had no particular plans for it, but it turned out so interesting that I decided to include it in the film. You could say I’m a rather stingy director:, I try to make full use of all the footage that I’ve shot. I don’t like to waste an interesting scene once I have it on film. 

Scope: Your other three documentaries are oral history, portraits of outstanding individuals. The first one, Portrait of Mr. Huang (2009), is a short documentary about a retired Sichuanese policeman. What’s weird about this film is that he speaks very calmly, easily, with a smile, as if he’s telling you normal stories. But his stories, his reminiscences are dark, gruesome, and violent, featuring cannibalism, maggots emerging from bodies, murder…It’s a very strange contrast between a light relaxed vocal tone and content that’s akin to horror. 

Qiu: Almost all the material in Portrait of Mr. Huang is footage from when I was shooting Moon Palace. The protagonist of the documentary is my uncle (my aunt’s husband), and I didn’t want to waste the footage, as I said. My main intention was to record scary moments from my childhood, a bit like the simulation in Ode to Joy of my subconscious childhood perspective on the theatre. I wanted to create the atmosphere of a creepy folk tale, like one I heard once on a midnight radio program. So this is the most relaxed film that I’ve done, because I just treated it like a ghost story on the radio. It was fun, it lit up all kinds of magical switches in my mind, and I really enjoyed using that particular creative style. 

Scope: Madame (2010) is your most concentrated film, with the simplest reduction of elements, to basically two kinds: direct interviews with the subject Fan Qihui, and a recording of his trans performances. How did you find Fan, and why did you feel compelled to film him?

Qiu: I chose an extreme format to accentuate the sense of a portraiture, because this subject conveyed an especially strong impression of a portrait. I met Fan Qihui in 2008 when some friends recommended that I go and see a performance of his—similar, as it turned out, to the one in the film. Over time we became friends, but two years went by before I decided to film him. I’m not the kind of director who decides to shoot as soon he spots something interesting. I have to get to know my subject first over a long period before. Some people may think I wanted to film Fan Qihui out of curiosity, or a search for novelty, but that was not my motivation or expectation. I simply found him very interesting as a person, not because he happened to be gay or a member of a sexual minority. In any group or people, some are more interesting or likable to me than others. I simply film people whom I like or find interesting. 

Because we understood each other so well, the filming process went very smoothly. We only needed two takes to film the whole interview part. I used very close shots, because Fan’s classical features accentuated the impression of a portrait. I’ve been asked why I chose not to film him in a performance setting, or in everyday life, but I wanted viewers to focus more on the way he looks and expresses himself as an individual, which seemed to me to be content-rich enough in itself. After that I gradually adopted this approach, notably in My Mother’s Rhapsody, focusing on the speaker’s posture and expression. 

Scope: There’s a very sad aspect to this film too, which is completely out of your control. After you finished the film but before you screened it publicly at the BIFF in Songzhuang, Fan Qihui died by suicide. This projects back onto the film a completely different way of viewing it. Is there anything you would like to say about this unfortunate circumstance?

Qiu: Regarding his suicide, I respect his choice. My first reaction was sadness, then sorrow and deep regret. We had both agreed to make this film as Madame Part 1, with Fan as storyteller, and we’d planned to make Madame Part 2 with him ten years later, as a silent film, and we’d worked together on the story and structure. He took his own life because of depression, and I respect his choice. Because of his suicide, the film has attracted more attention and discussion, which is quite beyond my control, and it’s also something that I don’t really want to talk about. 

After this experience, I’m even less interested in making a documentary about an event. Now, I consider this film a kind of private memento. If and when it’s screened publicly, I won’t do an audience Q&A. But when I miss my friend, I will watch it again, because he was the one who made this work possible. 

Scope: Mr. Zhang Believes (2015) marks an important change in your filmmaking style, and leads directly to A New Old Play. It is about Zhang Xianzhi, a man accused of being a “rightist” in the ’50s. In it you combine documentary, specifically oral history, with dramatic re-enactments,. And and you do this in a style that seems derived from experimental theatre. How did you conceive of telling oral history in semi-fictional mode, with actors playing the subject and the people in his story?.

Qiu: I met Zhang Xianzhi through a friend who told me he was an interesting old gentleman, and it seemed right that I should make a film about him. This was the first time I had started a film project on that kind of basis. Mr. Zhang had written own his life story, so I read it, then interviewed him and took some documentary footage. Then I thought about how the film could develop from there, and realized that a straight oral evidentiary narrative wouldn’t be enough to bring out the most interesting features of this figure and the period of history he lived through. So I decided to add elements of dramatic re-enactment. 

This plot-based approach was actually closer to the notes I had made during the filmed interview about how I might use the material. But I still considered I was making a documentary, so when casting for the dramatic parts, I focused on the intertextual relationships between the (real-life)  protagonist and the actors, a somewhat unorthodox approach to casting for a drama.

Because of the limited budget, but also to be sure that the re-enacted sequences could be filmed without disturbance in the same workshop-like environment, I experimented with studio shooting on a set I designed and built myself. I have continued to use this method in my newer projects, like A New Old Play

Scope: You turned the limitations of low-budget filmmaking into an advantage. In an interview with the scholar Wang Xiaolu, you talked about how important it was for you to manipulate an “alienation” effect. The audience should feel distanced from what they are watching, if I understand you correctly. Is one of the advantages of these obviously “fake” backgrounds, a visibly theatrical style of background and sets, that the audience is constantly in a state of productive alienation?

Qiu: That sense of alienation comes from the influence the theatre has had on me. It’s in my genes, so it would be a waste not to use it. Plus, I’m a big fan of Brecht and his method. But I also had other reasons for choosing to shoot in the studio: it was cheaper and more convenient. As you know, making a film is a pretty complicated process; shutting myself into my own little den to make my film seemed a lot easier and more comfortable. I’ve been strongly influenced by contemporary American arte povera, basically using ready-made or found material, and scraps or rubbish, to make sets and props. That’s been a hallmark of my indie filmmaking style that I’ve built up over the years, developing a complete culture of creation from limited materials. 

Scope: Is it important for you to generate an active, distanced, critical audience?

Qiu: In one sense, that distance is a space, a channel through which a sensitive audience can gain access to the thought-world of the film. To me, this channel is absolutely necessary. As an author, I can’t solve problems, I can only ask questions. That’s always been my standpoint as a filmmaker. So I provide this channel both for the audience, and for myself.

Scope: One more question about Mr. Zhang Believes. He is a so-called “rightist.”: He he was unjustly persecuted by the Communists, like many of his generation, during the Anti-Rightist Campaign from 1957 to 1959,. And and then was jailed for a shockingly long period of time, before finally being released in 1980. These are still sensitive political topics in China. This was the first time you directly confronted politics in your cinema. Did this make you hesitate at all? Did you worry about filming something sensitive, that you knew Chinese audiences would not be able to watch in a theatre in China?

Qiu:  What attracted me to Mr. Zhang was the charm of this individual person caught up in a political tempest. I did worry that I wouldn’t be able to continue filming, or to release the film. But it’s precisely because these kinds of narratives have been suppressed that the film had to be completed. My focus is on the life experience of an individual, so I don’t really have anything to fear. What I fear most is that this experience could be forgotten; in fact, my whole motivation for making films could be seen as an immense revulsion for forgetting. Whether the protagonist is a rightist, a homosexual, an ordinary housewife, an alcoholic, or whomever, my role is to create a memorial to an era. The only thing I fear is that we forget, because when history’s lessons are forgotten, it repeats itself.

Scope: That’s a perfect introduction to A New Old Play, an ambitious, epic attempt to memorialize—to remember—over 50 years of Chinese history, from the 1920s to the ’ ’80s. Talk about your conception, idea, and planning for the film.

Qiu: After Mr. Zhang Believes, I thought for a long time about what to do next. I really wanted to go on working in the studio. I wrote a lot, but no real project took shape for several years. Then my father finished writing his biography of my grandfather, and asked me to illustrate it. That process opened up a flood of emotions and memories, and a powerful need to express them in a personal film about my grandfather. I had thought Ode to Joy marked a closure, a final line drawn under my encounter with Sichuan theatre. But doing the artwork for my grandfather’s life story gave me a lot of new ideas, so I started work on a script, and completed it very quickly. 

Scope: The central character, Qiu Fu, who is based on your grandfather Qiu Fuxin, plays the clown role in Sichuan opera. “Clown” in English has different connotations from xiaochou in Chinese, but there is an overlap. What is a “clown” in Sichuan opera, and why is the world of this film centred aroundon such a clown?

Qiu: The clown spirit is the core and quintessence of my cinematic grammar, and thus of all my documentaries, so this the choice of this theme came very naturally. The clown spirit resonates with my personal experience of life, but it is also closely associated with Sichuan, which may even be its birthplace. Sichuan people are cheerful in the face of fate and suffering, and known for their dark sense of humour. Some may think them too laid- back or nonchalant, but for me it is definitely a quality of resilience. The clown’s ((xiaochou)) appearance is coarse and ugly, but an aura of nobility shines through. He is a figure of contradiction: his humble, modest demeanour hides a brave soul; there is sadness and melancholy under a playful, clownish exterior. My perception of the clown spirit is very close to the essence of a human being, as well as the essence of an artist. On stage, the clown is often a participant in the story, but can also step outside it and act as a narrator or observer from afar. This seems to be true in both Western and Eastern theatrical cultures. This alienated perspective is very revealing. 

Scope: I have a few specific questions about aspects of the film. The film’s Chinese title, (Jiaoma tanghui) , is different from the English title A New Old Play

Qiu: Let’s start with the Chinese title, because the film is about the relationship between art and power. A tanghui is a private party or banquet for an event like a wedding or a funeral, where rich or powerful people invite entertainers to perform. This tradition still exists today: the Spring Festival Gala we see on national television at Chinese New Year can be regarded as a kind of tanghui. Jiaoma refers to the taste of Sichuanese food, the numbing bite of Sichuan chili peppers. The main character of the film, Qiu Fu, is a lifelong performer at tanghui, first for the warlords, then for the Party officials, and then for the demons in hell after he passes away. So in that sense, the Chinese title is a more accurate description of the film’s content. 

In English, we originally called it The (Adventures of) the “New-New Theatre””, which is how the newly formed troupe is billed at the beginning. But that wasn’t particularly evocative. Then my good friends Lihong (the producer of Mr. Zhang Believes) and Robin (who did the English subtitles) came up with A New Old Play,which captures a theme of the film that’s obvious to anyone who’s seen it:it’s a sense of déjà vu, another variation on a story told a million times.; there’s There’s nothing new under the sun, history is endlessly repeating itself, and we just follow along. 

Scope: Mr. Zhang Believes has a little colour, as if some parts are lightly tinted. But this is your first film in which you celebrate colour, which becomes an integral part of the visual design and the emotional impact of the film. 

Qiu: First, paintings and artwork are a major feature of this film. But I also wanted to use a cartoonish form and a comical flavour to tell this story of a long and arduous life, played out by the hero like a fairy tale in a pop-up children’s book that, once opened, reveals a painted world full of colour. I wanted to convey this sense of colour using quick, light brush-strokes and narrative touches to tell the tale. Also, my producer found us an excellent camera, anArri Alexa—better than anything I’d worked with before—and the cinematographer was superb, managing to capture faithfully all the colour on the set, which was vital to my plan. 

Scope: This is the film where we see your other identity as a visual artist clearly emerge. The paintings you executed for the film, the four large-format portraits, plus many details, are all from your own hand.

Qiu: I’ve always wanted to merge my two identities, visual artist and filmmaker, in one piece. Previously, my painting and my films seemed like two different visual media, incompatible with each other: painting is painting, film is film. I’d been struggling with this problem for years, but this time I was determined to solve it by finally combining these two creative dimensions of myself in the film, and I think it worked. 

Scope: Three aspects of your camera style are very striking: 1) tracking sideways, like viewing a scroll painting; 2) shallow depth of field, with little staging in depth; 3) planimetric photography, with the camera almost always directly facing the actors at 90 degrees from the background.

Qiu: It may not seem very important, but one basic constraint was that the shooting studio was rather small, under 400 square meteres, which pretty much limited our options for camera movements and tracking to those three. My challenge was to convert those limiting conditions into a creative style. So I thought about the question of movement. 

First, the shallow depth of field and horizontal shots. This film is highly integrated with painting, and much of my inspiration comes from Italian frescos, or Chinese long scroll paintings, which we appreciate most naturally and elegantly by unrolling them horizontally—hence my frequent choice of that camera movement. The inspiration for the shallow field is the bas-relief sculptures found in churches and temples, which fit neatly with the motion of a staged performance and also enhance the dramatic rhythm. 

As for the perpendicular tracking shot toward the characters, most of the shots are like this, though in one or two I added curving motions. I feel this shot creates a very pure relationship between the camera and the characters, and combines crisply and simply with the horizontal shot. So for this film I chose this basic set of movements, with no fancy camera effects, as this simple grammar seemed the most effective way to express the visual message. The whole design is driven by adapting existing conditions to the needs of the film.

Scope: I’d like to ask you about your choice of the actors, and the different kinds of actors you mix together.

Qiu: None of them are professional film actors. They’re all close friends and/or family, or people from the local theatre troupe. But as soon as they stepped onto our makeshift set, they just fit right in. This goes back to my way of documentary filmmaking: I get familiar with the characters first, then I know if they can be in the film or not. For the actors, it’s the same logic. I know these people, so it was easy to decide who should play which character. 

Qiu Fu was very difficult to cast, just because it’s so hard to find anyone in today’s world with that look, that spirit and posture. Then I thought of Yi Sicheng, the curator of Yunfest, now closed down. He may not look like a clown, but I think he has the essence of a clown; his heart is full of sympathy and clown spirit. Also, he’s slim, with that sad, mischievous and critical look, and an old-time air about him that we rarely see nowadays. The other characters are also played by people I know very well, such as my father (from Moon Palace), who plays Pocky [(Ma’er]). To act in my film, friends or family members have to meet certain conditions. Most importantly, of course, they have to identify with my films, and share similar values, so we can really communicate while making the movie.

Scope: The cook seems to be from a different world, a different planet. He seems to exist out of time: he’s present at every era, even in the limbo portal to hell. He looks pleasantly weird, and is constantly accompanied by his white goose friend.

Qiu: When I was a kid I would sometimes see strange-looking people in out-of-the-way teahouses in Sichuan. The cook—Ji Jiao Shen, the Chicken Foot God—is partly modelled on this slightly scary childhood memory. Like Crooky ((Tuo’er), ), he also to some extent symbolizes the figure of the clown who shuttles back and forth between yin and yang, surface and netherworld, and different times and spaces, and participates in the telling of the story while standing outside it. So he represents the author himself. 

Ji Jiao Shen is like a northeastern Chinese weasel, or a hedgehog. These animals are regarded as spirits of the earth, more than animals and close to human beings. We often see these animals in our daily lives, so we are very close to them, and we invest them with a supernatural meaning, like minor animist deities. In Sichuan culture, the Chicken Foot God has played a similar role through history, as a kind of seer in our everyday lives. 

Scope: There are two more important gods or demon characters: Horse Face and Ox Head open and close the film, and they provide a narrative frame above the history story,. Or or beneath it. This sounds complicated to pull off, but you make it work.

Qiu: Ox Head and Horse Face are two envoys from the netherworld, representing beginnings and endings. As the film opens, Qiu Fu’s life ends. They are there to collect him, but they take him down to the netherworld, to begin another cycle of his life—so it’s an ending, but also a beginning. In this way, A New Old Play follows a traditional narrative form where the encounter of beginning and end are embodied in the figures of Ox Head and Horse Face, who duly play their part as a kind of airlock between worlds, or in a musical segue that tracks the hero’s progress and marks time in the plot. Their function is to move the story forward; if the whole film is a song, they are the refrain that reassures the audience. 

Scope: My last question is about the 1959-–1961 period. In English we call it the Great Famine, but in Chinese it’s known as the Three Years of Natural Disasters, or tThe Three Years of Hardship. I’ve never seen this period represented in a Chinese fiction film. It’s the most intense emotional part of the story, the bleakest, with the most suffering, but you turn it into the funniest part. Qiu Fu and his wife have this argument with the outhouse guardians about who owns and can use the shit from the outhouse, which is absurd and hilarious, but also very dark. 

Qiu: Yes, the events portrayed in the film really happened in our history, which is deeply shocking to me, and no doubt will be to future generations. So I see no reason to abstain from telling this story. 

Scope: But you do mix that tragedy with this funny, entertaining tone, which actually makes it even more powerful.

Qiu: I’m too embarrassed to say that myself. Thank you for saying that.

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