Following the recent DVD release of her first feature length film She, a Chinese in the UK, John Berra sat down with filmmaker Xiaolu Guo to discuss the development of the film, the issue of national identity and the state of Chinese independent cinema.
She, a Chinese (2009) is the latest feature film by Xiaolu Guo, the novelist and filmmaker who is perhaps best known in the UK for her 2007 novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which was shortlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. An impressionistic account of the personal journey of a girl from rural China who moves to a bigger city and then relocates to London as an illegal immigrant following the murder of her tough-yet-tender mobster lover, She, a Chinese was awarded the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival in 2009 and the UK release of the film has coincided with the publication of Xiaolu’s latest novel, UFO in Her Eyes (2009), which speculates on the effect of economic acceleration on rural China by 2012. Xiaolu is also a documentarian, and her non-fiction work – including The Concrete Revolution (2004) and Once Upon a Time Proletarian (2009) – also deals with China’s rapid development.
She, A Chinese (2009)
She, a Chinese was financed by the UK Film Council in cooperation with a number of other backers. What was the development process of the project?
She, a Chinese was supposed to be my first fiction feature; I came to the National Film School in the UK, and when I graduated I won a prize. I was supposed to make my first fiction feature with an English producer, but for six years I was waiting for financing because it was a Chinese story set in London and they had not made a film with a Chinese filmmaker before. There was a lot of testing, waiting, pondering, questioning, and in six years I made four films and wrote four novels just to keep my energy going. I’m working with a European producer for my next film, which is based on my novel UFO in her Eyes; it’s kind of a Kafka, science-fiction film with surreal elements. Essentially it’s a political film about the loss of peasant identity. It’s going to be a much bigger budget, and in order to make that kind of film, I had to make She, a Chinese to prove that I can do a strong narrative film, not only intellectual cinema.
Your work to break down the barriers between East and West; She, a Chinese and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers concern characters who relocate internationally, and the cultural differences they experience, but the protagonist of your novel 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is just as dislocated when she moves from rural China to the urban environment of Beijing.
Exactly, it’s easy and lazy to claim your existence through national identity. She, a Chinese is about a young person trying to get rid of national identity, because I think identity is so dangerous in this world. I am a radical existentialist, and the character in 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is a typical existential character; it’s a character living without a future, trying to survive through to tomorrow.
She, A Chinese (2009)
Your documentaries The Concrete Revolution and Once Upon a Time Proletarian deal with the impact of economic acceleration on peasant life. What was your experience of growing up in a rural community?
I come from a South-Eastern province that is very close to Taiwan. It is kind of barbarian, a very bare place, where socialism was not an influence. It’s very feudal and very classical in a Chinese sense. You don’t see any industry, so the whole place is basically China twenty years ago, and I guess I am the only intellectual from that place. When you come from that kind of place, your vision of the world is very different from that of someone who comes from the city; I understand the power of the land, but also the violence of the land, and I understand the pain between the peasants and the land, because it used to belong to them and now it belongs to some big company, so they don’t have anything left and they have no identity. I wrote a novel called Village of Stone which is a portrait of an environment where violence is the only way of expressing love and that is very typical in the rural Chinese villages where it’s all about incest and violence. So I grew up in a village which enabled me to see the Chinese past, which is the agricultural past and it was a big, radical change when I went to Beijing Film School.
Filmmaker and novelist Xiaolu Guo
The film industry in China largely revolves around epic blockbusters following the success of Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). However, directors such as Lou Ye and Zhang Jia Ke Ye have managed to make more personal or politicized films such as Suzhou River (2000) and Still Life (2006).
Ten years ago, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige were strong filmmakers, and the problem is that they’ve become nationalised, are fifty-five or sixty years old and have lived entirely in China and never spoken any foreign language. You cannot really blame them because they are against the international identity so therefore they cannot do what Kurosawa did in Japan, they just become nationalised. What I am hoping for is diversity and alternative cinema; there is Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Jia Ke, Lou Ye and myself, but our histories and our visions are quite different. Wong Kar-wai was working in a commercial environment in Hong Kong; he managed to combine the art-house author attitude with very commercial elements, so his cinema is more accessible to the West, but Zhang Jia Ke and I are very serious about the political problems in China. It’s healthy if we have very different types of authors, because then there are strong voices, and strong voices can become dialogue and debate.
She, a Chinese is available on DVD from Optimum Home Entertainment. UFO in Her Eyes is available in paperback from Vintage.
Interview by John Berra