What impact did new technology have on China’s post-1980s indie film directors, many of whom came from the nation’s rural and backwater communities? In her new book “China’s Millennial Digital Generation: Conversations with Balinghou (post 1980s) Indie Filmmakers,” author Karen Ma explores this question.
While most are not formally trained, these grassroots artists were the first generation to have benefited from and fully embraced video cameras, cellphones, the internet and other digital technologies. This confluence, along with China’s film industry boom, empowered them to find their voices, win international prizes and bring to light many rural and previously stigmatized themes through their auteur creations.
This new technology also allowed them to participate in social discourse—once a privilege restricted to urban elites—and tell us what is happening in parts of China unfamiliar to most. They remain under the radar as they bucked the establishment and tried to skirt the censors when possible.
Ma shares with NüStories an excerpt from the chapter “Transformation and the Transformed”— an interview with director Li Ruijun and a study of Li’s film Fly with the Crane:
Interview: Li Ruijun, director of Fly with the Crane
I first met Li Ruijun at a screening at Beijing’s Italian Culture Center in the spring of 2016. Li, a rather small-framed man with a mustache, wasn’t very assuming. But his film has left a very strong impression on me. The film screened that evening was Fly with the Crane, and its unvarnished look at old age and death touched me in a way I hadn’t expected. The stark beauty of Gansu featured in the film was also impressive.
The following month, I interviewed Li for a magazine article I was working on at the time that eventually led to this book. In June 2017, after Li finished screening Walking Past the Future at Cannes, we sat down again at a café near Beijing’s Third Ring Road, where Li reflected on his thinking and motivation behind making the third film in his “Hometown Trilogy,” Walking Past the Future. (The other two are The Old Donkey and Fly with the Crane).
How did you decide to become a filmmaker? And was it difficult for you to make your first films?
I was good at arts and crafts but not at math or science, so my father sent me to a special high school to study painting and drawing. When I graduated, my teacher suggested that I learn how to do commercials at the Communication University of Shanxi. It was while I took some of those courses, which included watching a lot of movies to learn how to tell stories, that I discovered my love of film.
It was a rough start. In 2006 while filming Summer Solstice, I had an investor pull out at the last minute. I was in trouble because I’d already set up a film crew and needed 300,000 RMB (roughly US$50,000). At that time, I was using film, so it was very expensive. My dad had a chunk of savings put aside to buy a house. He ended up lending me that money. I cobbled together the rest from relatives and friends and finished shooting the film.
It was really rough there for a while because people thought I was a hoodlum since I didn’t have a steady job and wasn’t making money like other people. I got a lot of support from my director friend Yang Jin, who worked for free as the cinematographer and recording artist for The Old Donkey.
It was only after I won 10,000 euros at a film festival (in 2010) for a screenwriting award for The Old Donkey that my parents heaved a sigh of relief. Luckily, I got another 20,000 euros at Rotterdam as a post-production award for the same film, which allowed me to pay back some of the money I owed my parents and friends. I also worked temporarily as a TV director to finish paying off my debts.
What motivates you to make independent art films? Is winning prizes at international festivals important to you?
I don’t set out to win prizes at festivals when I’m making films. You just can’t predict which films or themes will be picked for each festival. Besides, judges are different each year, and who will be a judge for your film and what gets chosen is entirely based on luck. So, I don’t get a swelled head just because I happen to win a prize or two.
I make films entirely based on one question—whether it is worth doing, and whether it will move people. Movies are not just entertainment to me, but also a space for us to reflect and chronicle society. As a human being, I simply cannot let go of the social issues around me and pretend that I don’t see them.
For me, filmmaking is a window to understand the world. It’s also a way to communicate with the world; a way for me to record the transformation of China, the lives of the people and their struggle in the face of transformation. And yes, there is a bit of focus on the meaning of life as well. I hope through my films I can help change the world by evoking some kind of reflection among audiences about what’s happening around us, and make them pay more attention to the less fortunate.
You made several movies about the elderly living in rural Chinese villages, including The Old Donkey and Fly with the Crane. Why are you so interested in issues related to this particular group of people?
I go back to my village all the time in Gaotai, Gansu Province, and I’m familiar with many issues that concern these older people. Society pays little attention to old people left behind in rural China, or their worries about life and death. Yet there are close to 200 million elderlies in China, (according to news reports, roughly 10 percent of China’s population is now over the age of 65) and how can a group that size be ignored? Right now, we only seem to be interested in the future, not the past. But the future and past are connected, and we’ll all get old one day. We should care more about older people’s concerns.
Growing up I also had a lot of questions about life and death. What’s the purpose of life? Why is it that many peasants prefer to have boys rather than girls, etc. While filming The Old Donkey, for example, I found many answers. I found out why Chinese peasants are so insistent on having sons—because as farmers, they don’t enjoy any social welfare benefits. I know this because my mother was a farmer. And since daughters will leave sooner or later after getting married, having sons is about the only way farmers can ensure that someone will look after them when they get old.
In The Old Donkey, we see how the elderly fight to the bitter end against the county’s decision to redistribute their land to those who agree to use agricultural machinery. Land grabs are a serious issue in rural China. How much of the story is based on events in your hometown?
Land reform started in 2009 across China, not just in Gansu. This caused a lot of conflict. Although the central government said land reforms should not be implemented by force, regional governments often went ahead, ratcheting up tensions. These problems were especially common a few years ago. Unfortunately, many policies are made without taking into account the situation on the ground.
In The Old Donkey, you focus on how family relationships are being transformed in fast-changing China, especially for the elderly left behind without anyone to care for them. For example, none of the three sons in The Old Donkey is there for the old man when he’s sick. Ironically, it’s the daughter who ends up taking him to the hospital. Is this arrangement intentional? Why?
You could say that I intentionally depicted all three sons absent from the village but it is also based on reality. In rural China, almost all young men head to the city as migrant workers. Women are generally left behind to take care of older parents and tend the fields. In many ways, the wives of migrant workers are forced to pick up the slack, their load doubled as they juggle farming and domestic chores.
In the original version, there was a reference to the Great Famine in 1960 that did not survive the cut. In that unused scene, several old men gather around a table and talk about how they saved their limited food rations for their sons during the famine years and let their daughters starve to death. The characters thought they had no other choices because they needed the boys to care for them later. As an old saying suggests, “Raise boys for your old age.” They believed their daughters would marry and leave town and cannot, therefore, help them secure their old age.
So, in the end, none of the grandfather’s three sons stay in the village to take care of him when he’s old and sick. It is his youngest daughter who stays and helps him tend the field, bringing him lunch and going to great lengths to get him to the hospital when he falls ill. Other old people in the village are jealous of Old Donkey’s daughter because they don’t have anyone left to care for them.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Chinese tradition of raising boys for your old age has not survived the changing times. The fact is that as young males leave the village for better opportunities, they leave their aging parents behind unattended. There’s a real gap between tradition and reality in Chinese society right now. What happens to these older people? How will they cope with their lives and old age? These are urgent questions I wanted to raise in the movie.
In your movie Fly with the Crane, we see the grandfather character so opposed to the idea of being cremated that he asks his grandchildren to secretly bury him “alive.” Why is it that older people in rural China are so against cremation, to the point that some would rather die prematurely to ensure their traditional burial?
I think it has a lot to do with the fact that they work on the land all their lives. When you work day in and day out with the earth, your livelihood relies on harvesting from nature and you come to see the power of the earth and how it perpetuates the life cycle. Harvest is life itself, and the earth is what bestows life. Life begins and ends with the earth.
So, to them, it’s a very natural thing to want to bury their bones in the earth, return them back to the soil and make this final contribution to the land. They see being cremated as breaking that cycle. That’s why in the film, the old man thinks seriously about dying early to ensure a traditional burial, rather than waiting to die later and be cremated. This attitude is very common and very real.
Take An’qing, a city in Anhui Province, as an example. Several elderly people there saved money for years, perhaps even decades, for a coffin. They committed suicide in April and May of 2014 ahead of a June reform deadline that made traditional burials illegal. After the deadline, cremation was the only way villagers could dispose a body. Many policies in China are made without taking into account the practical situations. It may be reasonable to implement a cremation policy in cities, given its environmental benefits and limited land resources, but less crowded areas such as north- western China should not be subject to the same policy.
I also want to add that for my relatives and many older folks in my village, death is part of life, they’re not afraid of it or particularly superstitious. In fact, my great uncle—who won a prize at the Australia-based Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival for playing the lead role in Fly with The Crane—is no different. When we heard he’d won the best actor prize, we scrambled to find him something presentable for him to wear.
We were in such a rush we forgot to bring any formal clothes, and in Australia, we couldn’t find anything that he felt comfortable wearing. Eventually we stumbled on some funeral homes in Chinatown selling special clothes meant for the dead. My great uncle was very pleased with what we bought and didn’t feel strange or unlucky at all by their association with death. He wore his “long-life” outfit at the ceremony to accept his award.
In Fly with the Crane, you used a lot of long takes, and the pace of the film is extremely slow. What was your thought in using this approach?
I did this deliberately because I wanted the audience to get a sense of what the passage of time is like from the old man’s perspective. “Should I choose this moment to die or not?” is a very important decision for the grandfather, and he needs a lot of time to think about it. The pas- sage of time is really life itself. I believe the psychological rhythms of an old man come in waves, and I wanted to express this in the movie.
In the film you will notice it’s the children and old people who end up spending a lot of time together because they are the ones with a lot of time on their hands to ponder the meaning of life and death. The adults, on the other hand, are too busy or too worried about making money.
I also feel as human beings, we come into this world without any choice over when and where we’re born. But we should at least have the right to choose when, where and how we die. In the movie, the grandfather’s friend’s last wish that he has a traditional burial is ignored and he is ultimately cremated. That gives the grandfather a lot to think about when he considers whether to take things into his own hands while he still has time.
River Road, your third feature, is about two young boys crossing the remote Northwestern desert on a camel’s back as they search for their missing father. Can you tell us more about this film?
The film is a road movie about two boys from the Yugur ethnic minority left behind in a remote village with their grandfather while their father works in the city. When grandpa dies, the two estranged boys are forced to cross the desert together to look for their father and their home. On the road, they witness the devastating ecological destruction and desertification of their ancestral land, which is dying due to natural and man-made climate change. Along the way, the two warring brothers must find a way to reconnect and work together to survive the dangerous journey.
And at the end of the film, you see a factory in the middle of the desert, which is quite shocking….
The film is really an ecological fable. The speed of China’s industrialization is extremely fast. The two boys hope to find a greener pasture when they start the search for their father. But the reality is very disappointing, and that is something a lot of younger people must face in the future. We all want to improve our society, but when the pace is so fast that it interferes with our everyday lives and the environment, then creation becomes rather meaningless.
China used to be a nation very mindful of living harmoniously with the environment. But economic development has taken priority over ecology, so the losses really outweigh the gains. Unfortunately, when the entire Chinese population is focused only on making money, few are interested in the wellbeing of our souls.
Walking Past the Future is very different from your previous films in part because it’s a much bigger production, both in terms of budget and production time. What did you find most challenging about making this film?
When I made The Old Donkey and Fly with the Crane, I made them in a village I’m very familiar with because I grew up there. I also had absolute control over how many days to do the shooting. And the villagers knew me well and were very cooperative, keeping quiet whenever I asked them to. With Walking Past the Future, it was entirely different. Most of the shooting was done in Shenzhen, a very busy city. This meant we had to juggle with complicated traffic rules.
At certain hours, for example, we couldn’t drive into a narrow street with a big truck and had to make do with a smaller car. We also had to apply to many different government departments, including a hospital where we did a significant part of our filming. We had several scenes that required shooting on a very busy street, and it was extremely difficult to keep everyday pedestrians from walking in front of the camera. We had to dispatch many crew members onto the street to explain and ask for their cooperation. Logistically, it was very challenging and a bit of a nightmare, not to mention our having to constantly shift our film crews between locations.
You also added a few professionals, like Yang Zishang and Yin Fang, as the lead actor and actress in your otherwise all non-professional cast. How did that work out?
I found working with a professional cast easier than with non-professionals because their performances are much more effective. When I worked with non-professional actors, I often had to spend one or two months teaching them how to read the screenplay, how to memorize their lines and how to act, and we took a lot of time rehearsing.
However, when working with professionals, you have tighter time constraints because they have very busy shooting schedules. In this case, they would only give me 15 to 18 days of their time, so I had to work around their schedules by first completing all the scenes involving them. This often meant setting up and dismantling different sets over and over again because the scenes are shot out of sequence.
It ended up taking a lot of time. When working with non-professionals I didn’t have to worry too much about time schedules. I usually shoot the scenes chronologically, which allows me to better concentrate on the story. This film also involves a much bigger cast because it’s a story about the destinies of several characters, and this also adds to the challenge.
If you could sum up the one theme that connects all your films, what might that be?
I’ve never really considered the themes of my movies, but if there were one common thread, I’d say it’s the relationship between transformation and those who are forced to transform. In China, policies are very top-down, very subjective and not at all well planned. And despite the government’s best intention to improve lives, many policies have in fact backfired. And in the process, a lot of resources are wasted.
Chinese authorities recently amended the film law effective April 2017. You’re already an established filmmaker. Will the change affect your filmmaking?
Of course, it will affect me. I imagine I will become less free. I’m actually very conflicted about it. Some of my peers feel that being an independent filmmaker means you can avoid subjecting your films to censorship. They feel strongly that they should stay away from authorities because, by subjecting your films to their rules, you’re inadvertently empowering them and subscribing to their views.
While I see the logic in this argument, I also can’t help but wonder why I’m making films in the first place. I make films about ordinary people and I want my films to reach as many ordinary people as possible. If I did not send my films to the censors, many ordinary folks would never have a chance to see my films (because these films would not stand a chance of being released in a Chinese theater.) So, in the end, what’s the point of my making films? I have to ask. Without the Chinese audience, would I not end up a filmmaker bent on “selling China’s bitterness” to the foreign market, as some critics charge?
My films are set in China, and I want those living in the environment I portray to be able to watch these films. So, I feel I have to work with the system and apply for a screening permit so my films can reach more Chinese viewers. My hopes are that eventually the film laws will improve, especially if the censorship bureau adopts a rating system. Right now, we are under a lot of pressure, and we end up thinking a lot before we even start our projects, worrying about whether our approach will ultimately make the cut or cause trouble for our production companies. The new law has made it a punishable offense for any producer to screen films in public without having a proper screening license.
Before the law was enacted we were able to participate in film festivals without applying for a longbiao. We could always apply for it afterwards if needed. Now, this isn’t possible. Getting a permit is mandatory if you want to participate in any film festival, domestic or international. Any violation, when discovered, will not only mean hefty fines for the filmmaker and producer alike, it also subjects them to very tough punishment, including being barred from touching any film for a long time. So, we really want to avoid causing trouble for our producers by not following the rules. The only way I see getting around this bind is to invest my own money in a film that might be too sensitive. That way, if there’s a problem with the film, I’ll be the only one responsible.
What about up-and-coming indie filmmakers? What sort of impact will this law have on those who have not yet made their first film?
New filmmakers, given their lack of experience, won’t know what the censors allow and what they don’t. This is a huge disadvantage. Another worry is that many of their imaginative ideas will be killed out of fear they will offend the authorities, that self-censorship will destroy their creativity before they even begin. Afterall, the rules outlined by authorities are not very clear. Even movies streamed on the Internet face more scrutiny, and the government can remove content anytime. These days, Internet providers are also less willing to air films that don’t have a screening license.
Fly with The Crane
The second work of Li’s “Hometown Trilogy,” Fly with the Crane, tells the story of an elderly farmer from a small village in Northwestern China who must decide whether to take control of his own death. This comes after he finds out that the preferred, traditional burial option in his area will soon be disallowed. It is an intimate, thought-provoking film that takes an unflinching look at aging, life and death in rural China—a rare look at a group that’s easily overlooked.
Similar to The Old Donkey, Li’s debut feature, Fly with the Crane is about the changing human relationship with the land. Unlike the first film, however, Fly with the Crane is less a denouncement of unfair local land policies than an old man’s simple love for the earth, life and his touching relationship with his grandchildren.
The film is slow-paced without being tedious or sentimental, and maintains tension throughout by contrasting the lively games of the grandchildren against the slow, contemplative stillness of Old Ma. The old man’s inner struggle over his preferred death is also skillfully set off by the brilliant colors and idyllic exterior of the countryside.
Ostensibly based on renowned Chinese novelist Su Tong’s short story with the same title, in fact only its final 20 minutes is taken directly from that story. The script’s first 80 minutes are written by Li based on his experience living with the elderly in Gaotai, his hometown. The film cost 1 million RMB (roughly US $154,500) to make, and the decision to shoot it using an amateur cast was partially motivated by cost, although a more important consideration was to make it almost entirely in the local Gansu dialect—a language most professional actors wouldn’t be able to handle.
The film is partially funded by Heaven Pictures, a non-profit media firm devoted to promoting art-house films. When Beijing authorities heard that the 69th Venice International Film Festival had allowed Fly with the Crane to compete in 2012, they approached Li and asked him to make changes and cuts before the premiere. Li declined, and the picture was screened in its entirety at the festival. Perhaps in 2012, the censorship rules were still relatively lax, Li said he did not face any consequences for that decision.
About Karen Ma
Author Karen Ma is a US-based journalist, independent film scholar and movie critic specializing in Chinese cinema. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, NPR, dGenerate, The Japan Times and The South China Morning Post. Ma was raised in Hong Kong and Japan, educated in the US and was a former Chinese culture and film lecturer at The Beijing Center of Chinese Studies, China. She is also the author of The Modern Madame Butterfly and Excess Baggage, A Novel.