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“Fucking amazing!” was filmmaker Qiu Yang’s two-word acceptance speech upon becoming the first Chinese director to win the top Palme d’Or prize at Cannes Film Festival in May 2017. With his new short She Runs, Qiu has just scored his second Cannes win in three years, taking home the Leitz Cine Discovery Prize for Short Film last month in France.
Despite his headline-grabbing success, the 30-year-old auteur prefers to keep the film industry at arm’s length, and maintains a refreshingly humble focus on his craft and his hometown of Changzhou. The small-for-China city of 4.5 million in southern Jiangsu province is well removed from the high-rise hustle of megacities like nearby Shanghai — “a city with no characteristics,” in Qiu’s words.
Born in a lower-tier Chinese city and educated at the Victorian College of the Arts in Australia, Qiu offers a distinctive perspective on the opportunities and challenges facing young directors in China today. “I believe there’s a wave of cultural awakening happening in China, and hope maybe this could be the beginning of something new,” Qiu says, before acknowledging that, “Chinese arthouse films are struggling between artistic pursuit and regulatory pressure.”
His blunt advice for fellow directors aspiring to maintain artistic independence: “Learn English and look elsewhere.”
Nonetheless, Qiu’s oeuvre to date tells a story about life in China that is deeply local, rooted, and confidently understated. Following his latest success at Cannes, RADII spoke to the Palme d’Or winner about Chinese cinema’s “cultural awakening,” increasingly strict regulations on artistic expression, his international and local influences, and the broad-based appeal of telling emotionally resonant stories at the scale of hometown memories:
RADII: Your latest short, She Runs, has just won the Leitz Cine Discovery Award at Cannes. What was your inspiration for the plot, which revolves around a junior high student trying to quit her school’s compulsory dance team?
A childhood memory inspired the story. When I was in primary school, I was selected as part of the school marching band. Naturally, it was seen as an honor for my parents. So without me knowing what it was, they accepted it for me. And after one or two years of training, I started to realize that I didn’t really enjoy it, and wanted to quit.
But because it was such a big fuss, the teacher didn’t want me to leave. She thought the school had spent a lot of resources and energy to train me, and that it wasn’t up to me to quit. My skills sort of made me belong to them. It was an event in my childhood that I still remember today, and when I was searching for inspiration for my new short, this was the story that kept coming back to my head.
Your 2017 Palme d’Or-winning short A Gentle Night was inspired by a report in your hometown paper about a group of children who went missing, and then reappeared under mysterious circumstances. In one sense, this style of reporting — leaving crucial details out, for opaque reasons — is a kind of “storytelling” that’s not uncommon in Chinese news media. What influence, if any, does the way Chinese media (as opposed to media in a place like Australia, where you studied) influence your own approach to storytelling?
I wouldn’t necessarily think the Chinese media is influencing my storytelling. Because I feel media is only one way of getting inspiration. Same as this type of “half-told” story. I’m also often fascinated by well-told and deeply-researched stories in Western media. But reading a story with the “main part” left out is usually how I can get hooked.
You’ve said before that Robert Bresson is one of your key influences. On the About page of your personal website you have a quote from Bresson: “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.” What do your films make visible that no one else’s do?
I try to be as honest as I can when I tell my stories. Almost all my shorts are about my own life experience, stories or events — a way for me to try to understand them. I believe I am the only one who can offer my personal stories, and if I offer them with honesty, they become unique, but also universal for everyone who watches them.
Your About page also includes a still from Besson’s film Au Hasard Balthazar, arguably the purest distillation of his ascetic filmmaking style. From a technical or aesthetic standpoint, what Bressonian tactics do you adopt? What about Edward Yang, one of your key Chinese-language influences?
I believe Bresson inspires all filmmakers. I don’t necessarily adopt [his tactics] directly, but try to understand the idea behind his methodology, and then apply that with my own personality and situation. I’m fascinated with his view of working with the actor, as I have worked with only non-professional actors for my past three projects. I don’t use rehearsals, but often shoot a lot of takes on set — it’s a way of rehearsing and shooting at the same time. Also, the way Bresson “sees” sound is a super essential element in my films: how to build depth in the soundscape, and how to use sound to tell stories.
With Edward Yang, it’s like Bresson, and he’s inspired probably every Chinese filmmaker. I do see a similarity between Edward Yang and Robert Bresson’s film worlds, and it’s hard for me to articulate — a way of them seeing the world, but also an idea of how they understand film as a medium.
She Runs stars Xue Jiayi, a young actress who as far as I can tell hasn’t starred in any other film. A Gentle Night also features a non-actress, opera performer Li Shuxian, in its leading role. Why do you choose to work with such actresses who are inexperienced in front of the camera? What are the pros and cons of this approach?
From an aesthetic point of view, I don’t differentiate between professional or non-professional actors. I just choose the right actors for the right projects. But of course, from a practical point of view, trying to find a good and professional actor who can speak Changzhou local dialect for a short film is just impossible. And to me, working with a good and right non-professional first-timer is super liberating. The way of working with professionals and non-professionals is naturally different, but the goal is always to find a good, naturalistic and believable performance. For non-professionals, I don’t really need them to act in front of the camera, I only need them to be themselves.
I think when you pick the right actor — doesn’t matter whether professional or non-professional — there are only pros, no cons. And finding the right one is the hardest part.
The Chinese title of She Runs is Nanfang Shaonv (南方少女), “Southern Girl”. You are from the south, Changzhou, and your films seem to mostly be set there, as opposed to first-tier cities like Shanghai. What is “southern” about your approach to filmmaking, or the stories you choose to tell? Does Changzhou hold a special attraction to you as a locus for your work, as Fenyang has for Jia Zhangke or the industrial north did for Hu Bo?
Changzhou is my hometown, so I do think there’s something special about it. First of all, it is the place that I was born and raised for my whole life, and so far, all of my films are actually inspired by my own stories, or stories that I have heard around me. So naturally, I believe Changzhou is the perfect place to tell them.
Also, I think Changzhou is a small and ordinary city. A city with no characteristics, a town like numerous other Chinese cities. Because I’m hoping to tell stories that will echo with different, everyday Chinese lives, so I think a small town with nothing special is also the perfect place to tell my stories. That’s the most “Chinese” city — not Shanghai or Beijing.
I’m hoping to tell stories that will echo with different, everyday Chinese lives, so I think a small town with nothing special is the perfect place to tell my stories
Critics have broken the history of mainland Chinese filmmakers into six generations, with the sixth composed of turn-of-millennium auteurs such as Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye. Do you think there is a coherent “seventh generation” active now, or is this framework no longer meaningful? How would you describe the current wave of young filmmakers in China?
I don’t know if there is one, and I don’t really follow these things. I do think it is super exciting to see all the young filmmakers appear, and I’m friends with a lot of them. I also believe there’s a wave of cultural awakening happening in China, and hope maybe this could be the beginning of something new.
As China’s entertainment industry becomes both more commercial and more diverse in the platforms and resources available, what does the future hold for Chinese filmmakers — especially those who wish to adopt a more artistic or independent style?
I don’t know. I don’t really see myself as part of the industry, nor do I intend to become part of it. I only maintain a minimum contact with the industry as I do need some resources from it when I make my films. I don’t really know what the future holds, but I’d suggest learning English and trying to look elsewhere if you are hoping to remain artistically independent.
You’ve scored two impressive Cannes wins, and have also participated in other world-class festivals like Berlinale. From what you’ve observed, how has Chinese cinema’s place in the world changed or evolved in recent years?
It’s hard for me to answer this question, as I’m not really a Chinese film scholar, so I have never observed the trend of Chinese films. I do think Chinese arthouse films are struggling between artistic pursuit and regulatory pressure. On one hand, there are more and more talented young directors appearing; on the other hand, regulation is increasingly stricter.
Cover image: Still from She Runs, Winner of 2019 Festival de Cannes Critics’ Week Leitz Cine Discovery Prize
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