By Martin Kudláč.
The inaugural edition of the Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival introduced several emerging filmmakers from the Chinese independent cinema. China produces over 800 films annually and lacks a vital platform to curate new independent production for potential domestic and international releases. Pingyao was founded by successful independent filmmaker Jia Zhangke and veteran festival director Marco Muller with the intention to promote daring independent domestic production. Among the latest crop was the feature debut One Night on the Wharf written and directed by one of China’s most important avant-garde poets, Han Dong, a successful essayist, short story writer, and novelist. Adapting his own novel 在码头 (On the Pier), the film is produced by Jia Zhangke as a part of his emerging filmmakers’ Wings Project. Dong follows a group of poets as they see their colleague to a ferry and experience a run-in with low-level security guard, a jab at domestic government in Hong’s stealth satire. Film International had a chance to talk to the revered poet about his transition to different medium and independent Chinese cinema.
Since you had such a success in poetry, why did you want to make a film?
I am a poet and a novelist who has written 20 novels. I got a bit tired of my ordinary life writing novels and poems; that’s why I wanted a new challenge in the form of adapting one of my works from 1998 to film.
Why did you choose film since it is a completely different approach, as opposed to solitude of writing, shooting a film is a collective process?
Back in 2008, Jia Zhangke came to me and ask me to write a script for his film In the Qing Dynasty which has not been yet produced. From that moment on, I collaborated with many filmmakers and made friends in the industry while having a small parts in their films. And then, this chance of making a film presented itself and I took on the challenge.
What does it mean “a chance to make a film presented itself”? Somebody gave you money to make a film or did you receive a fund?
I had a dinner with a businessman who offered to sponsor a movie. “I will give you five million yuans to make a film,” he said and since I had already have an idea what I wanted to make, I accepted. In the end, the businessman failed to deliver the money but since I have been already working on this idea, I talked to producers so that we could find others sponsors to make it happen. That was the beginning.
How did you perceive the whole process of making a film?
Of course, the process is completely different than writing a novel. Writing a poetry or novel is an individual endeavor but making a film is a group effort. It is all about communication, exchange of experience and wisdom. Being a director is like being a manager of a collective that is the main difference to writing and the thing I find interesting.
Did you have any previous hands-on experience or were you learning on the go on the set of One Night on the Wharf?
Even though I had an experience from participating on films of my friends, this was completely new and different experience. I was engaged in every stage of the project and filmmaking – seeking the funding, dealing with the board of censors and other industry professionals. So I had to pass through the whole process and I learnt on the go.
What does it mean dealing with the board of censors in your case?
Well, I adapted one of my novels for the film and I had to submit the script to the board of censors.
Were there any problems? Was the script accepted right away or did you have to change something?
Well, in the story, there is a policeman which I had to rewrite into a security guard. This is very sensitive thing to indicate that a government is doing something it should not.
So you can write about a policeman but cannot repeat the very same thing in a film?
Literature and cinema have different boards of censors as well as different standards. Regarding writing, you have wider freedom of expression but since films are for vast public, certain tweaks had to be applied.
What was the process of adapting your own work like especially with regard to transition to different medium with its own characteristics?
The novel has a lot of passages dealing with psychology of the characters and that´s something you cannot repeat in the film. I had to find a way how to show what my characters are like other way. This was very different approach.
Was your film already released in China?
We have just received permission for the film to be released but we have yet to find a distributor.
Were you a cineaste before turning to filmmaking?
I love cinema but the thing I am most interested in is the collaborative work the director has to do. That´s the most fascinating thing being a filmmaker. I have collaborated with a lot of directors and independent filmmakers like Jia Zhangke and having small roles in their films eventually led to being interested in making a film by myself.
So the influence on your work stems from domestic and local filmmakers?
Nobody specific but I always loved independent filmmakers like Jia Zhangke and Jim Jarmusch. Those would be the most significant inspirations.
When you say independent Chinese cinema, what do you mean exactly?
China´s environment is for independent filmmakers a bit difficult but it is not all about censorship. It is mostly about money. Young filmmakers used have problems finding finances and sponsors for their work. However, it is not such an issue nowadays since so much money is pouring into filmmaking and film business. Once the money are in, directors are being asked about profits and that may change their ideas of their independence in terms of their own work. I find that a bit bizarre and question this trend in our film industry. This may be the biggest challenge for Chinese independent filmmakers, the capital coming into the film business and how to preserve own voice and filmmaking style. This is the biggest concern.
Martin Kudláč is a freelance film journalist and independent scholar contributing regularly to a variety of online and offline outlets. He holds PhD. in Aesthetics and is an external lecturer and researcher at The Institute of Literary and Art Communication at Constantine the Philosopher University at Nitra, Slovakia; a film industry reporter; and co-author of the upcoming book Images of the Hero in the Cultural Memory (Constantine the Philosopher University Press).