An Interview with Zhang Mengqi (Director)
Past, Future, and Life Force
Q: You shot this film in wintertime, as you did your previous film Self-Portrait: Sphinx in 47 KM. Why was that?
ZM: In wintertime, there’s the Chinese New Year, a season when villagers return home. Also, I feel that the quiet of winter expresses the melancholy of daily life. When I first started filming in the winter, I stayed in the village for one or two months, but recently I stay for three or four months. This allows me to capture the changes from winter to spring. The landscape seems to promise the rebirth of something anew.
Q: I was captivated by the method you chose, to contrast the old man commenting on history with a young girl.
ZM: Most of my time in the village is spent talking to the residents. Over time, I accumulated lots of footage of old people and children. I realized that through talking to the elderly and to children, I was touching two extremes. In other words, they are the past and the future. In the meantime, I call the films I make “self-portraits.” The deeper I enter the village, the more I realize that if I am to face myself in the present, I need to confront the past and the future . Discovering the village was a huge gift for myself.
It is easy to pass judgment on the village as being a conservative place. But every time I go there, there are so many discoveries that stop me from making a simple assessment. The richness of the village is multi-fold, and the only way to understand it is to learn a bit at a time, as if you would read a thick book.
Q: There’s the scene of Li Guiting remembering the past. You edited the image of his figure sitting by the coal heater and his storytelling voice together.
ZM: Whoever you try to portray, there are always so many people who are related to them. I attempted to express these multi-layered relationships through the method of combining the image and the voice. I used a wide shot to convey that there is also a conversation with his room. His room is filled with the history from 1949 to today. The building, the walls, the wood, even Mao Zedong’s eyes looking down from the wall—they seem to be saying something. When I first started filming Li Guiting in 2012, I focused on issues surrounding the Great Famine, but as he started talking about the period before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, I became more interested in his stories and gradually started to ask him to speak freely.
Q: There’s the dance scene “I dreamed of becoming a window.” What were your objectives?
ZM: I’ve been inserting lots of metaphorical scenes in my films since the previous Sphinx in 47 KM. This time I envisioned the village as a stage and expressed its life force. You may think the dancer is me, but actually she is Fanghong. With no exception to these dance sequences, I would say that in all the scenes you see me and her, the character is neither “Fanghong” nor “me”—it is “a combination of Fanghong and me.” As I proceeded in my filming, there were moments of awareness I encountered when a character becomes someone else. For example, in the case of Li Guiting, in addition to being himself, he also turned into someone who invites and guides us through history.
Q: Will you go to the village this winter again?
ZM: Yes. I am now setting up a small space in the village. I want to use the place for workshops and for showing films. I hope to bring things to the village that the village by itself cannot obtain.
(Compiled by Matsuki Kenichiro)
Interviewers: Matsuki Kenichiro, Sato Hiroaki / Interpreter: Akiyama Tamako / Translator: Fujioka Asako
Photography: Tadera Saeko / Video: Kusunose Kaori / 2019-10-13