YIDFF 2023 International Competition

Self-Portrait: 47 KM 2020
Zhang Mengqi (Director)

Interviewer: Yuki Hidetake

Two systems of time

Yuki Hidetake (YH): You have been filming in 47KM village for a long time, but audiences will see the summer and autumn in this village for the first time in Self-Portrait: 47KM 2020. I think this has partly to do with the lockdown during the pandemic. Could you tell us about how the film came to be realized under these circumstances?

Zhang Mengqi (ZM): It was the first time for me to be able to see the four seasons in the village. In the past, I basically went to the village during the winter season for shooting, so this was a completely different experience.

The “Blue House” appeared in my previous film, Self-Portrait: Fairy Tale in 47 KM, but as of 2019, I did not expect that I would be living inside it for such a long time. However, the pandemic in early 2020 led to the lockdown after Wuhan of Zuizhou, where I was at that time. Zuizhou is in Hubei Province, the same province as Wuhan, and is less than 100 km away. The original plan was for the city to be locked down from January 23 to March 16, but nobody knew what would happen after that. At that point, the Blue House already had water and electricity so I thought, “OK, why not live here!” and I returned to 47KM village.

When I built the Blue House, I was full of hope. I had thought that there might be some external factors that would prevent me from working there, for example, the situation in the village or pressure from the government, but I never imagined that a completely new situation, COVID-19, would prevent so many things.

So when I came back to the Blue House, I was feeling very depressed. But the village was also sealed off, so nobody there could go anywhere else. As a result, children came to the house every day to play. When I saw them playing, my depression seemed to gradually disappear.

The year that followed was a time when the many things that happened in the village—whether to do with children, adults or the work that took place there—worked to greatly cheer me. That is the background that led me to film this complete year in the village.

YH: This film is structured in chapters based on the twenty-four solar terms of the year.

ZM: In the film, two time-keeping methods are actually mentioned. Time is recorded in solar term and also as months and days in 2020 of the western calendar. The western calendar represents the time linked to the global shared experience of the pandemic, while the solar terms represent lived time linked to nature and rooted in the village.

No matter how long you are inside the village, you still receive information about what is happening outside. I mean, both times exist in the same space. But I think the film shows how everyday time gradually regains importance in their lives. For example, in the beginning, just after the start of the pandemic, the villagers kept socially distanced from each other when they talked. Eventually, they gradually started to work together and chat. In other words, I was also documenting their change, as they were returning to their everyday time.

YH: I know what you mean. When my grandfather was a farmer, I had a sense of time that was somehow ingrained in my body: what time of year we would do the preparing of the fields for, and then the planting of the rice. Now that I live alone and my grandfather has passed away, this sense of time has faded considerably, but this film reminded me of what I once had.

ZM: I have exactly the same feeling as you just mentioned. I also feel a completely different connection between life and nature when I am in the village compared to elsewhere. In village life, early morning and evening are the busiest and I become nervous. Because it’s so humid at those times, if you hang your washing out to dry, for example, it gets damp very quickly, and if you don’t take it in, you’re in big trouble. This is especially so in spring. When you go outside, there is already moisture all over the place. When you live in a city covered with asphalt, you can’t feel that the air is so different depending on the season and the time of day.

I have lived in cities basically all my life, from childhood to now. I have lived in Beijing for more than a decade, after I went to university there. I imagined that living in a village would of course be more inconvenient than in a city, or that there would be many differences because there are fewer people, but I did not realize until I actually lived there how much the power of nature dominates village life. For example, there are many animals in the village. There are truly countless species, and they come and go with the seasons. In what month this insect appears, in what month the bees fly, and so on. These changes happen one after another in daily life. I really felt that the sense of time inscribed in the twenty-four solar terms is embodied by the life of the village.

The power of nature

YH: As you say, in this work, I feel that a linear and irreversible view of history and a sense of time circulating with the seasons are miraculously linked in the threat of the pandemic.

ZM: In looking back at my own footage, I have also noticed so many things. It was a very refreshing experience for me to discover that a lot of wisdom resides in their labor and daily tasks.

In the film, they worry and talk about information coming from outside, such as what happened in Wuhan, how many people died, or their fear of the virus. While the information is spoken, they also tell us many things without using words. In the course of their various tasks, they show us their knowledge of themselves, their knowledge of life. It was not just information, but their knowledge, how they make a living and how they labor. I learnt more from this than from their words.

YH: The film is truly also about labor. May I ask you a few details? In the middle of the film, a large group of villagers make and pack sawdust. At first we cannot figure out what they are doing, but eventually realize that it is shiitake mushroom cultivation. Is that a rather common way of cultivation in China today?

ZM: Yes. I have heard that they used to cultivate it by spraying the fungus on the logs, in the very old days. My mother told me that she used to grow them that way too. But that method was not efficient, so in order to increase the yield, the method of putting sawdust in bags was adopted. By doing so, it seems they were able to harvest twice a year instead of once a year.

The shiitake mushrooms they grow are a very high-quality product and are for export. They are proud of it. My hometown is also very famous for growing shiitake mushrooms. Well, of course, they sell for export at a high price, but the money they get is not so much.

YH: There is one long scene where white tarps are replaced with blue ones, I believe. What is that?

ZM: I actually don’t know what they are doing, but those tarps are originally blue. When they are exposed to the sun, wind and rain, they turn white. In other words, I think they are replacing the old with the new.

I don’t think the film has yet adequately portrayed shiitake mushroom cultivation. They take care of their shiitake mushrooms every day. If the sun shines brightly, they open the cover to expose them to the sun. Or, if it is too hot, they protect them with a black cover for shading. And if it is too cold, they put both blue and black covers over them to keep them warm, and so on, day after day.

YH: One more thing. They go out to catch centipedes on summer nights, don’t they? Are those centipedes ever for sale?

ZM: Centipedes can be sold as an ingredient in herbal medicines. Other than centipedes, they also sell cicada shells. There is a scene where a child talks about a dream she had, right? In which her grandmother was catching snakes and centipedes. Those wild insects and reptiles come out all at once when the summer heat comes, and catching and selling them is part of their life. It can be quite good money.

YH: They have these blessings of nature, so to speak, but on the other hand, they also have floods in the summer that ruin all the vegetables. Bad things happen too.

ZM: That is precisely one of the things I was trying to convey in this film by filming all year round. Nature, at the same time as bringing us blessings, has no qualms about wreaking havoc on our best attempts. There have actually been floods and in another season, there was a drought that lasted for days. And just before I came to Yamagata this time, it rained for a whole week and the roads in the area were flooded, so it was difficult to get out of the village.

Oblivion and cyclicity

YH: You spent a whole year in the village of 47KM for this film. Do you intend to continue living there?

ZM: Yes. In 2020 I lived in the Blue House for the whole year, in 2021 I spent half my time between my studio in Beijing and there, and in 2022 I basically came back to the Blue House and decided to continue to live there. Next year the lease of the studio in Beijing will expire, so I’m going to move into the Blue House.

YH: The film takes the year 2020, a rather universally unique year in modern history, and beautifully depicts it by juxtaposing it with people’s daily lives. But three years have passed since then, and we are living as if it is already past history, but this film makes me wonder. Do we really understand what happened at the time?

ZM: I think there are complex issues there. I don’t know what the situation is like in other countries, but in China, the government took a very hard line on the pandemic, and it lasted for a very long three years. When that was over, it was as if the situation had suddenly changed again overnight.

In the end, I don’t think any of us really know what this virus is. It’s just like we don’t really understand what it means to live in this country of ours, even though we take it for granted. At the same time, more than the virus itself, we had to struggle with everything that came with it. In Japan did you feel you were mainly confronting a virus? Or does “COVID-19”connote a much more complex situation?

YH: The film opens with the question, “What is COVID-19 to you?.” And we see this question to the children as funny and heartwarming. But then we come to realize that we don’t know any more about it than they do.

ZM: We have memories that are etched into our bodies as we go through life. But on the other hand, people also try to forget about things that happened in the past. I feel this force towards forgetting is also very strong. I just spoke to a Chinese student who saw this film, and told me that their family in China does not want to talk about the pandemic at all, as if they think it is better to forget quickly, and by forgetting, they can finally move on. I think it is also a human ability to forget the painful past.

However, early on in the film, there is a woman who tells us that “disaster is not something that happens only once, but it comes again and again, time after time.” She is a distant aunt of mine, and I think it is also important to think like her. If calamities come back repeatedly in different forms, forgetting and pretending like nothing happened is not going to solve everything.

Another thought I had was how easily our daily life can be taken away or stolen from us. While I was making this film I kept thinking about how easily a way of life with roots, or a sustainability that has lasted until now, can be taken away.

YH: Your works continue to document the activities of the village people over a long period of time. I think it is an action against forgetting. At the same time, I feel that your recent works have gained a great deal of strength from the imagination of children in particular. I feel that resisting the impulse to consign memories to oblivion and imagining what is to come is what we need, especially in these times.

Compiled by Yuki Hidetake
Translated by Kae Ishihara

Photography: Ishikawa Hiroaki / Video: Sato Hiroaki / Interpreter: Akiyama Tamako / 2023-10-09

Yuki Hidetake
Film critic and editor. Yuki co-edited Eiga kukan 400 sen (LIXIL Shuppan, 2011); co-authored Edward Yang saikou/saiken (Film Art, Inc., 2017); John Carpenter dokuhon (boid, 2018) and has contributed to film brochures.