YIDFF 2023 International Competition

What About China?
Trinh T. Minh-ha (Director)

Interviewers: Kinoshita Chika and Kanno Yuka

Everyday medium

Kinoshita Chika (KC): My first question is about the medium. As a filmmaker with forty years of experience, you’ve worked in many different kinds of media. You started with 16mm film with Reassemblage. And you worked in 35mm for A Tale of Love. And then, starting with The Fourth Dimension, which is about Japan, you’ve been working with digital. So what intrigued me most in What About China? was your use of Hi8 footage shot thirty years ago. Was this a continuation of the Shoot for the Contents project or something else?

Kanno Yuka (KY): Yes, just to follow up, I like what you have described as “phantom image.” I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but this sort of low-resolution image captures something special. I think it’s this really interesting kind of anachronism in that phantom image. Is that related?

Trinh T. Minh-ha (TTM): Intentional—there are many reasons for the use of any film format, which may initially be more practical and circumstantial, but would end up being part of a deliberate artistic choice in the process. Let’s say that I have been working with 8mm, 16mm and 35mm films, before going on to Hi8 video, to SD with the shooting of The Fourth Dimension, and then to HD with Forgetting Vietnam. So I have been working across the whole range, and now, with digital technology, this film is released in both HD and 2K. However, I would say that at the time when I was shooting What about China? it was the advent of Hi8—state of the art in analog video. I shifted from film to video also for a practical reason, because China had then just come out from a period of unrest with the Tiananmen Square incident and shooting was quite difficult.

KC: So was the project a long documentary film from the beginning, or were you just shooting because the architecture and people were so interesting?

TTM: One thing you would notice in my documentary work is that I don’t really focus on the individual or on individual stories—except for the fictional films and also for Surname Viet Given Name Nam, in which I was working with the politics of the interview . . .

KC: (laughs) The politics of the interview! You’re making me nervous!

TTM: (laughs) Yes, if we take that into consideration, the interview is a tool like any other. But if we don’t, it becomes this righteously normalized convention—an unquestioned “antiquated device of documentary” as said in the film. While featuring stories of women from the north and the south, Surname Viet Given Name Nam focuses on the politics of interview, of translation and subtitling. In my other films, however, what is important—and this is part of my debt to the feminist struggle—is the politics of the everyday. You don’t need a story. You don’t need conflict to drive it either. These are the two requisites that prevail in mainstream films. Of course, conflict could keep the viewer awake, but it has no appeal to me. The same applies to centralizing individualist stories with little or no political and spiritual breadth.

Most of the time it’s a question of just being there, and being very attentive to what is happening in front of the camera. I usually do a lot of research, but when I arrive on the site of filming I forget about it all. So while you are shooting or editing, the film finds its own course as the materials build up. I’m just with whatever is in front of me, so that I can retain a fresh approach, taking in reality in a way that is not loaded with baggage—the knowledge we carry with us. Leaving aside such baggage is part of the politics of everyday life, because politics is not just about some recognizable governmental figure or head of state. Politics is in our everyday activities, so the politics of filmmaking is very prominent in my practice, whether in shooting and writing, or in editing, composing and structuring the film.

As I write in my recent book The Twofold Commitment, in all of my work I am committed to not just the subject, but also the process and the tools of creativity—in this case, digital cinema. What one sees in an image tells of how one sees it. That’s why making use of bygone analog Hi8 in today’s hi-tech digital world to show an architecture by and for the people is so relevant. As said in What about China?, it’s “in tune with the dirt of life.” I could have gone back to China to shoot more images in 4K. But I decided not to do so after I carefully looked at the old footage and found it definitely has its own integrity, which I wanted to preserve. It tells us about its historical moment. It tells us about the time of technology. And, of course, it tells us about what lies at the foundation of the image, which is that as soon as you see it, it’s already a memory.

KC: Because you show the Hi8 footage from almost thirty years ago, looking at it once again during the pandemic, did you find any differences in terms of point of view or perspective? Gaps that you were unaware of?

TTM: Remember the young man speaking at the audience discussion session (after the screening of What about China?) on Saturday? He said he was born in China the very same year (1993) I shot the film. He pointed out that after having seen the film, he realized he had lost something like “the wild aspect” of his self—that today, this wild aspect is no longer there in his life, his environment. And I feel a bit similar.

When I looked at the footage, I was very moved because it’s not simply a question of people disappearing, or architecture disappearing. Anything material can be reconstructed. Indeed, today the Hakka villages, for example, are being reconstructed to attract tourists. You can even go online and take a virtual trip into them. You would see some apparent inhabitants, but people are not really living there anymore. They are just there for tourists. It’s kind of a museum. So what has disappeared? Not the housing, because that could be rebuilt, but rather this whole mode of living, the everyday in its temporalities; in other words, a people’s way of life that you don’t see anymore. The images shot carry many traces of what has disappeared or is disappearing. But although what remains invisibly embedded in these images may not appear immediately evident to the eye, we could still feel it very strongly while looking at the footage. As stated in the film, “The Hi8 image (stands) as an index of the disappearing and disappeared.”

For me, this was very moving to see, especially in the time of COVID, when China was being called upon as being responsible for the pandemic outbreak and the spread of the virus. But China is so vast, so rich, with so many facets, and there are countless ways to approach it. Why is it that we are always focusing on the monetary and material aspects, on all this economic competition? So to come back to those images of daily rural life was important.

KY: It would have been so different if you reshot the images.

TTM: Actually, the Hi8 has been digitized into 2K, but what you are seeing is in the end not “better.” For me and a number of independent filmmakers, Hi8 is very peculiar. It has its own specifics. The colors are very saturated. You don’t get that kind of color in HD. Even though you can easily manipulate the digital image, you still don’t have that particular look and texture of saturated color. Also the softness of the image. Hi8 is generally rejected by film festivals because it is like the poor—the “wretched of the screen,” to hint at (Frantz) Fanon and (Hito) Steyerl. It’s as if poverty is not accepted in film festivals and entrenched exhibition venues. They see the low resolution and immediately reject the image and the work. In the face of that attitude, using Hi8 becomes a defiance, a gesture of defiance. It’s like engaging the politics of the everyday rather than focusing in on the centralized story or message. You don’t draw people in because of some high resolution. You can maintain people’s interest in other ways.

The here and now of the past

KC: OK, so while you were in China in 1993, did shooting on Hi8 enable you to avoid intervention by the local authorities?

TTM: For the previous film I did on China, Shoot for the Contents, we were followed all the time. But they’d get tired of us because we were focusing on unfinished, half-built houses, on some architectural ruins, or on what, to the official eye, seems rather pointless. For What About China?, as for the previous film, the trip was organized by my producer and collaborator, Jean-Paul Bourdier, who is an architect, artist and photographer. Through an architectural historian at Tongji University in Shanghai, we met a graduate student who was very interested in accompanying us to the countryside because he had never left the city before. He helped explain our interest in vernacular architecture to local authorities and most of the time they were very cooperative. And as you rightly noted, aside from other practical reasons, the mobility of a Hi8 camera did help to avoid lengthy bureaucratic hassle.

KC: Has this film been shown in China?

TTM: What About China? has been funded largely by Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum and this support was really a blessing. They showed not only this film, but a whole retrospective of my work. However, they had to jump through hoops and not every film passed censorship. As for What About China?, I think it’s not unlike the situation with many Chinese films on Shanghai in the 1930s, with their gorgeous women and elegant men in stylish urban settings that feature both Western and Chinese beau monde. These films seem safe in appearance. Under the guise of featuring the resistance against Japanese aggression, they were able to cater to popular desires while paying tribute to the revolutionary spirit of the Chinese Communist Party at its peak, when it was still fighting for survival and working to establish itself in rural areas. They can then be seen as dream works, unthreatening to the authorities today. But since their stories happened during the Golden Age of Chinese leftist cinema, they can also easily be turned around and read as persistent reminders of what has disappeared in that very revolutionary spirit—as related to China’s current ethnic policy and governance.

In the same way, focusing on China’s 1993–94 hinterland is an indirect way of dealing with the here and now of China’s rural situation today—namely the intensified, massive urbanization drive that promises to disappear the peasantry as a class. Some people might dismiss the images from 1993–94 as quaint old stuff—and shrug them off, for who cares about vernacular architecture anyway? So, for those who only see in them some harmless traditional villages of the past, the film may elude censorship. But for anyone working in politically sensitive conditions, learning to show and tell indirectly is a necessity.

If you stay with the film, with its questioning of urban supremacy in the ongoing project of accelerated modernization—how villages are used as construction sites for expanding cities, and how the countryside is made to disappear in the creation of a consuming class of urbanites. You could then see how the past is present. The urban-rural divide is still very current; it raises all kinds of questions related to enforced relocation and mass rehousing, as the villages are being bulldozed today in China and Tibet, and people are being evacuated to standardized high rises. This is all presented as economic development and modernization, but actually it is above all a question of control. That’s why, in the film, the questions, “What exactly is disappearing?” and “Why does rural China continue to be a threat to the leadership?” remain very relevant.


KC: Can we talk about the concept of harmony, which is really central to this film? I think it is a criticism of the concept of harmony in today’s China. But at the same time, it’s very complex and nuanced.

TTM: This brings us back to the politics of everyday life. If you are focusing on everyday life and you are giving all of yourself in that moment when you look, shoot, or edit, for example, then you have a very different kind of film that is not simply organized in the domination and submission mode so common to the film world, where sound and music are often subordinated to the visuals, whose editing is, in turn, subordinated to a centralized story. There’s harmony in the way all elements of cinema are treated equally with their different properties.

Harmony is a vast concept, and usually if you start with something that is very vast, you are always having problems as you can’t really focus. But I took this as a point of departure because, not only is it a very important concept for Chinese ethics and aesthetics across ancient and modern times, but more broadly, harmony is also a very important concept in East Asia.

If you remember in the film, there is a story taken from a Korean film (Lee Han’s A Melody to Remember) about a lieutenant who tried to save a group of hungry orphaned children. Instead of letting them go around stealing things, he taught them how to sing in a choir. Singing rather than stealing! But there are two boys who are always in conflict, always fighting each other. The teacher would pull them apart and request that they each sing a different song at the same time. They have to sing in full voice, and each has to hold his song until the end without being swayed by the other. This is a difficult task. Just imagine trying to sing right next to someone who is singing loudly a different song. Such is precisely the situation—physical and political—we have when we deal with equality and difference. The two boys were able to sing their entire songs until the end, and “This,” the teacher told them, “is harmony.” It’s a question of being able to hold difference while singing together. Harmony is not based on sameness. It doesn’t result in the blending in of dissimilarities—as in the US where diversity is normalized as a melting pot. But we don’t want to melt in, you know, we want to keep our differences.

It’s the same with the feminist struggle. We keep our difference, and we fight for equality with difference. Harmony as such is a core question for me. Today the Chinese government has appropriated the term “harmony” to its political end—especially in relation to the situation in Tibet and other non-Han territories. But, in Chinese netizens’ parlance, “sensitive” words or officially banned words are laughingly referred to as being “harmonized.” So the question remains as to how one can work with harmony without trying to blend everyone into one, and conform minority groups to the dominant group’s views, which are often taken for granted as the way and the only way to perceive the world.

That is the political situation we are in. Without losing the thread, you come up with as many possibilities as you can. Rather than simply condemning the term harmony in its deceptive use, you would work on reopening it further, allowing it to become a multidimensional interactive receptacle whose significance is kept alive. For me, the same applies to feminism. If you maintain it open with new inquiries rather than trying to close it off, it remains fully alive—expanding through differing practices and theories that intersect and mutually enrich each other within the struggle.

KY: So the film tries to open up new possibilities in our understanding of harmony.

KC: Yeah, because sometimes especially in the context of East Asia, especially with the current Chinese government, harmony is used in a very oppressive manner. However, in your case you do both: you criticize that kind of harmony but at the same time pursue the possibilities of embracing the differences within.

TTM: The film gives a wide range of entries into the term and other related concepts, often with “definitions” inspired by the I Ching. “Harmony with nature, harmony with society and harmony with oneself”—even when we go back to this archetypal definition of the term as in the film, we can immediately take it into the realm of politics and see what happens. Most of the time, the way harmony is used is only external. You work at bringing diverse elements into harmony. But what about yourself? How can people be made to harmonize with each other when they are not in harmony with themselves? And that’s why, in the film, I pointed out that China is not only over there. There’s also the China within. The China in us. As soon as we go out and put on a T-shirt from China, or we buy some toys for children made in China, we are in relation with China. We carry China with us. She’s all over the world. So rather than taking up the within and without of reality at the same time—the twofold commitment (as discussed in my latest book with the same title)—we tend to see the Other as being only over there, and that’s when things become oppressively reductive.

Harmonizing of interior and exterior: this is how the film discusses architecture in its use of light, as related to acupuncture, a treatment of the human body as a microcosm of the universe; or else, as related to geomancy or feng shui, the science of harmonizing wind and water in reading the land’s patterns of movement and stillness.

What about the title?

KY: What about the title, What About China?

TTM: Usually, a question mark is a way of remaining open to a number of possibilities. My work has always been interrogative. Rather than simply giving answers—saying “This is what China (or Japan or Vietnam) is about”—I’m working with the interrogative mode so even when I make a statement, I make it in such a way that it remains suspended, not positive or negative. The title “What about China?” actually comes from a very simple situation. During the pandemic, there were a lot of negative conversations on China. You would be sitting in a room where people discuss China and they would say so many negative things. And I would respond, “Why only China?” or “What about China?” So this question is open ended. You can’t merely close it down because the problem of COVID-19 is not over there. It’s in here with us, in the US. And rather than dealing with our own public health shortcomings, they tried to put the blame elsewhere, running away from the rain only to fall right into the river.

In exhibition venues, the title yielded non-literal translations such as: “China, Qué Tal?” in Spanish, or “Retrouver la Chine?” in French. These remain close to the spirit of the film and to the colloquial everyday context that informs its title. Some film critics have erroneously assumed that it’s taken from Roland Barthes’ essay “Alors, la Chine?” Such an attribution with no consultation is questionable, both in its accuracy and its politics. I do respect Barthes’ writing and I did publish the English translation of his piece in the journal Discourse, which I guest-edited in 1986. But, being a response to the way the West hallucinated Maoist China, Barthes’ question (astutely translated by Lee Hildreth as “Well, and China?”) was very different in spirit and in its circumstantial context. My title came, instead, from informal conversations at a time of pandemic and heightened hostilities towards China, and subsequently toward Asian Americans in the US.  More critically, language in its colloquial expressions can hardly be attributed to any single male dominant thinker, especially in contexts of power relations as related to gender and marginality.

Editing voices

KY: In addition to the way you use and move the camera, I also thought your editing creates a really kind of interesting rhythm. Combined with the sound, it gives the film a unique rhythm, a musical quality.

TTM: It’s all very related. In the editing, it would have made my life so much easier if I would have worked with digital, rather than going back to the Hi8 footage. You can’t believe the number of frustrations I encountered between the old and new technologies. This, during the pandemic outbreak when I couldn’t have an assistant next to me. But as in all of my works, I took that process into the film. Rather than “harmonizing” by glossing over, you have to expose the sound-text-image relation in its multi-layered encounters and differing temporalities. You have to accept some amount of incompatibility between old and new as imposed by the market. They work at rejecting the old every time they have something new, but I turn that relation of incompatibility and linearity into something that is compatible and non-linear, often through rhythm, and this is another gesture of defiance.

KC: Can you discuss the four voices you used and the four kinds of narration? There is Guo Xiaolu reading her memoir Nine Continents, the male voice of Yi Zhong imparting information from Chinese sources, poetry by Shan Xiao Yue, and your own poetic reflections. I’m wondering how you wove these four layers of voices into the images. I recall the scene where Xiaolu was asked about her grandfather’s name, and you used the metaphor of a hat just as you pan to the image of a man wearing a hat.

TTM: The hat that you just mentioned is really a good example of how you can work with free association, which can open up and allow for new discoveries. It’s not saying, “This is what it means.” No, rather, it raises questions about the relation between what you see and what you hear. Is the hat you see the same as the one in the story heard? Further, when you really pay attention to the moment, you wonder, is “hat” here perceived in the image, the sound, or the word? It’s like the word “harmony,” opening onto new relations every time it recurs. And that’s also how I write in my books. Once you start with a word and it becomes one of the main threads in a paragraph, then the next paragraph and the subsequent pages would turn around that word. You can read the whole book and then come to page 60 and you’ll find it again. You never lose sight of it. It’s the same with the voice of Xiaolu in the hat scene.

In the positioning of the four voices, the narrators are all both outsiders and insiders. Xiaolu and Xiao Yue grew up in China, but one is now living in Berlin and London, and the other in Japan. Yi, raised at an early age in China, now works in California. As for me, my relation to China dates from the time when it dominated Vietnam for 1000 years. Vietnamese would always define themselves in opposition to the Chinese. But we cannot deny that we are close in terms of culture. So the voices are speaking from slightly different positions of insideness and outsideness.

KY: One of those positions is connected to the first person narrative in your own voice, and presents you. At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking this was a filmmaker dreaming in first person, thinking a new original character or novel “I.”

TTM: The three women’s voices are very different, but unfortunately, if you follow only the film festivals’ subtitling, you may lose your ability to hear the differences between them. One has a Chinese-British accent and the other has a very Americanized accent. I myself have something like a French-Vietnamese-American accent. So although our tone range may be close, our musicality and function remain very different from one another. I love what you said about “I” because that is very intentional. I wanted these three voices with discrete backgrounds to all speak in the first person so that you have a multiplicity of “I’s.” It could really puzzle you, right? If you mistook the three voices for the filmmaker’s voice, you might ask, for example, why in one instance “I” talked about ancestor Guo and peasant life in Shitang that had nothing to do with me, while also referring in another instance to Dongying as the home town. And in my own voice of poetic and political reflection, “I” is not explicitly named but only implied.

The questions you raise about “I” doesn’t merely apply to this film, but also to the way I work with “I” in my books. People usually think of “I” as an individual self that is also individualistic, especially in Western contexts. This is misleading in many ways, because community and the communal are thought to be outside, separate from yourself. What about the collective “I,” where you feel you’re always engaging in community work? You carry the world with you. And where does this knowledge come from? Sometimes you don’t even know. It just pops up. Your body is ancient. It knows more than you ever know in your head, all of these instances where something very old, very vast comes to you. The collective “I” is something we can cultivate rather than thinking of “collective” as merely working with a collective of people.

KC: I think we should talk a little bit about your collaboration with Jean-Paul Bourdier. I saw you collaborated with him on most of your films.

TTM: Yes, it’s related to the collective and the communal. We always work as a team, but it’s not about harmonizing each other. Because we are very different in our decision-making. Most of the time, I think it’s a kind of communal situation where, for example, Jean-Paul would be focusing on the architecture so he’s the one who did all the research and the selection of the dwellings and the locations. And once we go to the location he has a way of looking at things that is very architectural in the sense that he sees how spaces are related, from above. In contrast, I’m very close to the ground. He tends to map; I tend to tour (to put to use Michel de Certeau’s concepts). I enter intimate spaces, touring them purblindly and taking in everything along the way. He has a very good mapping of the whole situation. But this being said, we work together. It’s not definitively separate—one on the mapping and one on the touring. We map and tour together.

Compiled by Markus Nornes

Photography: Abe Akiha / Video: Kato Takanobu / 2023-10-09

Kinoshita Chika
PhD in Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago. Professor of Media and Film Studies, Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies, Kyoto University. Kinoshita specializes in Japanese film history and Studies of Culture and Representation. Authored Mizoguchi Kenji ron: Eiga no bigaku to seijigaku (Hosei UP, 2016) and co-authored Leos Carax: Eiga wo samayou hito (Film Art, Inc., 2022); Eureka, Takamine Hideko tokushu (Seidosha, March 2015); Rimeiku eiga no sozoryoku (Suiseisha, 2017), etc.

Kanno Yuka
Professor of film and queer studies at the Graduate School of Global Studies, Doshisha University. Her publications include Queer Cinema (Filmart Sha, 2023 in Japanese), Queer Cinema Studies (Editor, Koyo Shobo, 2021 in Japanese) and contributions to edited volumes such as The Routledge Handbook of Japanese Cinema (Routledge, 2021), The Japanese Cinema Book (BFI/Bloomsbury, 2020), Exploring Queer Studies (Koyo Shobo, 2020 in Japanese).