YIDFF 2023 New Asian Currents

Luo Luo’s Youth
Luo Luo (Director)

Interviewer: Hata Takeshi

Ventures with Caochangdi Workstation

HATA Takeshi (HT): I first became aware of the Folk Memory Project in which you participated, Director Luo Luo, during a special program screening at the 2016 Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival. There were many involved in the project who had visited from mainland China. At the time, I was able to meet many young filmmakers, such as Director Zhang Mengqi. However, back then I was only aware of the project as a means to investigate and pass down to younger generations memories of the Great Famine that had struck China in the past, as well as of related political incidents. Afterward, though, when following up on Director Mengqi and Director Luo Luo’s works, I realized that it was not as if everyone was interested in so-called “big stories” like famine and political struggle, but rather that many pursued very private moments and memories to record. Speaking of Japan, we had a wave of self-documentaries starting in the late 90s, and this keen awareness toward facing a camera at one’s own surround, their own life, and at local people seemed to connect with that. In a way, it looks as if a path traveled by Japanese artists has been further developed into another context into a new form of documentary film practice.

Luo Luo (LL) : Before the Folk Memory Project there was the China Villagers Documentary Project, which began in 2005. Wu Wenguang and other directors distributed cameras among farmers, encouraging them to record their villages themselves as part of the project. Carrying forth this tradition, the Folk Memory Project kicked off in 2010, shifting focus to other villagers, such as film enthusiasts or members of younger generations, like students. Participants would revisit villages that connected with various parts of themselves, running their cameras. These could be their hometown or those of their parents, or even further back to those of their grandparents’ generation.

At the time, we set as the theme of the overall project the incident known as the Great Chinese Famine, beginning with interviews with villagers who had memories of that period. Yet, in short order we began to see what the work was all about. First, there were people who, as things already were, had no village to which to return. And then, there were instances in which returning had become, in and of itself, physically impossible due to COVID-19. As a result, we made a course correction, directing our searches toward the “village” inside one’s own heart over the village of physical space. Many of the folks who have participated in the Caochangdi Workstation chaired by Director Wu Wenguang have lost their villages. I believe that such experiences are a big characteristic of this project.

HT: In Luo Luo’s Youth, you were able to evoke a scene in which there was performance using masks, or another of Luo Luo pointing at a map to indicate the lands where the Caochangdi Workstation participants live; could these be considered examples of one such set of searches?

LL: Directors Wu Wenguang and Zhang Mengqi had, from before, produced many works that incorporated theatrical performance, and in that vein Reading Virus took shape as an art piece. Back then we were still in lockdown, so naturally it was produced as an online show. The fact that we had masks on is purely a reflection of the impact on our psyches of how inseparable we had become from them. So that wasn’t something we did specifically for my film. I filmed my life at that time as it was, taking part in rehearsals, and it became one piece of the film. And then there’s the scene in which I look for my friends one by one on the map, which is something I would do on my own, look for friends scattered from the start across various parts of China on a map. When I talked about this with the group, Mr. Wu Wenguang was especially interested, providing various ideas for my performance. Thus, the performance found its way into the finished piece, but originally it was born from a scene depicting what was originally one part of my everyday life, my looking for the places where my friends live on a map. In my previous work, Luo Luo’s Fear, I used map scenes as section breaks. Therefore, this scenario is one that I specifically use for cinema. It was performed live as a play online for an event in Germany and at the Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival.

Directing photography by diary, and with family

HT: Your prior work, Luo Luo’s Fear faces anxieties and fears mid-COVID-19, a situation in which many individuals were isolated, unable to interact, and while I consider it an attempt to address that, somehow, now the situation with COVID-19 has changed, inspiring a shift in direction toward excavating the pasts of you and your father, a direction that I very much consider to be part of the Folk Memory Project’s flow, which I found interesting. For example, after the Cultural Revolution ended, suddenly the atmosphere changed and various cultures began to bloom again in a new age, one that inspired many feelings for you., Ms. Luo Luo, who were kind enough to express them in a very appealing diary. Whether in the story of the advance from a young man, or another, in each anecdote the political situation at the time is reflected upon. If speaking in terms of a relationship with Japan, the episode of Manhunt (1976, “Kimi yo fundo no kawa o watare”) starring Takakura Ken was superb. Of course, it was a big hit in Japan, but that it was also taken in such a way in China as “our own film” was very fresh. It was a time when peoples’ awareness was gradually expanding, when just looking at familiar things with a camera could result in a fresh perspective, very direct experiences of sincere surprise.

LL: Back then, there wasn’t much of a sense that the time we were living in “was an age of change.” My diary compiles what truly seems like a flow, thoughts I truly felt to be superficial, at least upon rereading. The handwriting is sloppy, to an embarrassing extent, really, but at the time, if I had seen Manhunt it was probably not that long after it premiered in Japan, when it in turn premiered in China, released on a massive scale. That was November 26, 1978, and I saw it at the movie theater in Miyi County, where I lived. I remember that much clearly. Not two years had passed since the Cultural Revolution. For a closed door to reopen, and foreign media to be accepted as culture, it was quite the flow with which the film reached us. The whole thing felt very fresh, particularly the romantic love between the couple Takakura Ken and Nakamura Ryoko. Conversely, and regarding the men in my actual vicinity, at the time I did not have much interest; I wasn’t really attracted at all. I was pulled in by the prince charming image of Takakura Ken in Manhunt, but it was not as if that person existed in reality. I think that I was very young at the time, to be enchanted by all that fantasy.

HT: Another element that stands out radiantly in your film, Ms. Luo Luo, is your granddaughter, who is always with you. Of course, these must be moments in which your busy daughter, and her partner, leave you with the child. Conversation on Ms. Luo Luo’s own grandmother also emerges, meaning that, including your granddaughter, this film comprises a story that spans 5 generations. It particularly gets across that Ms. Luo Luo’s granddaughter is sincerely interested in your stories of your youth as she listens to them, and I thought to myself that she is a very good kid, though there is always that element of how a grandchild, as a grandchild, will live the future from here, watching and understanding its little parts. Amidst such private conversations of the home, something akin to the surge of grand Chinese history bubbles to the surface. I was particularly surprised by the last few minutes of the film. Everyone is holding a camera and shooting together, aren’t they? Your granddaughter is performing and recording the dances of your father and of you, Ms. Luo Luo. And then your granddaughter faces herself toward the camera and begins to speak into it, which your father captures with a separate camera. Up until this point Ms. Luo Luo had directed the camera at your family, in a very classic verticality of relationship between recorder and recorded, but suddenly this all changed, shifted, one could say. It is not as if things were reversed, rather that they arrive at a mutually level, “back-and-forth relationship.” I was very moved by this moment.

LL: My father really does talk about his mother a lot, doesn’t he? And always with such deep feeling. In truth, during the time of the Cultural Revolution, he had to break from the new generation for class reasons; that was his experience. He was haunted by the need to express that stance, unable to return home even upon the occasion of his parents’ passings. Since then, he had little way to pay his respects. My father regretted this, and would always cry about it. And finally, there is the scene that we all shoot together, which first begins with a monologue from my granddaughter. I recorded a lot of my own monologues while wearing my own masks, and so I wanted to shoot a monologue of my granddaughter in the same way. Further, when I panned the camera to my father, now he was shooting the whole scene with his mobile phone: recording me, while I was recording that monologue. In truth, my daughter was there as well, and she was shooting the entire moment with yet another camera. I did not use my daughter’s footage this time, but it was a special moment in which four generations were together. My granddaughter spoke of many things there, and as I have little-to-no idea how her future will extend from here, there is little that I can control. I would like to think that I have had some influence, but, of course, she will walk her own path. That is the way I look at it now.

HT: So, when your father was recording on his mobile phone then, was that in response to a direction from Ms. Luo Luo? Or, did he begin shooting on his own?

LL: I asked him to record. In truth, it was the advice of Ms. Zhang Mengqi and Mr. Wu Wenguang. When I told them that I wanted to shoot a scene of my granddaughter in monologue, but that I was concerned that she would drop the camera, they provided many ideas. After an online discussion with them, what was settled upon was the form that you were kind enough to see. However, placing the question of how to record aside, from the start the point was to involve various generations of my family in the recording. My sincere intent was that things take that form. All of that was thanks to the Caochangdi Workstation and all of its participants, from whom I have received so much, thanks to whom I have had so many soul-saving experiences. I cannot speak to what my granddaughter and father sought from recording this scene, though.

HT: Nevertheless, there is a lot of fun as the harmonica is played, and your father says something along the lines of, “This would be easy if it were a photograph, but videos are difficult.” It seemed as if he had fully given himself over as a “creator.” He seemed to be succeeding at the endeavor, to boot.

LL: Actually, my father thought he was taking photographs, and not videos. He was amazed that, for whatever reason, the photographs were taking so much time to capture. As if it were a very old photographing mechanism, he assumed it was important to keep the camera steady for a very long time, or something of the sort. So, while it was really a video, my father doesn’t think of it as such. “Why do I have to hold this thing so long for this silly photograph!” was more-or-less how he felt. But, nevertheless I encouraged him, “Don’t move!” (laughs).

HT: In truth, I have heard that your father unfortunately passed away this year, but was he able to see this finished film? If so, what do you think it may have been that he understood from participating in filmmaking for the first time?

LL: This film was completed between March and April 2023, but my father passed away in January. I was unable to show it to him. However, he was kind enough to see my previous work. He saw a lot of the raw footage many times, too. Nevertheless, my father did not have much of an idea of “cinema” or “art.” What was important to him was whether reminisces were becoming known by others through the work, and whether they were inspiring any interest. Such things would make him very happy. He was a very humble person, and would say things like, “Well, no one will be interested in such trifling matters.” However, those who would watch would be quite interested, and when I showed my father the responses of the Caochangdi Workstation members, he in turn was extremely pleased.

Editing and exchanging online

HT: Finally, please allow me to ask about the editing of the film. When one puts their self on display, performing private content in a work, I imagine that another perspective becomes important. How did the editing of this film proceed?

LL: The Caochangdi Workstation in which I participate places a large value on mutual aid. We have carried out a “footage workshop” since 2020, with each participant sharing their footage (audiovisual elements) online so that everyone can provide feedback. Three hours every Wednesday, we watch various clips that someone brings and we discuss. Even amidst clips that, upon first watching, seem like nothing, inspirations may abound for someone else who watches. We encounter that one all the time. This work was also born of this kind of process. In addition, there is something like an editing workshop. As we go about our editing, we show rough cuts to each other, talking out various opinions, debating which direction the finished work should take. I edited Luo Luo’s Youth to its rough cut stage on my own. Xinyue, a young editor who accompanied me to this past Yamagata festival, took over the project from there and finished the film. If she hadn’t been there, I do not think the film would be finished yet.

HT: And, you do all of this online?

LL: Yes, it was all online. I met Xinyue, my editor, for the first time at this past Yamagata festival. When I ran into Director Mengqi at a theater-related event in Shenzhen, I had already met her once, with that as the second instance. Moreover, I had only met Mr. Wu Wenguang one single time. So, in actuality, I have not met the majority of the participants of the Caochangdi Workstation at all. However, we relate very deeply online, and together we have been able to build truly close relationships.

Compiled by Hata Takeshi
Translated by Kyle Hecht

Photography: Oseki Hiroto / Video: Oshita Yumi / Interpreter: Akiyama Tamako / 2023-10-06

Hata Takeshi
Born in Tokyo. Hata began filmmaking while a college student. Since then he has mainly worked as an editor for documentary films. He has edited feature-length films that include OUT OF PLACE (2005, dir. Sato Makoto), Dryads in a Snow Valley (2015, dir. Kobayashi Shigeru), My Love: Six Stories of Love—Kinuko and Haruhei (2021, dir. Toda Hikaru), and Minamata Mandala (2021, dir. Hara Kazuo).