YIDFF 2023 New Asian Currents

Trip to Lost Days
Shen Ruilan (Director)

Interviewer: Erikawa Ken

With an experimental method

Erikawa Ken (EK): Having studied cinema for nearly ten years, you won the best Chinese film award at the Beijing International Short Film Festival with Cassock (2018). Could you tell us what this film is about?

Shen Ruilan (SR): I basically study experimental cinema. I’ve made contemporary artworks and video artworks. Cassock was my graduation project which I made as a documentary film for the first time. While people often say it’s different from an orthodox documentary I don’t think it’s really an experimental work. It features He Wei, the same protagonist as in Trip to Lost Days and a “cassock” refers to a robe worn by a Buddhist priest. Cassock is slightly less than one hour and focuses more on characters than Trip to Lost Days.

EK: Trip to Lost Days is produced in both China and Singapore. Why?

SR: One of the production companies is based in Singapore. I’ve included Singapore in countries of production as I want to show my film to as many, especially overseas, people as possible; and films produced in China have to go through strict censorship.

EK: This film is structured into three different types of image: color, black and white and negative. What is your intention behind this?

SR: The black and white parts depict a character’s current state; the color parts consist of images of trains. Although the color parts may generally look more truthful, the character’s current state is in fact expressed in black and white. This is because I intended to depict a state in which truth and fantasy are blended together. The images in negative aim to make the viewer imagine birth and death, in which life goes from a dark place to a bright place and returns to the dark place again—just as when you develop a photo and the image gradually emerges.

EK: If the black and white refers to the present, does the color refer to fantasy?

SR: The train parts in the color images are fictional, symbolizing a higher level of the spiritual world. They are in color as a contrast to reality in black and white. And they express our doubt that truth may not be so sharply distinguished from fantasy since we ourselves carry our lives with us as if we have been put on a train. If I may add one more thing, I’ve created narration for the train scenes by listening to various people’s stories, which can be said to represent the memories of passengers on trains.

What is he doing?

EK: What is the relationship between you and He Wei who is your subject?

SR: It began in a Buddhist service at a Buddhist temple in Sichuan where I came to know him and we became friends. He was to become a monk and I was interested in Buddhism. So, we got on well together.

EK: Why is he called sometimes Brother Kuanyuan and sometimes Xiao He in the film?

SR: Kuanyuan is his Buddhist name. Although he is not a monk yet, he’s been given the name during training by a high priest under whom he studied and Xiao He is his nickname.

EK: He goes to Daci Temple, Zhaojue Temple and other temples, visits someone’s grave, and travels to other places like the sea or mountains. How many places did he actually visit? And how long was shooting?

SR: The shooting period was about two months during which we visited thirty to forty places where he initially wanted to go, where I wanted to go, and which are also related to his training. As I used six cameras, including a film camera and a digital video, I don’t know how many hours of footage we shot in total, but I am sure that the shooting hours are considerably long.

EK: He Wei has quit his job as a station attendant at Chengdu after three years’ service to become a monk. But he is not a monk yet and apparently hasn’t got his parents’ approval. And he visits places. We, the viewers, do not quite understand what he is doing. Do you show him like that on purpose?

SR: What he does is chaobai, one of Buddhist training methods in which a trainee visits a temple to study under a high priest. This is meant to remove obstacles for becoming a monk. In the case of He Wei, his parents’ disapproval is the greatest obstacle. While he does not necessarily need their permission to be a monk, interestingly, each high priest said to him, “You can be a monk only after you obtain your parents’ permission.”

To return to your question, I intentionally omitted the explanation. I filmed him talking to his parents on the phone who opposed his becoming a monk, as well as his confused face. I showed a rough cut of these shots to a few people, who exclusively focused on why he wanted to be a monk or why his parents opposed his decision. But what I really wanted to depict was not his way of life or a conflict with his parents, but the opening of the past of humanity or our subconscious minds that lies deeper, so I purposefully used an experimental method to edit the film. If I focused on a character, people would pay attention to what makes the character the way he or she is. But I wanted to shed light on what was more abstract, like spirituality.

Buddhism in China

EK: We are familiar with temples, Bodhisattva statues and visits to a grave in the film. Could you tell us how Buddhism is positioned or treated in China?

SR: The age we live in now is known in Buddhism as “the Degenerate Age of Dharma.” In such a confusing situation many people seem to see Buddhism as a clue to salvation. Originally, however, Buddhism is not meant for such a worldly desire, to save or benefit, but it is more profound; it is a religion with depth strongly connected with both philosophy and one’s vision of life. This aspect of Buddhism can only be studied in a very few places today.

EK: Are Buddhists a minority in China? Are they persecuted?

SR: I think there are a considerable number of people who believe in Buddhism. But a majority believe it for the sake of worldly benefit and very few attempt to approach its truth. I’m not aware of any persecution but. people can go to Buddhist temples without any hindrance, or they did so at least at the temples I visited.

EK: I guess you are interested in not Buddhism for worldly benefit but in the more profound philosophical Buddhism, right?

SR: That’s right. I myself am studying Buddhist scriptures.

Narration, shot composition

EK: The film has lots of narration. The end credits list both He Wei and you as narrators. Which part in the film is narrated by you?

SR: One hour into the film, I utter a few words, like “What time is it now?” on the train. The rest is done by He Wei.

EK: Why did you use your voice in that particular moment?

SR: I intentionally did it. Until that moment only He Wei narrates. This may give the impression to the viewer that narration serves as an interpretation of a shot. But if I join him to initiate a dialogue, the viewer does not see it as an explanation of the shot; but the space where two of us are can be at once the train space and the space of the theater or cinema in which we are with the audience. I wanted to create an image in which we are in the same space as the train with viewers. In this imaginary space the screen is a window or an exit of the train.

EK: I see. But this is a bit difficult to convey (laughs).

SR: As I’ve created this work as an open film, I don’t strongly wish that you understand it in this way. I want viewers to see it as they like or they can even fall asleep; for dreams are a part of this film.

EK: The film also refers to an earthquake a few times. Is it the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (which occurred on May 12, 2008 with some 70,000 deaths and about 375,000 people injured)?

SR: Yes.

EK: The narration says that “Overly believing in permanence of Self and greatness of Existence brought the catastrophe about.” Is this a common understanding of the earthquake in China?

SR: No, I don’t think it’s commonly believed, although karmic justice is a basic Buddhist teaching. People tend to think that such a catastrophe occurred as retribution because they harmed nature. In human relationships retribution comes when you harm someone in your dealings with them. This is a universal way of thinking in ancient Chinese philosophy. Today’s young people do not think in this way, though.

EK: The film has entirely amazing shot compositions. Images are flashing especially in the last ten minutes or so, which left me with the impression of watching an experimental film. I suppose you consciously pay attention to shot composition, don’t you?

SR: Yes. This has something to do with my education at the China Academy of Art. I of course pay attention to the visual, including visual effects. At the same time I am aware of sound. I always ask myself what space I can create when sound is added.

EK: Do flashing images in the last ten minutes symbolize the flow of life?

SR: Yes, that was my intention, and I used film especially in those last ten minutes. According to Buddhist teaching, although the world looks as if it is moving, the truth is immovable as if frozen and must look like something that has stopped. In a similar vein I have edited that part of the film by showing images one by one until, finally, the train disappears. I’ve created it with an image of the train being reduced to ashes and ultimately lost.

EK: The film’s title in Japanese in fact translates into English as, “The Day when the Train Disappeared.”

SR: What I wanted to express in this film was not a person called He Wei, but life which flows from the present to future; life which is also extremely tentative. It is similar to memory, which is never proper or certain but is always liquid; it is what exists there only for a certain period of time. The Chinese title also means “The Day when the Train Disappeared.” What happens after it disappeared is open to viewers’ interpretations.

EK: I see. Thank you very much for taking the time to answer all questions so meticulously.

SR: Arigato gozaimashita.

Compiled by Erikawa Ken
Translated by Yamamoto Kumiko

Photography: Abe Taisei / Video: Kato Takanobu / Interpreter: Akiyama Tamako / 2023-10-07

Erikawa Ken
Editor and movie theater executive. After working for Film Art, Inc., Erikawa became a freelance editor. He authored Osaka aikan scrap (Edishon Kaie, 1989). Having been an editor of Eiga shinbun for over ten years, he took part in the launch of a citizen-run theater, Cine Nouveau. In 2005–2016 he was involved in the Osaka Asian Film Festival. He was Chief Editor of Daily Bulletin for the first and second editions of the YIDFF and served as a juror for the YIDFF: New Asian Currents in 2019.