James Mudge recently sat down to interview animation filmmaker Xiang Jianheng, whose short animated films recently played at the 2013 Chinese Visual Festival, earning Special Mention honors for “1:15”, “3 Time Bewilderment in Morning Reading Lessons” and “The Black Records”.
James Mudge: Congratulations on the Special Mention for your animations 1:15, 3 Time Bewilderment in Morning Reading Lessons and The Black Records. I know the three have also played at a variety of other festivals in China and around the world – why do you think they have such a universal appeal?
Xiang Jianheng: I have always believed the problem with Chinese animation films was the lack of contemporariness. When we communicate with international audiences we are almost in a different era. I have been contemplating on this for a long there and therefore when I make my films, I focus on ideas and thoughtfulness and try to make my films addressing current issues and reflecting on contemporary cultures. For example, ‘criticism’, ‘existence’ and featuring unique angles are all my favourite subjects. Also, to be honest, I care a lot about the audience response. Every time when I finish my first cut, I will ask my friends who work in art to give me feedback. I care a lot about the audience and am not sure if they like my work. Actually every film I make is different and an experiment. Therefore, although some of my films appeal to audiences, it doesn’t mean my future films will. I think some of my films appeal to the international audience because they are about current reality, some obscure yet sensitive pulses and something we all long for in our time. I am very pleased that my films do appeal to the audience and the jury.
JM: Can you tell us a little more about the meaning of the three films and what messages you were trying to explore and get across?
XJ: The three films show my changes in my filmmaking, actually. “The Black Record” was an earlier film. I wanted to make an anti-war film soon after the war between the United States and Iraq ended. There was a six nations talk about the North Korean nuclear crisis. I was following the news at that time. I happen to have a painter friend who was a Christian. Through him I got to learn about Christianity and Catholics. I then used some of the Christian stories to show how we brought war and its consequences by ourselves, like the story of “seven lambs drank the blood of Jesus Christ”. It was a quite religious film. After that, I began to explore humanity. “1.15” and “Three Times Bewilderment of Morning Reading Lesson” are the first two of my confusion trilogy under the influence of surrealism and existentialism. “1:15” was about a teddy bear who missed his train because he was too absorbed in a puppet show. No one told the teddy bear his watch was broken and no one told the teddy bear he would never get anywhere. This is a metaphor to an unlucky place where nothing could be achieved. One’s idealism was doomed and would be worn out in such a place. It was not a typical tragedy but it was a quite depressing film. After it was completed, I was almost caught in depression. “Three Times Bewilderment of Morning Reading Lesson” after that was also critical but with a sense of black humour. This film addressed the many absurd things in the way we were educated and the pursuit of ideals of young people. I wanted to express the helplessness and loss of idealism among the current youth. They are actively pursuing yet are powerless. To me this puzzlement and confusion is very sentimental and beautiful.
JM: The three films each have a very strong sense of the surreal – are they a reflection of your own thoughts and vision of the world?
XJ: Yes, surrealism is quite important in my way of understanding the world. To me, surrealism is not an illusion, it comprises images extracted from a relatively still world and these images are reconstructed into a dialectical world. Due to the limitation of the dominating thoughts, it is impossible to achieve perfect extraction in reality. We need to surpass the dominating mentality and refine the materialised theories and thoughts. This then forms my visual language, which is an unformularised way of thinking. I try to articulate ambiguity and to inspire wider ways of interpretation or even mis-interpretation. I often montaged images which are not related together and to separate cover from content. I try to construct a new fragmented world and hopefully a more thought provoking world.
JM: Your style seems very different to what some people might expect from Chinese or Asian animation, and these three films steer clear of anything which for the average western viewer at least might be considered typically Chinese – was this deliberate?
XJ: It was not. Although I hope my art can be appreciated universally, I don’t resist the so-called Chinese style. I just don’t like to stick to convention. For example, I like the Chineseness in “Little Tadpole Looking for Mum” (translator’s note: a famous Chinese animation in 19060s employing images from Chinese ink painting), but I won’t make an animation like that. I don’t agree with the saying that “what’s national is universal”. The universal communication is based on a certain context, in this respect, the Czechs, Russians and Japanese are doing better. They can show their national style in a contemporary context. National art needs to be inherited, there is too much heritage. Meanwhile, I respect art from other nations equally and benefit from them. To be honest, I don’t know what Chinese style is like to western audience. But I have no intention to be a representative of “Chinese Style”, I just want to show images which are ignored by many and I happen to notice.
JM: There’s a real mix of imagery here, from the apocalyptic nuclear war of “The Black Record” to the childhood memories and nostalgia of “1:15” and “3 Times”, and again there seems to be a mix of the eastern and western – what were your influences when making the films, and were you more inspired by other animations, or the world of art?
XJ: Yes, I mix a lot in my filmmaking and I am able to make them all feel like a unified piece. I grew up in Xijiang, which is a minority autonomy and there are traces of multiple cultures and religions. I then live in South China, where I encounter very different culture again. After I started my college, I become curious about cultures from all over the world. I myself am nostalgic and sentimental and all these make my current artistic language. But my greatest influence come from the time I grew up in Xinjiang. I am interested in many different arts, film, painting, animation, poetry, contemporary art, installation and etc. It is hard to say which one has a stronger influence on me. To quote a popular saying now, I’m “trans-genre”.
JM: You also employ a lot of different techniques, including traditional animation, stop motion animation and live action film – were you consciously trying to include such a variety, and what overall effect were you aiming for?
XJ: To be honest, I did not realised I used a lot of different techniques. When I wanted to show something, the method just come to my mind naturally. I cannot predict my future style. While I change, the issues I care about will change. I hope I will always have fresh ideas. I always prepare for a long time before I make any film. But I always allow a lot of uncertainty and want it to change or even grow.
JM: The film making processes must have been pretty complicated – how long did each of them take to make?
XJ: Yes, it is. Usually a film will take me 6 months to make.
JM: Do you see yourself as a film maker, or more of a visual artist in general? Would you like to make a live action film, or try other mediums?
XJ: I see myself more as an artist. My profession is teacher and I am an amateur director and an amateur artist. I often change roles and I like it. I like being an amateur and this allows me more room for experiment. I am planning to make feature live action film, but it will always have my “trans-genre” meddling, haha.
JM: How do you see animation as a medium developing in China?
XJ: I think Chinese animation has been improved in recent years but it is not satisfying. We learnt the advanced techniques and bought advanced equipment, we researched the module from Hollywood and Disney, why are we still lagging behind? I still think it is due to the lack of contemporariness in Chinese animation and cannot communicate in the current world.
JM: What are you working on at the moment? Any plans for more films in the future?
XJ: Currently I am mentoring my students’ graduation projects. I am also researching for my new film, “Wheat City”, the final one of my confusion trilogy. I want to take more time in preparing.
JM: Congratulations again on your Special Mention, many thanks, and good luck with all your future projects.
XJ: Thank you for your hard work as well to provide such wonderful opportunities for Chinese images. I hope Chinese Visual Festival will get more and more successful.