Interview: Filmmaker/Writer Guo Xiaolou

Guo Xiaolou

Our London writer James Mudge recently interviewed Chinese writer/filmmaker Guo Xiaolou, whose film “Once Upon a Time Proletarian” just won the Audience Choice Award at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival (full list of winners here). For more information on the director’s past and upcoming projects, you can visit her official site (images of the director are also courtesy of her official site). Meanwhile, find the full interview with the Award-winning director below.


JAMES MUDGE: Many congratulations on winning the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival Audience Choice Award for “Once Upon a Time Proletarian” – can you tell me a little about how it was made and what your aims were?

GUO XIALOU: Thanks. It is a sister film of my feature SHE, A CHINESE, I made it at the same time and edited in that period. The documentary is a kind of social translation of what SHE, A CHINESE ‘s reality was – a study of the post-Mao Chinese society with different social class merging in an early capitalist stage.

JM: It’s also been successful at a variety of other international festivals – why do you think it’s had such a wide appeal since its release in 2009?

Guo XiaolouGX: I don’t ask myself why it has been well accepted, but I do know my documentaries have this directness and essay-like visual approach, which is beyond normal journalistic account in the documentary forms. I detest and am aginst mere-recording, or any first degree journalism documentary form. I think that’s the difference between tv and cinema.

JM: You’ve made both documentary and fiction films – which type do you prefer making, and do you think that your films share any common techniques?

GX: I don’t bother too much which format I am shooting, I think the most important thing is to shoot with inspiration and a vision which has possessed you. When we talk about making a fiction film – maybe essentially money make it’s decision – without production budget/ money you may as well make a doc film, or an essay film, and you might just have yourself to shoot the whole film with your little camera, which is nowadays most low budget doc filmmakers do. Nothing special. But, when you have a bigger vision which requires a re-constructed narrative form, then you will need some budget to realize it with actors and set, in that sense money becomes crucial. With UFO IN HER EYES one cannot make the film without a decent budget. But even that, no one has to have a big budget, because freedom really not lies on the materials.

JM: As well as writing your films, you’re also a novelist, and you’ve adapted your own work for the screen with “UFO in her Eyes” – how do your different types of art interact with each other: when writing, do you think cinematically, and vice versa?

GX: In the past, my novels are more monologue based, and quite autobiographical. And I will feel repeating myself if I adapt them into films. For example A CONCISE ENGLISH DICTIONARY FOR LOVERS are very much words / linguistic based – it doesn’t suit cinema, unless one does it in Peter Greenaway’s style. Only when I wrote the novel UFO IN HER EYES, I knew it beforehand it will be a film, because those vivid earthy characters and the very presence of the landscapes amongst the characters. As I never trust script writing format, so I always write a story as a novel form first, it really enriches the interiors of characters then I will visualize them for a film script.

JM: Are there any specific themes and ideas that you try to explore in your films and books?

UFO In Her Eyes (2011) Movie Image

GX: Well, the themes are obvious in my novels and films I guess – they overlaps. I always feel a certain boundless alienation in the world we are living now, and it manifests in all levels: from a rather barren and lonely urban life, a rather claustrophobic environment. For example, immigration culture brings a deep issue of far away from your native culture and your familiar identity, and extreme capitalism anguishes even more how an individual must selfishly survive first in the money world without concerning a community or the nature which has been nourished our origin and our past….it is devastating. I can refer back to George Orwell’s view on the state and on the power, if I don’t refer further on Heidegger or Sartre’s view on our modern world.

JM: I believe that you divide your time between China, Berlin and London – does this give you a different perspective on China and Chinese issues?

GX: As Kundera said: life is elsewhere, and as the German says – the grass on other side is greener. Well, not entirely like this, but where I can find natural grass in china now apart from the artificially arranged little plants in the shopping malls? As an artist you want to have a dialogue with your readers and if everyone is busy making money, the artist better goes back to his cave or leave. I don’t want to go back to my cave so I choose to leave.

JM: Do you have any particular key influences, film makers or writers?

GX: 40s, 50s and 60s European literature & cinema of course, and certain Russian arts have very strong influence on my type of cinema. I would name some books I have really loved – MASTER AND MARGARITA by Bulgakov, L’ECUME DES JOURS by Boris Vian, and LA NAUSE / THE AGE OF REASON by Sartre; of course I loved stuffs from Chris Marker, Duras, Godard, and Jean Rouch. I respect them more than any of the historical figure or political heroes.

JM: You’ve trained in China at Beijing Film Academy and in the UK at the National Film and Television School – how different were the two schools, and do you think that your own film making is a mixture of eastern and western techniques as a result?

Guo Xiaolou

GX: I must say I prefer my Beijing film school experience than the UK film school. The English sensibility is quite far from the Chinese one. Nevertheless I respect my UK experience for those years, somehow because it’s opposite mentality I learned great deals about English-America world. In that respect, I began to understand what “a global ecconomy” means, even though China is a big part of it. And for an intellectual, you must have a basic sense of what is that world.

JM: You’ve worked in and shot in both China and Europe – how do your experiences in different countries compare?

GX: Well, both have lots of restriction. But I know the Chinese rules and games, not the European games. One can only have some freedom if you know the rules of the game.

JM: Do you think international and Chinese audiences get something different from your works?

GX: Of course. That’s normal. I just define this between the intelligent ones and non-intelligent ones.

JM: Given that your films tackle some potentially sensitive subjects, and with the sexual content of “She, A Chinese”, have you ever found yourself being thought of as controversial and have you run into trouble with either the censors or your funders?

UFO In Her Eyes (2011) Movie PosterGX: Trouble all day, so that I feel I am alive. Personally I don’t and I never care or fear much of controversy. We have only got one short life, one cannot help but play the game, play with the life.

JM: As a film maker, what are the greatest challenges and difficulties you face in getting films made?

GX: Of course it is the totally commercialized world. Genuine arts cannor be born if it is so much restrained by money and market. That’s why Bela Tarr announces he is no longer making the next film.

JM: I’ve read that in 2009 you founded the “Metaphysical Cinema Syndicate” in London and Beijing – what does the organisation do, and what are its aims?

GX: We want to produce and promote non-conventional film work, film essays, and to create a certain friendly circle around our indi and non-mainstream filmmakers. It is a bit of 60s intellectual school idea, but one must continue this tradition…

JM: How do you see the state of Chinese cinema at the moment, in particular with regards to what some have referred to as new movements in documentary and independent film?

GX: The real creative Chinese filmmakers are the truly independent ones, and maybe they are not so consistent with each film, but so what? Big production sucks with bad ideology. I don’t even want to mention those films, it bores me just to think about it.

JM: How do you think your own works fit into Chinese and world cinema?

GX: A personal signature. I stand on my own feet, not on the other’s, not on the media’s.

JM: What are you working on at the moment, and do you have any future film plans?

GX: Between Berlin and London, but I am travelling most of time, working on both novels and films…

JM: Many thanks for your time, and good luck with all your future projects.