Interview translated from Chinese by Ti-Kai Chang (Columbia University).
What led you to make a film about China's one-child policy?
This movie is not exclusively about China’s one-child policy. Yet, it has remained one of the fundamental national policies in China. In the movie, it serves as a kind of background which plays an important role in shaping the narrative. Because I was born in a rural village in China, the effects the one-child policy has over people in Huan Huan can actually be traced back to my childhood memories. It is in the rural areas that the policy is is most strictly, and almost barbarically, executed. Many women in my village were forced to have IUDs implanted once they gave birth to their first child, as depicted in the movie. As children, we would even hide and watch them perform the surgery, but of course, if found out, we would get a good beating. For women who had three children, they would usually have to pay a fine and be forced to have a salpingectomy [removal of Fallopian tube], which undoubtedly caused great suffering. So every time I saw the people working at the Planned-Birth Unit, I would feel terrified even though it did not really concern me and other children at that time. Later I moved to the city to continue my studies and work. After many years, when I visited my hometown, the same cruel stories of planned-birth were taking place, which stirs up my emotions. So naturally I included the one-child policy in my first feature film, Huan Huan, which also tells the story of rural China.
About how old is the character, Huan Huan?
The setting for your film is beautiful. Would you tell us more about where it takes place?
The location where I shot Huan Huan is Yuxi City, Yunnan, a southwestern province in China. Actually, I like the scenery there very much. The beautiful view is natural and nothing is artificial. I really do like this one-of-a-kind setting!
In the film, there are farmers, and then there is a kind of merchant class. How prevalent is this class? How much difference is there between the lifestyles and incomes of Huan Huan's family and her husband's?
[Laughs] The word "class" sounds very political, and you point, in fact, to something very interesting! Retail businesses in Chinese villages have a long history, but their [proliferation] is also part of the outcome of China's economic reform.This kind of business is very important because with the increase of the labor economy, the consumerist consumption rate in villages has been growing as well. Also, due to the lack or shortage of available goods and materials in rural areas, there is more profit in the retail business, compared to farming. Nowadays the farmers in China tend to migrate to cities and leave that work behind. And to some degree, this emigration is a serious social problem in China.
Do people follow the one-child policy mostly? Do men tend to get around it by having children in multiple locations?
In China in general, especially in its remote districts, to have a child is the number one, most important event in one’s life. First of all, there is the traditional sense of carrying on the family lineage and having offspring. Secondly, because of the poor living circumstances, many people are not satisfied with simply having one child. If, unluckily for them, the first child is a girl, they certainly keep trying for a son. Poverty also drives them to have more children, for once the children grow up, they can go out to work and send home more money. Following this logic, people look to their children to ensure their financial security in old age. Based on these two reasons, most people are against and might even hold a hostile attitude toward the one-child policy. As a result, the most effective way to get around it is to move to another place [with more lax reproductive rules] to have more children. But this also leads to the migration of a large population, and many social problems.
How did you become a filmmaker? Would you tell us about your background?
I have no tips on becoming a filmmaker. I do not have a very impressive or shocking background! Actually everyone who has the desire to express themselves can be a filmmaker. I just chose to express myself through making movies. When I was little, I lived in a closed-off environment, and spent my days pretty much like every other kid in the village, and there was almost zero possibility of obtaining new information. My father was (and is) an elementary school teacher, and paid much attention to my education. Unfortunately, I have been kind of a rebel since a very young age, and I never did well in my studies: almost all the teachers at school and I were enemies! This disappointed my family very much. Naturally, my performance at school was never good. But unlike other children who enjoyed playing around all day long or engaged in group fighting, most of the time I just got immersed in activites others normally find boring. For example, what I still remember now is how fond I was of attending funerals. Mostly because I was attracted to the Buddhists playing musical instruments at the funerals. I even held a funeral for a rat by myself with some other friends!
Besides those funeral instruments, my earliest exposure to art had to be calligraphy. My father was quite famous for his calligraphy at school, but he didn't want me to learn it, as most people in the village thought that things like calligraphy would never bring you far. However I started teaching myself calligraphy anyways because no one could stop me from doing what I felt like doing. I got two awards in calligraphy in high school, but then realized it was only good for asking girls out! So I started pursuing a more systematic and complete method of expressing my thoughts. Later on I tried my hand at poetry and painting before I entered art school with a major in film. And it became natural to me to keep working as a filmmaker ever since.
The vision of China you present is sometimes a bucolic one, very different from the urban vision we so often see in films. Why did you choose this setting, and how representative of Chinese life is it?
As to the setting in Huan Huan, I have to say it was due to my previous visit to Yuxi City, when I suddenly felt attracted to the blue highland lake. Perhaps because I grew up in the mountain area and had never seen a lake this big, I have for a long time been considering the imagery of water. When I started to work on Huan Huan, everything about this place just came back to me very naturally. That's why I chose the place as a major setting of the movie. The ending scene where two women standing by the highland lake talk about what to do with their new life particularly moves me.
The gap in development between urban and rural regions has been a crucial issue in China. The media coverage in the West might indicate a different point of view, but the simple fact is that even in the rural areas, subtle changes have been taking place. Because of the rise of China's consumer and commodity economy, many farmers and villagers find they can no longer rely on their land to make ends meet. Many people gradually become part of the exported labor. They think the only shot they have to realize their individual [economic] value lies in leaving their hometown. Huan Huan, the title character, represents this desire of moving out from under the social tide. But through the film's narrative, we can see that all the challenges and despair Huan Huan has faced to some degree comes from this trend in which all traditional values have been seriously questioned and distorted. Huan Huan's dilemma also reflects many Chinese people's now twisted sense of value.
The colorful and lively landscape of rural China leaves a very strong impression. In many long shots, human characters look very small compared to the scale of nature suggested by the shot composition; even in some indoor domestic scenes, the camera lingers on the empty space after the characters have left. It seems the rural space is the real protagonist in Huan Huan. Could you talk about the decisions behind the formulation of the mise-en-scène, and the relations between human and nature in the movie?
You are right in your observation of the rural space in Huan Huan. What you have seen is also what the movie tries to say. I prefer to put human characters into an authentic environment where they have to exist in an authentic way. The names of the places and people are real in many parts of the movie. When compared with the grand space in which they live, all people and events become insignificant. I also render the mise-en-scène as a function of life-patterns and habits. I also like to include the trace of movement within the frame. To me, the space of traces is what allows people to stay and think; this is the temporal sense I like about cinema. So, with this method of mise-en-scène, Huan Huan conjures a sensorial expression of human emotions and the unremitting status quo of village life. Compared with the overwhelming flow of social reality, the quiet village is superficial and subject to those tumultuous undercurrents. I hope to capture the ephemeral, mirrored lingering of people and events through an unmoving camera.
Why did you include many karaoke sequences in Huan Huan?
The content of the karaoke is in fact the traditional local opera form in Yunnan. The producers of such songs make erotic lyrics in order to meet the local need. There are two reasons to include the karaoke scenes: first, they are the spiritual food of the local people, which is a kind of reality. Second, these songs correspond to Huan Huan's moral inclination within the narrative, while simultaneously adding more flavor to the film's style and entertainment value.
Interview by Jonathan Robbins and Ti-Kai Chang.