I first encountered Guo Xiaolu when her thought provoking documentary ‘Concrete Revolution’ was shown in London and then through her novel ‘Village of Stone’. I had actually been intending to miss her film ‘UFO in her eyes’ as my day was already packed with things to watch and four films on the go was not really something I wanted to do, but after her masterclass on he experiences of directing, I changed my mind.
From what I had seen of her work so far, Guo Xiaolu is interested in the personal journey of her characters, be it through memory, distance or change. ‘Concrete Revolution’ covered the migration of workers from the country to the city to build for the Olympics and the poor situation they found themselves in. It was a really thoughtful and searching documentary that showed the erosion of culture and cities as the old is destroyed for the new, not just in physical space, but in personal terms too. It was not, as I recall from the Q&A at the time, an easy documentary to shoot and she and her cameraman often had to leave sites at short notice or hide their intentions for fear of being overtly critical of the development of Beijing.
‘Village of Stone’, her first novel published in the West, covers the journey of an orphan Coral from her village on the coast to living in the city, a journey from a dark past of child rape and poverty to the almost anonymous living in the city and her relationship with Red a frisbee player. Aspects of the novel, though fictional, are reflections of her own upbringing in a small fishing village in the 1970s. The narrative dances back and forth between the present and the past as a mysterious delivery to her apartment changes her and Red’ life. As she said in an interview in South China Morning Post, April 4 2004:
“‘It took me three years to write this book,’ Guo says. ‘First, it was a love story, between Coral and Red. But no one in China would publish that. So, I set it in the fishing village. But that was just too dark. I needed to grow up and recall the past from the present. That is why I used the eel. It was something organic. Eating the dried eel brought the past back.
‘The eel also signified a past you cannot escape, as it is too difficult to digest,’ she says. ‘A lot of people are ****ed up because of their bad childhoods. And I thought by getting through this massive eel, eating it every day, people could digest that past, and become strong and healthy. In Chinese culture, the eel symbolises long life. It is good for the body, with very positive characteristics.’ ” Source
The master class was attended by about ten people at most and, after we introduced ourselves, we were treated to some sharp insights and thoughts on the film making process and Guo Xiaolu’s own philosophy on film and story hich I shall do my best to relate.
After her first novel was published when she was 20, Guo Xioalu spent 10 years in film school, hating it for the first 8 years, prefering words to what she felt at the time, was a more superficial medium for expressing an idea. She did however learn theory and it was during this tme she became more influenced by directors like Fassbender and Jean Luc Goddard. Indeed she has particular dislike of the Hollywood Golden line of storytelling which is too easy and doesn’t challenge anyone intelectually. This is why during her film She, A chinese based on her own book, she interspersed the love story with documentary footage of real people for, as she says, if an audience is intelligent it will be happy to be challenged to accept the fracturing of the narrative. They will understand and accept this form of storytelling if you as a director and writer, are sincere about it. She enjoys breaking up a story and preventing that smooth arc allowing the romantic story to be unhampered by a potitical message which can be inserted.
This breaking into chapters can be seen in her documentary work and we were shown some clips from Once Upon a Time Proleteriate which was the sister work to She, A Chinese and was made when she was bored during the set up and filming. In the documentary, we meet a farmer who talks bitterly about how he has nothing and has no dignity left as a worker, we also meet the woman who runs a cafe in a small town where a Chinese Political folk hero Lei Fung was born and where people come to visit as part of Red Tourism. This icon feeds the town as the farmer once did and the romance of the past revolution has a profound sense of loss and, as the director said, created a gap between the past and present.
Guo Xiaolu herself was brought up in a village with a socialist education, making it easy to see why and how she connects so well with the peasant popuation that makes up a lot of China. She really feels for these people and wants to tell their tory, to make sense of the world they now find themselves in. There is a lot of loneliness and isolation in China, but the collective society they live in doesn’t allow for the examination of the self like in the West and herefore it isn’t coped with as well.
During the Q&A section, Guo Xiaolu was asked on her role as a female director and it raised the interesting angle that she was not into traditional gender sensibilities when it came to story. Whilst in China, she wasn’t inspired by Simone De Beauvoire and her family oriented sentimental stories, but when she came to London and fead Germaine Greer she felt a real connection with the thoughts and ideas expressed in her books. In china, she explained, during the Cultural Revolution everyone was equal and could do the same jobs and it was almost an a-sexual society whereas today there is a differennce between the women of the countryside and thos eof the city, the latter being very confident and self aware. The Cultural Revolution was not a feminist Revolution, nor a sexual revolution, and I really appreciated that new angle of how culture and your roots influences how a film is approached. As she herslef said, she might one day be interested in a family story, but not now, now she is into ideas and lots of them rather than story.
Everyone is a natual story teller, whether they tell it well or badly is not relevant, she says and it was s hame i couldn’t get to ask her my own question about the process of transferring her own work to the screen and if its something she wants to do for other novels be they Western or Asian in origin. it was a fantastic hour masterclass and thank you very much to Director Guo and the Terracotta team for making it happen. I think Guo Xiaolu is a very exciting directoral voice in Asian cinema today and i hope to see alot more of her films and documentaries in future.