Interview with Wang Quan’an

by Peter Rist Volume 13, Issue 11 / November 2009 12 minutes (2984 words)

Offscreen interviewed Wang Quan’an, director of Weaving Girl, showing in competition at the World Film Festival in Montreal, on September 3rd 2009. The translator was Peter Donner, Mr. Wang’s assistant.

The following is the festival catalogue description of Weaving Girl:

The Xi’an textile factory’s choir has a tradition of singing Soviet revolutionary songs and the song of the “Weaving Girl,” paean to a beautiful textile worker, is the choir’s classic. A real-life young textile worker, Li Li, who also happens to be a member of the choir, is diagnosed with an apparently incurable disease. After the shock of the diagnosis wears off, Li Li reconciles herself to her mortality and decides to travel and make the best of whatever life she has left. In Beijing she encounters Zhao Luhan, a former workmate. Zhao had played the accordian in the factory chorus and was in love with Li Li but was transferred to Beijing ten years ago. Li Li had written to Zhao but never got a reply. She waited two years and eventually married another man. She brings Zhao up to date about her unfortunate condition and wonders why he never responded. Zhao is shocked. He never received any news from her and assumed that she had lost interest in him. After a couple of years he heard that Li Li was married and he too decided to move on, eventually marrying another woman. Li Li is deeply affected. Returning home from Beijing she discovers that her husband, Hu Xiaoguang has mortgaged the house and borrowed money to pay for treatment and, hopefully, a cure of Li Li’s disease. Li Li begins to realize that she hasn’t always seen clearly in love or life. Big decisions remain to be made …

Offscreen: I am going to start out be apologizing because I haven’t seen any of your previous films. I don’t think any of them have shown here before in Montreal; I also go to the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) occasionally, but, I don’t think I’ve seen your films there, either. So this interview, unfortunately, is going to be about Weaving Girl, only. Do you know if your films have shown here, before?

WQ: No, this is the first time, but, my last film Tuva’s Wedding showed at the 2007 HKIFF.

Offscreen: I didn’t go to that one. I’ll start at the beginning of the film, and, we’ll work our way through it. That is to say, to the extent to which I remember the film well enough (after only one viewing of it). I’m very interested in style, actually, and, I’m interested in Chinese film as well. So I will be asking questions about the style of Weaving Girl and, perhaps, on the relationships with other Chinese films, and, with Chinese history.

So, my first question: The opening shot is a long take following the “weaving girl” around the factory, and, it is a hand-held camera. I was struck by how the use of the hand-held camera was different from other Chinese films that I remember, and, also, by the industrialization of a traditional craft, like weaving … I thought that was interesting. I wonder if you could tell me what you were trying to achieve with that kind of opening, with the factory, the machinery, the hand-held camera …*

WQ: First of all, in relation to the style: I wanted to create something new. I wanted to provide a very direct introduction to who the main character is, in what working space she inhabits, and to show that she is only one among a huge number of women workers in this industry; and that this situation is quite normal for the current generation of industrial workers. I wanted to be very direct in introducing the story. Which is what I try to achieve in most of the shots in most of my films.

Offscreen: Is Weaving Girl a direct translation of the Chinese title? I didn’t read anything about the film in advance, so, I was expecting to find some very “traditional weaving.” Is there something in the title which is deliberately misleading?

WQ: This title has a very specific position or relation to Chinese culture and Chinese people. It is the title of a very popular song which came into China in the 1950s; it is a Russian song from the Soviet Union, a workers’ song, and it is literally translated as “Weaving Girl.” So, it stands for the Soviet communism ideal, and the system that was brought into China. Through the text of the song, we know what the ideal is for the workers. The words of the song are very idealistic. So we know what the ideal situation is, and so the title expresses this idealism.

Offscreen: Because I haven’t seen any of your other films, I’m not familiar with Yu Nan as an actress. Is she, as we say in English, your “muse”? Presumably, by the time of making this film, she understood what you expected from her as an actress. So, it is very interesting to me how restrained her performance is. There is a great deal of emotion, but, it is hardly expressed. So, have her roles in the other films been similar in terms of this reserved, restrained acting style? In general terms she is emotionally inexpressive, but, at key moments, very expressive.

WQ: The style of restrained emotional expression comes from the life that most Chinese people have, so, through tradition and culture it is typical for her to be like this, to stay in the workplace and not complain. In China it is very common for a person to not express their feelings when with others. If one does express oneself, openly, then one may well have trouble getting along with other people.

Offscreen: I do understand that, but, I found, for example, in the scene in the Beijing hotpot restaurant, where we have two lovers who haven’t seen each other for a really long time … I agree that not showing feelings is a naturalistic thing, but, here it is so extreme. So for me, the emotion in the scene is in the boiling water in the pot. Maybe if you can talk about how you have pushed this emotionless expression to a limit … It is something I really like about the film, actually …

WQ: They haven’t seen each other for such a long time that they don’t know what situation they are in, now, whether they have family or not, so that they have to act like what happened before didn’t actually happen. They don’t understand the meaning of their counterpart’s behaviour, they don’t know what the other person hopes to achieve from this meeting. They have to be restrained, as you say, and, because they are Chinese… Each one doesn’t know if the other is married and has children, and so they each feel they have to act this way. Also, yes, you could say that the pot expresses the emotion that they don’t want their counterpart to see. In China, custom says that people have to be like that. To some extent the acting style is direct, but sometimes it is more indirect. For example, in the scene where they go to the ocean, and, they are talking about their children, asking about what they are like and what they do, and we know from before that she was a good singer and he played the accordian, before, and that’s how they met. Then she asks “what is your daughter like,” and he says “she sings very well” and then in response to a question on her son, she says that, “well he plays the instrument”—he plays the piano, but it could be the accordian—so from these two simple sentences we know that for the whole time they were teaching their children things, while actually thinking about each other.

Offscreen: Yes, that’s nice. Actually, something I like about Chinese films is the representation of love relationships. It is kind of masochistic on my part, but, I really hate Hollywood romance, where people come together at the end and live happily ever after. Whereas the Chinese love story is the opposite of that, where, traditionally “real love” is never consummated. The couple rarely comes together at the end; maybe they will in a “next life,” or after death, or something. So, I saw this as a different way of playing with the classic Chinese love story. Is that correct?

WQ: In answer to your question, I’d like to go back to the idea of being “naturalistic” or “realistic.” So what we see is very common, and this situation occurs very often to Chinese people at that social level. They have so many other problems and things that occur which determine what will happen to them. The situation where a woman (or a man) has to go to another city to find work, or for another reason, and there gets involved with another man (or woman). I’ve seen that happen a lot in life. It is very common.

Offscreen: Since you mentioned going to the ocean, I wanted to say that it is one of the most amazing scenes in the film because of how “bland” it was in relation to how “exotic” the idea of going to the ocean was, at the resort of Beidaihe. We have these static shots just looking at the beach, whereas the first shot of the film, which was very dynamic, is completely different, stylistically. So, could you talk about this particular beach scene, and why you shot it the way you did?

WQ: First of all, in Asian countries, many people have never been to the sea by themselves. So for them, to actually see the ocean, must be something very dramatic. For lovers, it is an especially exciting thing to do. So I wanted to express some ideas in the style of that scene and in some other details of it, for example, it is winter and consequently, it is freezing. One idea I wanted to express is that one’s fate can be changed, but this involves details that one never thinks about. Or, one thinks that certain things are very insignificant, but these things actually end up determining what happens to you, as well as the big things like the “communist” system. This trip is supposed to be very romantic, but the winter season changes the atmosphere. So, the effect is the opposite of what we all think it is going to be. In the cold of winter, we therefore think about the fact that, apparently, he had never received her letters, and they had these communication problems, which had changed everything for them over the last ten years. So, perhaps the most beautiful scene occurs in the viewer’s imagination. We have very little to look at in Beidaihe, but, a lot to think about. So, Li Li had to look upon Zhao Luhan, whom she loved so strongly in the past, and had been separated from 10 years ago, and just imagine what could have been. The best part of the love is in her mind, only.

Offscreen: Connected to this: The Korean couple take two pictures of them on the beach. In the first picture, she is not smiling, but, in the second picture, which seems to be taken by accident, she is smiling. When she gets her picture in the mail, it looks like it is the first picture. Does he get a copy of the second picture, or, did either one of them get this 2nd picture when Li Li is smiling, or not?

WQ: Yes, Zhao got the “smiling” one. She gets the other one. So to some extent these pictures express their inner feelings. We wonder why she leaves the hotel so suddenly the next morning. I wanted to express by that action, and by the mixed emotions of the photographs, that her feelings of love have started to return, and that she feels she must escape this kind of renewed attraction towards each other. She knows that she is going to die soon, and, so she can’t face the prospect of being in love again. That’s why she left suddenly and didn’t allow any new developments to happen between them. For her, she didn’t smile, but, for him, she did.

Offscreen: On this idea of trying to be happy, even though life is miserable; So, we have this as a kind of theme in the film. For example: life in the factory is miserable except when they are singing together, and when the women are in the shower. And there is that one amazing scene of riding bicycles in the snow. It seems to me that those scenes were filmed in a special way to express the collective happiness. Is that correct? How were you able to express happiness cinematically?

WQ: The main theme of the film is that people try to find happiness, even though they can’t control the big things. The most important thing is not what happens but how one copes, how one sees life. So, in the first shot, Li Li doesn’t know that she is fatally ill, but, we are aware that things are not good in her work situation, and also that she doesn’t think she has a very good life because her love relationship went wrong. But, once she goes on the trip to Beijing to find her lost love before she dies, she discovers the reality. Also by the sea, she experiences the reality. When she returns she changes her attitude, partly because of her illness, but partly because of her understanding her surroundings differently. She becomes, maybe, a bit more caring. She can laugh now, and she realizes that there are valuable things in her life, even now.

Offscreen: I am actually a socialist, so I still believe in socialism, and, I see in your film that there is an ideal of a kind of natural socialism, where people work together despite everything—factory life is bad, factories are closing down—so, the scene with the bicycles, and the scene where the choir is singing, together, they express for me a kind of natural collectivity, even though the system is bad… Would that be correct?

WQ: You can relate to socialism even if you have a very low social coefficient. I wanted to show that even if someone has a very bad life, or has a low social position, that person can have the same problems, and face the same difficulties in life as other people. I wanted to show that someone at the low end of the social scale can still be happy, and have a meaningful life. The same things apply to people at every social level.

Offscreen: I was wondering why you work with a German cinematographer [Lutz Reitemeyer]?

WQ: No real reason. We met, and we found out very naturally that our cinematographic aims are similar, and sense of the style the same. As a director, I have a lot of things to do while I am shooting, and on the site, so I need to rely on others. I don’t like to tell people what to do, to give commands, but, I like to bring out the best in them. I want them to be able to demonstrate their skills. I want to bring them together. Perhaps Germans are very good at working by themselves, on their own initiative, developing ideas by themselves. Also in my own development as an artist, German classical music had a very big influence on me. So perhaps I am a bit inclined towards German creative thinking.

Offscreen: I hope you win something at the festival. You certainly deserve a prize. Thanks very much. [1]

WQ: I am very happy to have been able to come to the Montreal World Film Festival, because I find that it is very open to people. I think it is the best festival in that sense. Also, I really enjoyed watching a film outside, in the open. It seems the moon is very bright and large here in Montreal. It is like a paradise for movies!

Offscreen: Actually, you have been very lucky with the weather in Montreal, which during the summer has been awful. And that was an Iranian film last night I think, Panahi’s White Balloon.

WQ: There was a creepy looking guy sitting near to me. But, it was fine, no problem. This festival brings everyone together. I like its collectivity.

The last thing I wanted to say about Weaving Girl is that I tried to show both the workings of the system and the group as well as the fate of an individual. [2]


1 In fact Wang Quan’an and his film won both the FIPRESCI (film critics’) prize and the Grand Jury Prize from the official jury.

2 During the press conference on August 31st, the same day as the first screening of Weaving Girl, I had asked Wang Quan’an about the Soviet influence represented in the film, and its effects on China in general, and he responded by saying that the Soviet socialist background is vitally important. He stated that Soviet Communism influenced working life, the music, architecture and basic living conditions in China, and he wanted to express these aspects in the film. He also said that he was interested in the individual’s “fate” within these conditions. Further, he expressed his understanding that the changes brought about by the influence of Soviet communism didn’t match with the Chinese way of life, and that this “gap” marks the specialty of Chinese communism.

Interview with Wang Quan’an

Peter Rist, Ph.D has been teaching film history and aesthetics at Concordia University, Montreal, since 1989. He was principal writer for, and edited, Guide to the Cinema(s) of Canada (2001) and (co-edited with Timothy Barnard) South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography, 1915-1994 (1998). His more recent publications (from 2014) include Historical Dictionary of South American Film and a chapter of Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema, “Hong Kong: From the Silents to the Second Wave.” He has written extensively on Chinese and Korean cinemas and is a frequent contributor to Offscreen.

Volume 13, Issue 11 / November 2009 Interviews   chinese cinema   world film festival