Q&A with Director LIU Miaomiao
Starting up early, you used to be an active female director of Chinese Fifth Generation. But you stopped filmmaking for decades. Then you made a comeback and shot Red Flowers and Green Leaves. What motivated your comeback, and why this movie?
I am not quite into the film genres that prevail in today’s Chinese film industry. What I have been planned for is not movies from which investors would envision great commercial profit. I am fortunate enough to form ties with my current sponsor company (Bejing Zhongbeitongda Film&TV Culture Art Co., Ltd) to make Red Flowers and Green Leaves possible. Producer Mr. Gao Erdi encouraged me from the script creation stage and supported me through the whole production process. It is with his generous help that I can finish this film after years of absence.
It is a movie that intends to exhibit sincerity and pureness, both of which are rarely seen qualities on the current big screen. Plus, Islamism has been taken to extreme misperception worldwide. The conflict that leads to communication breakdown between divergent cultures may result from a lack of genuine conversation. I hope this movie provides a platform for such a conversation.
Tell us a bit about the main characters and the storyline. We hardly see films that cover issues of life conditions concerning Chinese Muslims.
The film tells an emotional story of a newlywed young couple, who live in a village in Northwest China where the Hui People, a minority made up of Chinese Muslims congregate and make a living. They have their respective secrets, and neither of them expect marriage. By family arrangement, they become wed. Since then, they have gone through gradual acceptance, then learned to face and take on their shared destiny.
The actors are all indigenous Hui Muslims and amateurs in performance. How did you decide on them, and what acting instructions did you give them?
To employ amateur Muslim actors is to achieve a realistic texture. From their appearance, they have discernible traits as Hui Muslims. Our actors were brought up in a religious ambience so that they naturally correspond with characters in the film. Comparatively speaking, professional non-Muslim actors can hardly achieve that.
From drafting my script, to arranging the visual expression, I tried to take the traits of non-professional actors into full account. The entire cast was introduced to me by my friends, and friends of theirs. They put forth substantial effort without great reward.
This film is adapted from writer Shi Shuqing’s novel, Cousin. What draws you to the story? What adaptation did you make when filming it?
It is the male protagonist that draws me to Cousin, in the short story. This character with mental illness really speaks to me. I have a medical history of psychosis, so I am very sympathetic towards those facing similar predicament. The movie actually dilutes the thick religious implications, and attempts to capture the day-to-day side of it. Thus, comparing to the original story, the movie is more dramatic.
Shi Shuqing is an excellent Muslim writer born where the story is set. Decades ago, I attempted to cooperate with him regarding another story of his, but regrettably failed. His work closely follows characters’ inner activities, plays down plots, and attaches great importance to detail, usually displaying a strong sense of humanistic care. It is indeed a challenge to present his story in the form of cinema. However, I welcome such an intriguing challenge.
The film is narrated by Gubo, the male protagonist. He is regarded as disadvantaged by other villagers. Even as an introvert with a sensitive mind, he keeps his resolution to be independent, and yet also dependable. It is a complicated character with anti-stereotypical sexual charm.
That’s right. Gubo is introverted and unpretentious by nature. He is gentle and humble, but neither weak, nor servile. He has self-respect without being masculinely bossy. In my mind, Gubo represents nobility of mind.
The film touches on many sensitive themes hardly seen in Chinese mainstream cinema, including arranged marriage, Chinese minorities, and the religion of Islam. But they are not what sells the film. What do you think about the living situation for today’s Chinese Muslims, and your identity as a Hui Muslim director?
In China, Islamic culture is marginal. Hui people who don’t live within the community in which the Hui people primarily live and gather together are comparatively better educated. I am from the city and have left the Hui communities at early age. Thus, even as a Hui Muslim, the ethnic identity doesn’t bring overly special impact on my life as well as on my films. If I had lived within the Hui communities, I wouldn’t have had the chance to enjoy education, or practice the arts, due to to early marriage.
As for stories involving arranged marriage, minorities, and other social issues, they are not the key themes. I intend to stress the characters and problems all human beings are confronted with, such as those in respect of self-evaluation, dignity, and responsibility.
The film is shot in your hometown. Is there any specific reason for that?
I was born in Yinchuan, Ningxia Province, and lived in Xihaigu, where the film is shot, for four years, from twelve to sixteen years old. These four years had huge influence on me. Xihaigu is also in Yinchuan, and is a typical Hui community of Chinese Hui Muslim. It was once on the list of the most uninhabitable places by UNESCO. However, thanks to its harshness, I learned to be strong, humble and compassionate.
Have you ever encountered obstacles during shooting?
I initiated the negotiation with my investors and we decided that the approximate budget for production was three-million yuan. I want to protect my investors’ interest and the best way to achieve it is cutting down cost. How to balance the low cost with high quality haunted me throughout the whole process.
The climate was unstable when we shot on location in Xihaigu and the weather forecast was always inaccurate. To take on non-professional actors meant more time needed for rehearsal, while we had to restrict the actual filming period for the sake of saving on expenses. Every day was a tough day. The shooting took twenty-seven days. After that, I frequently woke up from nightmares, the content of which was always about hindrances on set. But I knew that was what I should bear, because I chose to make the film and I had to persist.
There is another director aside from you, HU Weijie, who is also the director of cinematography. Please introduce this important person to us.
Co-director HU Weijie is my junior fellow. We both graduated from Beijing Film Academy. Many years ago, in a café in Beijing, when he was talking to his friends about a film he liked, I happened to be there and the film was my work, Family Scandal (Jia chou, 1994). That was how we met.
During that time, I was occasionally plagued by mental illness. HU Weijie had always been supportive. Even when my psychosis flared up and I had to be hospitalized for treatment, he could always reach me no matter how hard I tried to conceal myself. He would come to the hospital with his kind tease, seeming to suggest how naughty I was. His smile made me think what I got was nothing more than a cold, even when I was imprisoned behind doors.
HU Weijie understands why I want to make this film featuring a protagonist with slight mental illness. His companionship makes me feel secure. If I were to go mad, he would be there to help finish the film. Our co-direction is also a way to show our responsibility to the investors.
The film honestly divulges the status quo of Chinese minorities. What do you expect the audience to get from the film?
China is under development, so is the infertile land of Xihaigu. Compared to 1980s, residents in Xihaigu are leading a much better life there. The film respects this kind of positive change and renders the message that the Hui people there are casting off poverty. I hope the film has captured the reality and can make the audience believe that everything changes except for sincerity, humility, and deep compassion.