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CinemaTalk: Cui Zi’en at the Beijing Apple Store

This is the first of three interviews produced from the “Meet the Filmmakers” series held in Feburary 2010 at the Apple Store in Sanlitun, Beijing. The series, co-presented by the Apple Store and dGenerate Films, is an ongoing series to showcase China’s newest filmmakers powered by digital technology.

Cui Zi'en, director of Queer China, 'Comrade China', speaks at the Apple store in Beijing. (Photo: Robert Douglas)

Cui Zi’en is a director, film scholar, screenwriter, and novelist based in Beijing. He is an associate professor at the Beijing Film Academy. Cui Zi’en is a premiere avant-garde digital filmmaker in China. He has published nine novels in China and Hong Kong, and he is also the author of books on criticism and theory, as well as a columnist for magazines.

dGenerate Films distributes three of Cui Zi’en’s features in its catalog: Queer China, ‘Comrade China‘, Enter the Clowns, and We Are the… of Communism (coming soon).

The video of Cui’s interview is in four parts, with an English transcript following each video. Video of Part One is below. Click through to view both videos and the full transcript.

Note: English subtitles for each video can be accessed by clicking on the CC button in the pop-up menu on the bottom right corner of the player.


JZ: As we know, being a director is only one of your different roles. You are also a scholar, a novelist, and an activist. In the past several years, you became quite popular in the media. So my first question is, how you see your role as a director?

CZE: I have different areas of focus in different periods. I first spent ten years focusing on my research, and the next ten years writing novels. In the past ten years, I’ve been working on images as a way to express myself.

JZ: So shall we say that being a director has become an important part of your life?

CZE: Kind of. But I see myself more as an organizer than a director. Forming a film crew is almost like having a party with my friends. My role is to gather people for a big twenty-day party, like a party host. Everyone brings cheese and wine. Of course in our party they bring a DV Camera, tapes and costumes.

JZ: That sounds interesting. As an independent filmmaker, I’m sure you’ve come across all sorts of difficulties, such as lack of inspiration or funding. How do you manage to turn filmmaking into a big party?

CZE: As long as you have a clear idea about what kind of film you want to make and what thoughts you hope to express, and you are able to present it to others, like holding an empty basket, God will fill your basket with pies quickly. Of course the precondition is that this has to be an empty basket without any concern for profit or other things.

JZ: So you can achieve your goal with a strong will and pure motivation.

CZE: For filmmakers who make all sorts of films, if you are running out of ideas or inspiration, you only need to slightly change your direction. For instance, if you’ve made too much avant-guard stuff, you can start to make narrative-based films. If you feel that you can’t write an innovative story, maybe you can try to document real life. This is also my own trajectory, from the so-called avant-garde and experimental, to narrative films, and then documentary. My works cover all these different fields.

JZ: Do you have any suggestion for those who want to become an independent filmmaker on how to manage the equipment and the film crew?

CZE: My suggestion would be to go for whatever is the most convenient and easiest to use. Many film students have this “film complex” and always hope to shoot on film, seeing it as the highest level of filmmaking. I always want to subvert this concept. I embraced DV as soon as it appeared in China. I even claimed that the age of film would be over with the coming of DV, and I was criticized by many people in my circle.

JZ: When was that?

CZE: 2001, when the home video camera appeared in China.

JZ: How did you start to use the DV Camera?

CZE: I didn’t like shooting on film, so when there was an alternative, I picked it up quite naturally. It doesn’t require any preparation; you can just start right away.

JZ: Can you share with us any interesting story or particular feeling you had when you started to use the DV camera?

CZE: When we just started, we thought it was cool to use big cameras, the bigger the better. My cinematographer picked up the biggest one. I thought it was too big, but since we were having a party, I just let him choose whatever he liked. One scene was shot in an actor’s apartment. However, the apartment was too small for the camera movement we designed, and we used hand-held camera instead. We had to adjust our idea to the actual shooting conditions.

JZ: From 2001, when you started to use DV, to 2010, digital technology has advanced quite dramatically. Do you think you’ve kept yourself updated with the most recent technological developments?

CZE: In some ways I do. My camera size gets smaller and smaller. But I also deliberately went against the trend. Now even small cameras have HD format, but I still use the most common DV format for my films, because I want to preserve the natural and rough quality of DV camera, which better presents the scene of China’s development today. I want to show the dust of Beijing Station, not a perfect visual experience made up with artificial light. So I still haven’t tried HD yet.


JZ: I know you are always very special; you always stick to your own ideas and concepts.

CZE: I always need to think it through before I accept new things. Maybe this is because of my ten-year research experience. Every time I come across new things, I analyze the content first, and then think about how to use and develop it in my own way. I never passively accept whatever is given to me.

JZ: Can you tell us your plan for 2010?

CZE: In 2007 and 2008, my trajectory turned into documentary making and I plan to carry it on to the new year. I have several projects at hand right now. I have two small Sony cameras, and I am using one of them to make what I call a “visual diary.” Every time I go to lower-class areas, not a middle-class place like this, I carry it with me to document what I see, liking writing a diary. But I won’t call it a film project.

This year, I have one documentary project, and several narrative films. But my new narratives will be quite different from my previous ones. In the past I always tried to eliminate the narrative component in my films. Although the script was narrative based, when it is presented in visual form, narrative became almost invisible. But in my new project, I want to highlight the narrative, and make the visual narrative match that of the script.

JZ: You’ve been working as an independent filmmaker for many years. I’m sure there are opportunities for you to make commercial films for the mainstream audience if you want. Why do you insist on making independent films?

CZE: For me there’s no distinction between the so-called mainstream and alternative. For me, people are just like waves running here and there. There’s no mainstream or small branch. They are all part of the big waves. If there is such a thing as “mainstream”, I would be very resistant to this concept. What’s your data and what methodology do you use to collect it? If I can’t count these people one by one, then mainstream is just an illusion to me. So when I make a film, I only have myself and people around me in mind. As the Christian saying tells us, we should always love our neighbors. You can’t love people who are out of your reach. It’s a lie if you say you love them. So my works are all related to people around me.

JZ: Your films are very unique among Chinese cinema and even world cinema. You have a very distinct aesthetic. Do you have any warning to people who first watch your film?

CZE: I always see each of my audience as myself. I wrote a book called The First Audience, which means that I’m my first audience. When I watch my own film, I feel that I was watching someone else’s work. I’m always surprised by the sense of unfamiliarity. I would think that this director’s work is so revolutionary. Everyone likes quick cut, but he uses long take. Everyone else is trying to make the picture more delicate, but his images are getting rougher and rougher. He must be someone really special. If I see some bad shots, I would think he’s such a boring director. He should have done it in a better way. I’ve make about 30 or 40 films so far, my favorite one is a 110 min film with only about 10 shots. It’s very simple. There are only two characters and they are naked throughout the entire film. We feel it’s thorough and free. I have a good friend teaching at the University of California. She always talks about the difference and relation between my films and other directors’ work. She knows that I like Almodovar, and she says that actually you are freer than Almodovar. You can make whatever film you like without any concern for box office or success. But Almadovar has this pressure. No one is as free as you are.

JZ: That’s why your works are so pure.

CZE: Thanks.

JZ: Today is a very special occasion. We are having this conversation in the Beijing Apple Store. What’s your impression of Apple products?

CZE: I have many friends around me who use Apple. I don’t use Apple computer, but I like to use Adobe for editing. I didn’t know that Adobe is related to Apple until I saw your questionnaire before the interview.

JZ: I personally think that the style of Apple is rather similar to yours, very free.

CZE: I like the design of its logo, a bitten apple.


Audience Q & A:

Q1: There are many different ways to express yourself, such as painting, photography, or writing as you did. What is the quality of moving images that makes it such a special way for expression? What are its unique features that other ways don’t have?

CZE: Thank you for your good question. I always think that the universe is God’s draft. A draft is revised over and over again according to the change of time and space. Among the several professions I have, I like writing novels and making moving images the most, although I teach and do a lot of academic writing as well. Novels and films are the closet to my concept of draft. People used to say that film is the art of regret, but for me, it’s the art of draft. Any film, no matter how many time you shoot it, how you edit it, it is always a draft. Even the most carefully made Hollywood film or European masterpiece is still a draft. I like its sense of fluidity. That’s why I keep on working as a novelist and filmmaker.

Q2: Although you said that you don’t see the difference between mainstream and alternative, the concept of “mainstream” and “alternative” are widely accepted. As a filmmaker, of course you don’t want yourself be the only audience of your film, but at the same time, I’m sure you don’t want to cater to the audiences’ taste at the price of your own creativity. I wonder if you have struggled over that? Have you ever made compromises for these considerations?

CZE: Of course I have all kinds of careful considerations about distribution, screening, audiences’ reception, etc. My personal take on this is that the so-called mainstream and alternative is always relative, and differ from place to place. The mainstream in this area might be marginalized in another area. Some popular mainstream films in our country probably cannot be found in the West at all. On the contrary, the ones that we see as alternative sometimes can be very well accepted there. Take myself as an example; my films are screened at different universities in the States quite frequently. This is something that mainstream Chinese films don’t have. If I show three of my films in ten universities, I’m likely to attract a wider audience than a mainstream film showing in one theater. The mainstream and alternative are not fixed concepts. They are constantly changing in a global context.

Q3: Some directors care most about cinematic styles, some pay more attention to their ideas. What do you care the most?

CZE: There’s no way for me to pay special attention on any particular issue. It all depends on what I’m filming. Like today, I had no idea what the space would be, or who would come to my talk. It’s the same as making a film. When I get a general idea about what I want to film, I start to call my friends and ask if they would be interested in that. The process is always very simply and quick, no rehearsal, script or professional actors. We discuss the idea together and then I just need to have a few words with my cameraman about how long and how wide each take should be. I don’t really know about what we’ll get, but I do know that the friendly and harmonious environment of our film crew, the freedom beyond the Capitalist pursuit for profit and the censorship of the Communist Party will lead to something extraordinary. My successful experience is based on a cooperation bound by our friendship, not by profit.


Q4: It is always very different to resist the temptation of fame and profit. How do you see these two things?

CZE: I think a good artist should identify himself as lower-class. My definition of lower-class is different from proletariat, yet it’s not the same as middle-class either. The upper-class always have too much and don’t know what to do; while the middle-class always get the exact amount. So I consider the lower-class as more creative. The so-called fame and profit, failure and success are just social constructions. When we are by ourselves or with several true friends, we are not judged by these criteria and therefore in the most natural status. For example, when we celebrate Chinese New Year with our family, no one really cares about whether we’ve succeeded or not. I always try to situate myself in such a condition where I can be free from worldly judgments. There are a lot of very successful film people around me, almost everyone in the Beijing Film Academy is only half step away from being a celebrity. But I always keep a certain distance from them and try to be true to myself. I’m a Christian, and I think about the issue of death almost every day. My biggest wish is to be brave and truly happy when I die. This is the most important thing to me, and I’m training myself every day.

Q5: I only see your works about the subject of “queer,” and I think they are very different from other queer films without much emphasis on sexual desire. Many films that depict homosexual love are not that different from those about heterosexual love, and they only use the queer subject as a token to attract more attention. What’s your take on this?

CZE: I don’t think that the queer subject is that much different from other subjects. My reason for making films about that is because it’s too marginalized in China. I think it’s a very powerful subject because it is discriminated and repressed, not because it’s a popular theme right now. I’m quite familiar with the international film circus, I’m aware that many queer films emphasize on aesthetics, sexual desire etc. I intentionally work against this trend of queer cinema that gradually evokes your sexual desire first and then satisfy you. We call it “double ejaculation”, which means crying and masturbating at the same time. My films are always very straightforward without evocation for either sexual desire or tears, and I’m personally very critical about this so-called “double climax.” This is the trick of commercial films or popular films.

Q6: What kind of conclusion do you hope that people will make about you after you pass away?

CZE: As I said, this world is a draft, as well as my life, so any conclusion will be even rougher than the draft of my life. I don’t have any expectation for that. Thank you.

Interview conducted by Jane Zheng. Videography by Michael Cheng. English transcription by Yuqian Yan.


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