CinemaTalk: Interview with Bo Wang, director of <i>China Concerto</i>
By Maya Eva Gunst Rudolph
Following the North American premiere of his film China Concerto, I sat down with Bo Wang in New York City to discuss the film.
Maya Rudolph: Can you give some background on how you began collecting these images? At what time during this process did it become clear to you the kind of film you were making?
Bo Wang: So, as you know, Bo Xilai’s campaign started in late 2008 or 2009. I knew what was happening, but I wasn’t really thinking about doing a project related to it. It wasn’t until the summer of 2010, when I was visiting my family [in Chongqing] that I saw this whole spectacle unfolding and I was totally amazed by what was happening. Actually, initially, I was thinking about doing a different project for my MFA thesis [at School of Visual Arts in NYC], but when I saw what was happening in Chongqing, I thought I had to go for it. Initially, I only had a week or ten day stay in Chongqing, so I didn’t know how far it could go. That summer, I started collecting images of dancing in public areas and started to get a sense of what I could do, but it wasn’t until I came back to New York that I really decided to go forward with the project. I went back to Chongqing in January of 2011 and spent a month there gathering footage—shooting as well as collecting found footage. I came back to New York in January 2011 and spent the whole year of 2011 writing the script and editing.
MR: Was your initial project also going to be set in Chongqing?
BW: Not really. For political reasons, I didn’t want to focus too explicitly on Bo Xilai. I didn’t want to risk getting into trouble. On the other hand, there are so many issues that I started to observe during that summer. Let me put it this way: there are so many interesting things going on in my hometown that I was oblivious to before living in New York and approaching my hometown as an outsider. So, I also was thinking I shouldn’t emphasize my identity as a native. In filmmaking, I try to get away from this position of being an insider or a native because that can influence the authenticity of telling a story. Also, I had been reading Guy DeBord’s Society of the Spectacle, which was also a pretty heavy influence once I started looking at the all the images of what was happening in Chongqing. I had such limited shooting time and a limited number of images to work with, so I introduced the narrator to sort of work the film into an essay format.
Before I headed back to Chongqing in the winter, I had a list of scenes I wanted to capture. I had been thinking and doing research online about things that are related to my ideas. But even so, I would say that about 80% the film ended up being created just through instincts and being shaped little by little.
MR: The concept of “spectacle” operates on so many levels in the work. From the more literal interpretation—the dancers and performances you captured—to political spectacles and the spectacle of the film itself. Can you talk more about this?
BW: When I started researching and looking at these dancers in the street and so on, I felt so sad. But I’m also extremely attracted to these spectacles. I like to watch what’s going on, even though it puts me in a really sad mood. I think that’s the point. People are so attracted to spectacles; they just enjoy consuming these images. At the beginning, the idea was to start with the situation in Chongqing, but I now think the situation in Chongqing reflects a lot about China as a whole. I also tend to oppose the idea that [Bo Xilai’s] is a purely political campaign. The way they abolished commercials, purely promoting advanced socialist culture—the propaganda is not different from the way commercial messages operate. It’s mingled with how commercials work.
MR: Right. So Red Propaganda and commercial ventures are basically employing the same tactics?
BW: Yes. For me, it’s not about the content. It’s about how the message is being distributed. So, when I started collecting images, it wasn’t just about politics. It’s about pop culture, the cheesy media all around us. For me, these are the same kind of images.
MR: Can you talk about how the voice of the narrator developed in the film?
BW: So, my starting point was just that I wanted to avoid using my own native identity. Basically, I felt so oppressed by all the contradictions in the propaganda machine in China, but I realize that some of those contradictions have been neutralized by every-day language. I have an American friend who came with me to China and he was totally shocked by the language that we heard there—“democratic dictatorship.” If you listen to that in Chinese, you just get used it, you’ll take it for granted. So, I thought that using a foreign language would be the best way to uncover all the contradictions that are buried in this every-day language.
Since I speak English, using English narration was the logical choice. In terms of the narration, I was looking at DeBord’s films, The Society of the Spectacle films, and they’re pretty didactic. Of course, I want to make a movie like that, but I’m not a sixty-year-old philosopher, so I needed to find the right way to say the same kind of thing. I also was afraid that the way my script was written was a little bit didactic, so I took a cue from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and had a third person make this story into a kind of personal conversation.
But, of course, there are always issues in how we look at China—whether from a Western or a Chinese perspective. That’s why I also wanted to bring in Antonioni’s film because it really makes us question, “what point of view are you looking from?”
I decided to have my friend do the narration. She is Argentinean, but grew up in Spain and lived in London, so she has kind of a mixed accent. It’s not purely a British or American accent. Actually, when I was first testing out the narration, I did the voice-over myself and it sounded so awful! No one can get used to hearing their own voice. So, I asked this friend who is also a filmmaker and it came out much better.
MR: Let’s talk about Chris Marker. You adopt his narrative device from Sans Soleil, even down to quoting a third party’s letters and having the narrator tell us what “he wrote.” To you, who is the “he” writing the letters?
BW: The “he,” the person who wrote the letters, is me. Well, it can be me, but it’s not necessarily me. It must be someone who is a partial insider, but also a partial outsider. It’s someone who only has reason to only study the spectacles, to collect the spectacles. I think it’s good to remove it one degree like this, otherwise you have to explain to the audience why you’re showing all of this weird imagery.
MR: Can tell me more about how you searched for and began compiling the found footage. What was your aim in using the found footage montages in making a certain kind of meaning?
BW: Personally I often get as many inspirations from propaganda and vernacular footage as from recognized works of art. I collect and compile all types of footage. The footage told me so much of how people think, what shape us, and carried flavors that are so hard to demonstrate from any other angle. So I include a lot found footage in my film, sometimes in a metaphoric way. There is a section of montage where revolutionary heroes are shooting each other. That is a salute to Guy Debord for what he did in his film The Society of The Spectacle, a major inspiration for China Concerto.
MR: So, in all objective terms, the campaign launched by Bo Xilai is such an insane thing. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to see this happening in your hometown.
BW: Yes. It feels deeply sad.
MR: When the scandal broke, did you feel vindicated in some way? Like you were getting confirmation that this was, in fact, a totally bizarre and crazy situation? And did you think you want to reshape the film in some way?
BW: Inevitably, there’s some joy there. It’s such a big reveal; it’s kind of thrilling. You know, the scandal was also a spectacle—watching it on the news. I couldn’t help enjoy reading the news, even if it wasn’t in a purely happy way. I don’t know where the situation is headed now, but it’s clear that it’s going in some new direction. If Bo Xilai were in power, it’s clear that things would be headed in a terrible direction. But now it’s all unknown. I don’t know if it’s going to a better situation, but it’s undefined.
MR: You give such a nuanced portrait of the scandal in the film, barely ever making explicit reference to what’s going on. How did that develop?
BW: Let’s go back to 2011. I did try to avoid making this movie too explicitly about Bo Xilai and about Chongqing. I also thought that focusing the film in such a political way would put a lot of pressure on me and maybe even present a problem for me in the future and for my future projects. So, there were a lot of strategic editing decisions. You can read that kind of tension in the film. In one section, when I cut between the children performing and the bureaucrats in the audience, there were initially three shots of Bo Xilai’s face. In the summer of 2011, I spoke with my friend who works in the propaganda department and she said it wasn’t a great idea to show his full face because he was still such a powerful figure. So, I think you can get this tension in the way we just use this one kind of unclear close-up.
So, then in February 2011 after the scandal came about, I was seriously thinking about putting in a post-script or some indication of what happened later. But then I realized it wasn’t necessary. I just wanted to keep the flavor of what the conversations were like at that specific time. In the movie, you can sense it, but if you have more context for the scandal, it really enhances the flavor of this very specific time period.
BW: I’m not sure how much I have been shaped by the movie. Making the movie was a very intense experience for me. I worked for a full year, editing about ten hours every day until late 2011 when I felt like it had mostly come together. I cannot fully talk about how it impacts me in a larger way, because I don’t think I’m away from that experience yet. I still feel like I’m immersed in that very intense experience of making the movie. It’s partially still with me.
MR: I see. I’ll ask you again in a year. In terms of screenings in China, it’s only played in Beijing?
BW: Right, it showed in Songzhuang at the last day of the [Beijing Independent Film] Festival at an artist’s studio. It was a pretty private screening. I sent the DVD also to China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing, but the festival was totally cancelled before it even started.
MR: Towards the end of the film, there is lengthy sequence where we see an outdoor marching ceremony and later a televised performance by a special female police cadet force. How did you get connected to filming the police officers? We see the development of the spectacle in a way, from their rehearsals to the actual televised performance, in a very intimate way.
BW: So, before going back in the winter, I already knew that this female police force existed in Chongqing. I didn’t expect to see this marching performance, but I was hoping I could somehow get some footage of them. I think it’s every morning or once a week, they go out and do a flag ceremony. This kind of thing is a big part of Bo Xilai’s campaign and, really, the female police force might even represent some kind of personal hobby. He had the same kind of team when he was the party chief in Dalian. He has a similar female police team, but they’re on horseback.
So, I thought this lends some strange flavor. That scene was shot on New Year’s Day, January 1st, 2011. I made a trip to People’s Square early in the morning because I suspected they would have some kind of event and it happens there was this marching ceremony going on. I have a fancy camera, so I just pretended to be from a TV station.
MR: Being someone who is bicultural and bilingual, who has made an English-language film, do you have any feeling about how you’d like the film to be perceived by non-Chinese audiences?
BW: I think actually, through my experience trying to show the movie at different venues, making this movie has given me a lot of trouble. I think when people think about Chinese indie films, they sometimes want something really Chinese. The fact is that my movie is kind of post-modern. Even though the language is intended for American or European audiences, it’s still something very different from what they might expect from a Chinese filmmaker.
When I was writing the script, I wrote in English, rather than translate from Chinese. And even though this has led to some confusion about what kind of film this is, I wouldn’t do it differently if I had to do it over. I wouldn’t do it in Chinese. I think it’s allowed me to really focus on the decisions I want to make, whether they are aesthetic or just allowing the movie to stay away from distractions.
When started to conceive this project, I felt it would be too ambitious and unrealistic if I tried to make a more standard documentary about the whole phenomenon. So I decided to focus on the surfaces and the spectacles that I have full access to and wished that by deconstructing the images I could get some kind of understanding. That determined the choice of the voiceover. Having an outsider’s point of view does give me excuse to only focus on the surface, and a foreign language helps to reveal contradictions that have been neutralized in the native language.