Actors, China, Directors, Features, Filmmakers, Interviews

The Calming interview: Song Fang and Qi Xi

We talk to the director and the main actress of the introspective drama…

Song Fang returned to the film festival circuit eight years after the premiere of her last film, intimate family drama Memories Look at Me (2012). Qi Xi came to Berlin for the second year in the row as in 2019 she starred in Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long My Son that screened in the main competition.

The meeting took place one Berlinale afternoon in late February in Savoy Hotel, an impressive art deco hotel in Charlottenburg, one of Berlin’s Western districts. The dimly lit interior resonated with the two filmmakers’ presence from the moment they came into the lobby. Song Fang and Qi Xi both have inner strength and charisma, however, the source of these features seem to lie in entirely different places. Song Fang’s voice is low and deep, her tone is steady, careful and decisive. Qi Xi on the other hand talks fast, the energy seems to be bursting towards the outside when Song Fang’s is buried deep within. Both filmmakers shared their perspective on the creative process, the tensions between transnational and national framework, Pan-Asian projects and much more.

When did you start working on the script for The Calming? How did the initial idea come about?

Song: The development of the initial idea was quite complicated, it did not happen in a moment but it was stretched in time. Since the completion of my previous film, I was thinking about the topic of my next project. At that time I had an idea to focus on the dynamic between people and the natural environment or on nature in general. Memories Look at Me were invited to quite a few film festivals, so I went to many different places, some of them left a deep impression on me. All these memories were accumulating in my mind. Then one day, I suddenly came up with a general plotline and around it I waved a story inspired by two elements: the memories from the places I have been to and the experience of interacting with nature.

Lin Tong, the main character in The Calming, is visiting a lot of places in Japan and China, travelling from South to North and back. What caught my attention most are the scenes where she is more settled, spending time with her parents in the park. I was wondering what was the location of the shoot?

Song: It was in Nanjing.

Right! Because you are from Jiangsu province, the feeling of familiarity with the space is so visible it changes the mood of the film. The plotline has quite transnational, pan-Asian appeal. If counting from your last directorial project, the filmmaking process was quite long. Where did the funds for making the film come from?

Song: The funding was organized by the production company, I do not know the details. The whole process was not so long, scriptwriting took one year and we were looking for investment for three years. The plot of the film also requires changing of the seasons, so principal photography lasted for about one year.

In the film the role of the main character is demanding, the camera does not leave her side. Qi Xi, I was wondering how did you start to work with Song Fang?

Qi: We met through Jia Zhangke. I saw director Jia one time in Hong Kong, but it was not work-related, we just went to eat out together with some friends. Then sometime after I came back from this trip, director Jia mentioned there is a screenplay that might be suitable for me, so he gave me the text to read. At that time I was shooting a film in Huludao in Northeastern China, so Song Fang came to see me there. We got to know each other and talked about the script. I remember at first director Song thought I did not really fit the role of Lin Tong but eventually, she decided that I should be able to play the part well.

How did you prepare to portray Lin Tong? What was the biggest challenge?

Qi: In a broader scope of my career up to date, I spent quite a lot of time getting into this role, I prepared carefully. I myself am more of a rough-cut person but while working with director Song I had to adjust. Her train of thought is very meticulous, she pays a lot of attention to details and takes a lot into account while completing the task. So I was inclined to follow her instructions closely and tried to incorporate her point of view as much as possible while preparing for the role. I think we had a teacher-student relationship, I personally am a bit disobedient and lazy, but I slowly entered the character.

Are there any specific film directors you would like to work with one day?

Qi: Honestly, from my perspective, the profession of a film director is very mysterious and difficult. I don’t really have anyone particular in mind for future collaboration, because most times it is the film director’s choice if she or he wants to work with me. Acting is a very passive occupation, it is quite impossible to actively promote oneself and make oneself known, because the final decision if I fit the role or not depends on the film director. If I do fit then we start to collaborate and if I do not fit, then what sort of adjustments should I implement to make it work and so on. Of course, I wish to work with filmmakers that will nurture me and give me the space to learn and grow. I also have my merits and goals to pursue. I want to become more accomplished and fulfilled as a person, so I would be more willing to collaborate with filmmakers that might provide me with such opportunities.

This year at Berlinale there are only two contemporary Chinese full-length fiction films, The Calming and Crossing the Border. In many aspects, they are completely different from each other. I feel Crossing the Border projects the image of China that is officially endorsed, whereas The Calming is very private and distances itself from the politics as much as it is possible. What are your thoughts on meeting the government expectation when it comes to filmmaking? Have you considered one day making a film that would incorporate elements that meet the Party line?

Song: Firstly, I don’t really have an opinion, because I don’t understand how it all works. Secondly, if one day I decide to make a film like that, I am not sure if it would work out as planned, because the filmmaking process often turns out not exactly the way you want it. As a director, of course, one can decide a lot of things ahead regarding the creative process, but very often it is impossible to make a film fully according to one’s wishes. Simply, I can say I understand very little so I cannot give you a more elaborate answer.

Filmmaking depends on a lot of factors that remain beyond one’s control. In a way, The Calming seems to be a film about letting go off various pressures through constant movement, travel, relocation and exploring the environment. The main character is a cosmopolitan migrating between cities and countries. You highlight the transnational ties, so I was wondering how do you feel about the national paradigm? How do you feel about China and being Chinese? From your perspective, what are the pros and cons of such identity?

Song: I think it is not bad, I mean I focus more on an individual, personal emotions and problems. I believe the big ideas are relatively secondary. However, I definitely acknowledge I am Chinese, especially from the cultural point of view. I have studied in Europe and I very much liked attending the film school in Belgium. However it is there I clearly realized I am Chinese, because some of my ways of thinking were different from the ones of my European classmates. I can say that to some extent I understand European culture, but when it comes to creative skills I am influenced by classical Chinese poetry and Chinese language in general. It is all a mix of factors occurring at birth and the ones we come in contact with during our whole life. I can say I am very content that Chinese is my mother language.

So the creative process is connected to the identity becoming more and more hybrid?

Song: I do not think it is so. I personally feel that it is a matter of a person’s interaction with the world rather than all-encompassing labels such as a nation. For example, when I came to Berlin, I liked this place very much, because I noticed the trees on both sides of the street are especially beautiful, different from the ones I saw in Paris. Here the trees make people feel good. I noticed old architecture and specific style of buildings, some old churches. I am moved, attracted and deeply influenced by the space and how it makes me feel.

I understand, the environment, the concrete and material realm is more important in your creative process. I suppose in a way materiality opposes the fragmentation and inevitable conflict existing in the world of ideas. Qi Xi, could I ask you the same question? In a contemporary context, how do you feel about China and being Chinese? Are there any special advantages or disadvantages?

Qi: When it comes to personal and professional life, I do not think there are any specific benefits or restrictions, because we are making films in our own land, in the environment that we know so well. The Chinese film industry is quite inward-looking. From the perspective of creative interests, I still think filmmakers are focused on telling local stories grounded in daily life and their personal experience. So it cannot be perceived in the categories of advantages and disadvantages. Moreover, I myself am not inclined to rebel or seek novelty, I am more interested in working on films that explore dynamics within a family, the relationship between a married couple, parents and children, also the ones centring on women and female issues. I prefer stories that I can relate to personally, so in this way I am quite selfish in the choice of roles.

So are you personally often similar to the character you chose to portray on screen? For example in the case of The Calming?

Qi: Maybe when it comes to the choice of life path I am quite like the character I play, but the way of self-expression is totally different (haha).

(Haha) To bend the line between fiction and reality deeper, I was very surprised to see Shozo Ichiyama (Japanese film producer behind the majority of Jia Zhangke’s works and many other Pan-Asian art cinema films) on screen! How did you persuade him to act in The Calming?

Song: (Haha) Shozo Ichiyama is The Calming’s co-producer, he also supervised with us the casting for the character of a Japanese art curator. The selection took place in Japan, he saw the whole process and in the end we did not find a suitable candidate. As a co-producer, he decided he can make some more contributions to the film.

He played so well! Such cameos are the best. Continuing on behind the scenes, Song Fang, you know director Jia for so long. How did you first meet?

Song: I think we first met in 2009 when Jia Zhangke’s production company was making a documentary film entitled YULU. He gathered a group of six filmmakers from a younger generation and I was one of them. It was the first time we collaborated.

Director Jia has been very active in supporting young filmmakers, now also organizing Pingyao International Film Festival that gives a lot of opportunities to screen debuts and search for funding. What is your opinion on the event?

Qi: I have not attended Pingyao IFF yet. Previously one of the films I worked on was included in the program but because of job-related obligations, I could not go. However a lot of friends told me about the festival, I also know Marco Muller, so Pingyao IFF already feels very close and familiar to me. The profile of the films selected to the programme is also similar to the sort of projects I am usually working on, so I hope one day I will have the chance to visit the festival. I also very much wish that Pingyao IFF will become a domestic platform for promoting China’s art cinema and author filmmakers, without this function the larger audience probably would never know about the existence of these films and that would be a pity.

Song: I have been there once, I think it was the first edition. When I got there I was quite surprised with the crowd of people queuing to buy tickets to see the films. I do not follow the media, so I don’t really know how the organizers managed to market the event and attract such a big audience. I believe the most important thing at the festival is the audience. In addition the programme is also solid, so these are good signs for Pingyao IFF future.

Yes! I feel that until recently the audience was overlooked at film festivals in China and focused more on market events.

Song: I think it is not necessarily so, previously I attended Shanghai IFF and there the audience participation was also a key component. However Pingyao’s profile is a bit different, the scale is smaller which allows creating a certain intimate, personal, cinephilic atmosphere. At Pingyao IFF, I went to the screenings of low key author projects and noticed that there is a lot of vitality in the event.

Qi: Film makeup artist I often work with told me she went to Pingyao IFF on her own, just as a cinephile. Also one German Chinese I know attended the festival. I think the generation of people born in the 90s and afterwards knows exactly what they are interested in, they seek knowledge on their own. They are not blindly accepting the messages in the mass media, they have their own opinion and hobbies. Pingyao IFF starts out by meeting that sort of audience halfway and develops the community that grows up alongside the festival. I think in the future it will make a difference and considerably shape Chinese film industry. A similar process happens in the stage performance industry, there are more and more individualized theatre festivals that live up to different audiences’ expectations and interests.

I was wondering what are your plans for the near future? Have you already started to work on the next project?

Song: It is very difficult to talk concretes, because the idea for the next film is still in the initial stage.

Qi: I am reading the script for the next film, it is quite interesting. However now pandemic poses a problem and most film production is halted. Maybe work on set would be possible in July or August. I am really happy about it, because I am lazy and I don’t work if I don’t have to. Some people if they do not work they are constantly anxious, but not me. I am very content to spend time at home and have fun.

The Calming had its world premiere at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival 2020 in the Forum section.

About the author

Maja KorbeckaMaja Korbecka Maja Korbecka
Edward Yang’s Confucian Confusion and Lou Ye’s Suzhou River seem to exert a mysterious influence on her life. Sinophone cinema lover, currently works as Five Flavours Film Festival film programmer, writer and Chinese translator.
Read all posts by Maja Korbecka

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