Directors, Features, Filmmakers, Interviews, Recommended posts, South Korea

Zhang Lu interview: “If the filmmaker explains the narrative, the film is just ruined”

We catch up with the director to talk about his latest film Fukuoka and more…

I first met Zhang Lu at 2019 Berlinale before the morning screening of Lou Ye’s The Shadow Play. We had a chance to chat for a while in between the busy Berlinale schedule. As Zhang Lu’s latest film Fukuoka was to screen in July at New Horizons IFF in Poland, we talked again in a more relaxed holiday atmosphere…

When I was watching Fukuoka I thought that the story is quite gothic in its motives and narrative structure, there are elements of classic 19th-century horror for example references to electricity such as sudden power shortages or lightning. While you were writing the script or shooting, have you thought about making a sort of indie ghost film?

While working on the film, I do not have such a specific intention. Once completed, it is possible I discover that there are these influences inside me, maybe I am a person that is drawn to Gothicism. These two films I have recently completed both are love stories, maybe most gothic thing in the world is love.

Maybe it is the most frightening too.

Also most beautiful.

True, love as Gothicism combines two seemingly contradictory extremes.

But when I write the script or work on set, I do not have a specific main motif or convention I want to realize, I would not want to set my mind on shooting a horror, comedy or any other genre. I am more fascinated with people, space, my own emotions, natural daydreams.

So the movie can become its own living being, at first, there is no strict plan, creation takes it shape in the process. The narration in both films, Ode to the Goose and Fukuoka, starts very abruptly, the introduction to the story is very short, we find the characters suddenly deciding to go on a journey. It leaves a feeling of mystery or secret behind it.

But then we realize there is no secret, it all comes down to a cliche love story.

At first you connected your future work with literature, working as a professor of Chinese literature at Yanbian University, what made you choose this specialization? What were your favourite authors or books while you were young?

At first I read the books taught in literature class, at school I was really bad at math, so I would not choose to focus on the sciences. When it comes to literature, broadly speaking, all people have emotions, but the ones who choose to go into liberal arts are the people who will take these emotions and think them through. They will analyze the emotions, its’ strengths, weaknesses, inner problems and contradictions. Exact scientists or mathematicians also have emotions, but they would not reprocess them in a way a person from the area of humanities does.

When it comes to my favourite books or authors from the time I was young, a lot of titles were forbidden then in China (born 1961, school years during the Cultural Revolution), so the selection of books available to read was scarce. To choose from those that were allowed and also good was difficult, so we were left with Lu Xun or classic Dream of the Red Chamber, because Mao Zedong really liked Dream of the Red Chamber. If he didn’t like it, possibly we wouldn’t be able to read it also. Mao Zedong also liked Jin Ping Mei (金瓶梅, translated into English as The Plum in the Golden Vase), but this novel was only made available for the members from provincial party committee upwards, not for the commoners. Mao Zedong even issued a document about the matter, saying that reading original Jin Ping Mei is beneficial to high party members. It is an erotic novel, during the Maoist era it could be considered as an encyclopedia of some sort. But this novel we were not able to read openly. Nevertheless, it was in circulation in the non-official handwritten copies. We would read it in secret, switching the book covers and pretending to be reading Dream of the Red Chamber, when actually reading Jin Ping Mei. But both of them are grand novels. To come into contact with literature, in China or in other so-called communist states, being passionate about literature is difficult. Choosing to work in this field is something that requires courage.

I suppose it is because there is no one answer but a limitless amount of possible answers. So Jin Ping Mei has a lot of different versions…

Yes, there is also an “innocent” version.

It’s a bit like Kuomintang officials editing newspaper articles by directly cutting out the unwanted fragments and leaving a blank spot. But when you were young, was it possible to read foreign literature, such as Soviet?

Yes, of course, for example Maxim Gorki’s works. There was one communist novel that was very popular in China at that time, How the Steel Was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky. When going to visit friends, sometimes it was possible to read books their families’ kept hidden in the house such as Tolstoy’s or Dostoyevski’s novels. At that time in China coming into contact with literature, especially novels, usually started with the works by Russian authors. We couldn’t buy them in bookstores anymore, but it was possible to read the old editions that friends of friends or someone from their family bought in the past and kept at home. From the 1980s, the era of reform and opening up, a lot of European, Japanese, American literary works started to appear on the market. Then we were devouring these books very fast.

During Cultural Fever (文化热) you were still in Yanbian, when was the first time you went to South Korea? Did you speak Korean before?

I went to South Korea for the first time in 1995, just travelling. In Yanbian, although I went to Chinese-language school and university, but I was speaking Korean at home.

I am curious if your next film also would be shot in the coastal city such as Gyeongju, Gunsan or Fukuoka? What draws you to the cities by the sea?

Each time the reason behind the location differs, though these and future locations are all connected to water. With Fukuoka, I chose the city for several reasons. The first one is when I attended Fukuoka International Film Festival I really enjoyed the event and came to like the city a lot, so I decided to come back and shoot the film there, in the alleyways close to our hotel. The second one is Fukuoka is a Japanese city that is geographically located closest to Korea. Another reason might be that Fukuoka is a harbour city that throughout Japan’s history remained open to traders from China, as one of the very few exceptions in the isolation era (Sakoku, 鎖国), when the shogunate was blocking international trade. In Fukuoka, there was the earliest Chinatown in Japan and nowadays migrants from China still often choose to settle in the city.

All these tropes appear in Fukuoka, though this time the plotline involving Chinese character is episodic. Could you tell me more about it? And I am curious what is the title of the book the Chinese woman is reading while she encounters main female character of Fukuoka, So-dam?

This episode was actually quite unplanned. When I was preparing to shoot in Fukuoka, one of my Chinese friends told me she will be travelling there at the same time, so I thought I could include a new character in the narrative. I told my friend to bring the book that is currently a top bestseller in China and we will arrange the scene of her meeting So-dam while reading the book. It turned out the top bestseller was Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Killing Commendatore. I did not read it before completing Fukuoka, but afterwards, I did and it turned out the motives in the book, explicit description of sex and violence, are quite close to the ones in Jin Ping Mei – the novel that So-dam reads in Fukuoka.

In Fukuoka the story of two men maybe comes up more to the front, but there is also a plotline focusing on two female characters. They can be perceived as representing South Korea and Japan, reflecting on the complicated relations between these two countries and their shared history. This plotline also connects Fukuoka with the story shown in your other 2018 film, Ode to the Goose. I would like to ask about the traditional Japanese doll that appears in Ode to the Goose as well as in the bookstore window in Fukuoka, how did you decide to include it in the film? Is there any back story?

The relations between Korea and Japan are very complex. In both films the doll is connected to female characters, the interpretation of that relationship depends on the audience, regardless if someone watched both films or only one, because Fukuoka, as well as my previous film, stand as separate cinematic works. While I was shooting Ode to the Goose in Gunsan, the motivation behind including the doll into the narrative was not so complicated. I saw the doll in the shop in Gunsan, but it was very expensive, handmade art prop, our film production budget could not cover the whole price. Yet I decided I have to use it in the film, because the doll was very beautiful. My producer suggested that maybe we could buy a cheaper replica, but I refused, I said I have to buy this exact one. Then we agreed that I myself will cover part of the price that exceeds Ode to the Goose budget. I put my own investment into this doll, so I thought I might as well use it again in Fukuoka (haha) Now the doll stands in our company’s office, that’s the story behind the prop. When it comes to the relationship between this object and the characters in the film, it is very much open to interpretations. If the filmmaker explains the narrative, the film is just ruined.

It just seems the doll had some magic in it.

It is all possible, there is no one answer. Maybe in my next film, the doll will reappear… So-dam carries the same bag that the female character has in Ode to the Goose, with the image of the Eiffel Tower on it and in Fukuoka, there is also a tower in the harbour.  A lot of props in my films return to the screen in my next projects. We also put the bag in the company’s office to use again in the future.

As if the props have a life of their own.

(Haha) Yes, a life of their own.

Fukuoka premiered at 69th Berlinale, currently scheduled to screen at Focus on Asia Fukuoka International Film Festival held from 9th till 19th September 2019.

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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