Ode to Life: The Poetry of Qiu Jiongjiong

By Sara Beretta

"Madame" (dir. Qiu Jiongjiong)

Qiu Jiongjiong is an artist who paints and makes films; but more importantly, art for him is a way of life, full of vitality and laughter. The preciousness of his work, aside from being technically accomplished with the brush and lens, lies primary in his own personality and attitude. Surprise, enthusiasm and wonder direct his approach to the world and its actors. Everyone plays a special and unique role on the stage of life, author and the viewer included.

In August UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art) in Beijing held a retrospective of Qiu’s documentaries, curated by master of indie film Zhang Xianmin, including the première of Qiu’s latest work My Mother’s Rhapsody. Art and life have interplayed in Qiu’s personal history since the beginning: born in 1977 in Sichuan, he grew up among actors (his grandfather was a famous Sichuan Opera performer), and started painting and wandering around the stage since he was a child. He still holds the amazed gaze of the child marveling at (re)telling his family’s history, as an ordinary epic saga in black and white poetry, reconstructing and reshaping memories. With the exceptions of Madame (2010) and A Portrait of Mr. Huang (2009), his documentaries are all about his relatives, playing their own role, making up the “Chatterbox Trilogy”. It would be insufficient to go in depth here with all Qiu’s documentaries, any of them worthy of its own entry. But a precis of his Trilogy could help in beginning to approach and to enjoy his poetry.

The Trilogy opens with The Moon Palace (2006-2007) that dip us into Qiu’s father’s restaurant of the film’s title, closing after years of glorious activity. Mr. Qiu and his customers, mostly friends, are devoted to good company, wine and its pleasure: poets and philosophers of life, connoisseurs of master Li Bai, the classics and the Sichuan opera. The documentary atmosphere is inebriating, taking the viewer along the speeches, through the flow of life and death, following the waters of the river, pouring a gentle cloud of nostalgia and irony.

Then follows the short documentary “Ode to Joy” (2008), a “movie dedicated to the living happiness”, as stated by the director. Actually, this is the performance on stage for a passing commemoration: a ode to the music of life and its joy in the memory of Qiu’s grandfather.

My Mother’s Rhapsody (2011) is the last episode, confronting Qiu’s sixty year-old father and his tenacious eighty year-old mother. Time is changing and Qiu Jiongjiong’s grandma’s house has been demolished (a contemporary drama also faced in the film Meishi Street): in her looking for a place where she can keep her autonomy and vitality on, she confronts with her sons’ families and changes in habit, reconstructing the saga of her life.

Outside of this trilogy, A Portrait of Mister Huang and Madame (mentioned in Kevin B. Lee’s video “New directions in Chinese Cinema“) share Qiu’s same approach of (de/re)constructing narrative. Retired policeman Huang and the talkative tailor/ Madame Bilan de Linphel (“an angel and a ghost among us”) are characters on their own stage, seized by Qiu’s curious but respectful eye.

Qiu is eager to “discover new things” but the preciousness of his search is led by surprise and marvel at small daily gestures and words. Everyone is part of the comedy of life, unique and rare, their micro-history mysteries lead to the macro-level flow of time and space. A multi-faceted world is recomposed by locality and multi-vocality, as pieces of a fragmented mirror are re-composed with different perspectives, like a cubist composition.

The theatre company and performance atmosphere permeate and shape Qiu’s temperament, and are reflected in his narrative technique. Respectful of the self-telling characters, he (re)constructs his own version and memory. Montage editing serves as a core part of his work, partly recalling a vaudevillian style (as suggested by critic Wang Xiaolu), maybe inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s films, which were screened to him as a child by his grandfather. The “authenticity” of documentary is then deconstructed by the director, with surrealism and irony incorporated in the work.

This is just an initial account of Qiu Jiongjiong’s works. As inebriated and inspired as the people in the The Moon Palace, to flow along with Qiu’s narration and contemporary memory is definitively a worthy poetic experience.

Sara Beretta is an anthropologist and PhD student at Milan University, researching Chinese independent cinema and visual production.

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