CinemaTalk: Conversation with Liu Jiayin, director of Oxhide and Oxhide II

This entry is part of a weeklong spotlight of newly available titles in the dGenerate Films catalog.

Director Liu Jiayin was interviewed at the Apple Store Sanlitun Beijing, as part of the “Meet the Filmmakers” series, co-presented by the Apple Store in Beijing and dGenerate Films, a series to showcase China’s newest filmmakers powered by digital technology.

Liu Jiayin was born in Beijing in 1981. At age 23, she made her debut feature Oxhide while a Master’s student the Beijing Film Academy. Oxhide has won several prizes (including the FIPRESCI award at Berlin Film Festival, Golden DV Award at Hong Kong International Film Festival, and Dragons and Tigers Award at Vancouver Film Festival) and has been called “the most important Chinese film of the past several years–and one of the most astonishing recent films from any country” (film critic Shelly Kraicer). Her follow-up Oxhide II (2009) was similarly lauded, and won awards at CinDi Seoul and was featured in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. She is currently a professor of screen writing at the Beijing Film Academy, and is developing the final part of her trilogy, Oxhide III.

The video of Liu’s interview is in three parts, with an English transcript following each video. Video of Part One is below. Click through to view both videos and the full transcript. Interview conducted by Yuqian Yan. Videography by Kevin Lee. English transcription and subtitles by Isabella Tianzi Cai.

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. The subtitles can be repositioned anywhere on the screen by clicking on them (if they are not displaying properly, click them to adjust).

Part I.

Yan: For those of us who have watched your films, we know that your films have a distinct style and are recognized both in and outside China. Up until this point, you have made two feature-length films: Oxhide and Oxhide II. In both of them, you only had your parents and you as the characters, and they were shot entirely in your home. Oxhide II was in fact shot in one single room. What appears to be extremely simple in conception received unanimous international recognition and accolades. In a recent survey conducted with Chinese and overseas film scholars, journalists, and critics, Oxhide was voted as one of the ten best Chinese-language films of 2009. It was ranked higher than above Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Ang Lee. What inspired you to make a film about your parents’ everyday life?

Liu: Can I clarify something first? It was a very small-scale survey, and it was very academic in nature too. To answer your question, it’s true that both my films were shot at home with my parents only. You can call it home production. Every family has some interesting aspects to it. My family was not particularly more interesting than other families. But they became my topic because of my profession. And the film turned out to receive recognition. I thought about what would happen if it didn’t receive recognition. Well, maybe that would be good for my family too because we would be protected.

Yan: It feels like that you are documenting your parents’ life, but in fact it was carefully planned out. Could you talk about how you conceived this film, whether your parents influenced you and how? I am also extremely interested in the work process. It’s not usual that we direct your parents. Usually we listen to what they tell us to do. How do you feel about directing them?

Liu: I guess most of you have heard about this: many documentary-like films are made using fiction film techniques. This is a contradiction but it makes documentaries fun to watch. I think ultimately it depends on what your point is. If your goal is to document family life, you can simply do so. You can leave your camera on while something is taking place. But you can also choose to express something more specific by exercising more control over the whole process. Maybe because I wanted to try something different, I preferred the second approach. It was a very small production. It was shot using very standard methods for producing fiction films. It was a very regimented process, involving complicated stages of planning, script development, rehearsals. Luckily I was able to eliminate many interruptions in the process. It was somewhat essay because I only needed to work with myself despite the fact that it involved much planning. As for my parents, I think they were . . . I don’t know. Maybe I was traditional. They were okay with acting in my film. When we were in the production process, I was the director and they my actors. It was an efficient way of filming. We ran into disagreements too because we weren’t familiar with the process. During the shooting of Oxhide, we stopped in the middle of the production. For about a month.It was better the second time because we learned how to work as a team. It’s fun to work with your family because you know each other very well. You need not spend extra energy on developing ties with them. The same is true when you work with your relatives, friends, or neighbors. There are certain skills involved in the process. You need to make them act while maintaining your ties with them. The script is the tricky part. If you don’t have inordinate ambitions, the execution of the script should be fine. And you won’t require them to act beyond their skills. Same goes for your friends.Without such ambitions and with very few interruptions, this kind of production is manageable. This is all spoken from my own experience. Relative more room for actions while relatively fewer interruptions. They were my advantages.The location was my home, everything was captured on video, editing was easy, and there were only the three of us. We could get shooting and sound recording done by ourselves. Again with few interruptions. If there were a third person there to capture sound, he or she could feel left out, and my parents might feel not at ease because of the stranger. Instead of looking for troubles, I avoided them by working out something else. It matters that you find a way that works best for you. I didn’t look for professional actors because it wouldn’t be realistic. It’d be easier with them in some ways but more difficult in other ways. If you find someone in your life whom you think is photogenic, if every facial movement the person makes feels perfect for your film, you gotta think of a way to talk the person into working for you. It’s good if both parties can work out a way. But if the person is your best friend, it’s better to be discreet. It’s because after making the film, your relationship may change. With family it’s difficult. Even if you don’t like each other, you’re still family.

Part II.

Yan: Were your parents supportive of the films throughout?

Liu: Yes. It’d be horrible to have me live with them if they’d chosen not to be. Better to help me than not.

Yan: You mentioned the conveniences brought about by digital technology. You’re one of China’s digital generation directors. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of digital technology?

Liu: I have never used film. It would be inappropriate for me to make any assumption. However, we are in the digital age. Contemporary Chinese filmmakers including me use DV and HD to make films. We are satisfied with what we can achieve in terms of quality. Without digital technology, it would be impossible to make extremely low-budget films. When you can’t afford the cost of making films, you will need financial assistance. But such assistance could become a kind of burden and restraint. You would need to compromise something in order to have something else. Both I and many other contemporary Chinese independent filmmakers benefit from digital technology. We need not worry about negotiating with others when making our films. Negotiation could bring about negative impacts to our work sometimes. Of course, it also depends on one’s personality. In this sense, digital technology protects us. After we’ve had more money and confidence, we will have more power in asserting ourselves. It’s dangerous to throw ourselves out there right from the start. Also as mentioned by many others, digital filmmaking is a private activity. It’s always better to involve as few people as possible. It’s also very personalized. Personalization is becoming more and more important to us nowadays. I think digital technology encourages self-expression. Compared to the past we have more channels for self-expression, even if some of what we express gets harmonized quickly after it’s out. Same goes for digital technology. In the past it was to make a film by oneself. Now I can. As long as we have ideas. You don’t even need the excuse that you don’t have money. It all comes down to oneself. The advantages are obvious. However, sometimes I wonder what it would be like ten or five years ago. Would it have been the same? Would we have still tried? I think for those who are strong-willed, nothing would stop them. Just like pirated DVDs, which are getting watched by more and more people, independent films can reach more people and cater to more different tastes. This is very important in my opinion.

Yan: When I watched your film, I could feel a sense of privacy. The story took place inside the small space of your house. Your video camera was placed in one place throughout the film. How did you arrive at this unique angle?

Liu: I had more ideas in mind about what I wanted to shoot. However, when I put myself in the situation, I decided to stick with one idea. I think it was a purely personal choice. Speaking entirely from my own perspective, I was challenging myself to do it. I studied editing previously. Now I also teach editing courses. And I’m a professional editor. There are many stories out there, regardless of how good or bad they are. It’s not my job to judge how good or bad they are. I think I was challenging myself. I wanted to have a try at this method of shooting. It made me feel like trying to overcome myself and to challenge myself. I promised myself that I would do it. I decided to spend two years on the first film. I think my attitude and disposition were very important. I have focused my attention on it for many years. Even now when I’m free, I often think about my films after I’m done with my work. I have more than a few film projects now. Two first, followed by others. They are sequenced. It’s unlikely that your film projects carry equal weights in your heart. Time is always limited. If you wait till next year to finish your project, the film will end up looking very different. I prefer not to delay what I want to film this year for too long. Time flies. It’d be wrong that way because the film would be different. Time is limited. It passes fast. You need to plan a film, make it, edit it, and send it to film festivals. It takes at least a year to do everything. What about the next project if you delay the first one? Preparing for the next project while you’re still doing the first? But time passes faster than you think. I only began to have this sense of urgency recently. My health is poor. I don’t know how much time I have left. I want to hurry up and make what I plan to make so I won’t regret.

Yan: We will get back to your health later. Are you planning to make Oxhide III?

Liu: Yes. I have been writing the screenplay.

Yan: Could you tell us about it?

Liu: As dull as the first two. I have to sustain this mood. Someone said to me that the pace of Oxhide II was too quick. I want to thank the person who said so. I’m not sure if he was being satirical because different people feel differently. Some people find it too slow, some find it too fast. I want to maintain this pace. But there will be more camera angles in Oxhide III. The shots will be very different from the first two. I will bring out more of the characters’ inner thoughts and feelings.

Yan: It will be a continuation of the first two?

Liu: Exactly, a continuation. I did have another story. But I moved it to my fourth project because of continuity issues.

Yan: So there will be Oxhide IV and V?

Liu: Yes. I’m planning Oxhide IV. Oxhide V too. Afterwards I want to make a children’s film.

Yan: A children’s film?

Liu: Yes. But it will still be in the Oxhide series.

Yan: Will it be about your family?

Liu: I don’t know yet. Maybe about a kidnap. But it will be among the three of us still. Some sort of a children’s film. I’m not speaking responsibly here. I’m just saying.

Part III.

Yan: Your films have been entered into many international film festivals and received international recognition. But I think it may be the case that they touch the hearts of Chinese audience more than westerners’ because family values are important to us. How were your films received in China? What do you wish to convey in your films?

Liu: Most screenings have been overseas. There were a couple in China, but very few. Iberia screened it. Ullens Center of Contemporary Art also screened it. Maybe it will also be screened at a forum on Chinese youth filmmakers and similar events. I am not very sure. It’s hard for me to answer your question because my communication with overseas audience exceeds that with Chinese audience. I did notice that the discussion on my films vary regionally. East Asian countries and regions like South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan focus on the family.And that’s not the case in North American and European countries. Especially about family values. I feel westerners are more rational. They’re more interested in film theory and film form. East Asian audience center the discussion on the family, which I don’t enjoy as much. In China, it depends on which occasion this film is shown. Often it’s shown to people who either study or make films. This kind of screening is different. People don’t just watch the film but they argue about it too. The occasion can be heated.

Yan: Like academic discussions.

Liu: Maybe not. Maybe they didn’t like me as much. People came purposely to criticize me. The air in this kind of screening is different from public screening.

Yan: What were the criticisms?

Liu: First, my method was too unconventional to be accepted for a film. Second, I didn’t care about the spectators in my work. The criticism is directed towards me from the perspective of the spectators.

Yan: Too self-centered?

Liu: I’m not sure. The answers to their questions were obvious to them.

Yan: You mentioned that the responses of your films in East Asia. Some questions struck the right chord with you. Could you give us some memorable examples?

Liu: Most people who came to watch my films were interested in independent productions. Some years ago at the Berlin Film Festival, an overseas Chinese student commented that the two-hour film felt like two-hour real time with his parents. He was away from home for two and a half years. He’s from northern China. He came for my film from another city. I remember the student’s remarks best from my entire stay at the festival. There is another comment I remember, at Ullens. It was about my parents and my relationship with them. The comment was very poetic. But it was so poetic that I really can’t recall it now.

Yan: It expressed what you wanted to express.

Liu: Right. I felt that the film was made for that viewer. But I really can’t recall now. I forgot where it was. It was in Hong Kong. I’m sorry. South Korean viewers focused on the family too, especially on dumplings. Oxhide II is about making dumplings. And we had dumplings afterwards too.

Yan: With the audience?

Liu: No, the others. Different people focus on different things.

Yan: One last question. Do you use Apple computers and Apple software for your films?

Liu: I do. This is it. But this is not what they are selling now. It’s a MacBook Pro, which came out a few years ago. It’s 15-inch wide and is one of the two 15-inch wide MacBooks that they have. Same goes for their 17-inch wide MacBooks. I bought the 15-inch with a faster processor. I got it in 2007. It was much more expensive than now. The price might be 17,000 yuan. I don’t quite remember now. The 17-inch MacBook cost more than 20,000 yuan then. Now it costs about 15,000 yuan with better features. Professor Zhang Xianmin was the person who recommended it to me. It was inconvenient to do editing in the school’s computer lab. He suggested everyone get a MacBook. Independent filmmakers need to deal with large amount of data. We need to edit around the clock. So I got a MacBook and used the same features like the others. Many of us bought the same product. I don’t use my MacBook to edit all the time. Sometime I still go to the computer lab to do my editing, on Apple desktops. But other times I watch and edit on my MacBook by myself. To me, the speed is quite okay. It helps if you have some external memory. I don’t have a lot of footage. I’m relatively slow. MacBook is enough for me. As for post-production, there are many forums that we can consult. We can surf those sites from mainland China and also those from Taiwan. People share their knowledge about computer software and hardware online. It’s much easier to obtain information online. Final Cut is good, as you probably all know. It’s not the only editing software for Apple. But Final Cut is made for Apple computers. I like that because I don’t need to make further choices. You can compare and contrast when you choose other editing software. When you buy Final Cut, it is made for all. I prefer not having to make a choice. And I’ve been using Final Cut till this day. Final cut updates really fast too.Not long after HD was out, Final Cut could edit in HD video. It’s also faster than other editing software, which I think it’s great. 17-inch MacBook may be harder to carry. But if you can afford it, it should still be a better choice. That’s about it.

Yan: Digital technology is very helpful to indie filmmakers.

Liu: But I haven’t other Apple products such as iPhone. I feel iPhone is easy to get crashed and damaged. iTouch is good for playing games. I was playing some games over there earlier. My MP3 player isn’t from Apple. My only experience with Apple is their MacBook. Many of my friends are Apple fans. Everything they use is Apple. And they wait to buy iPhone 4. I’m still unsure if everything Apple is that good. But I think for post-production, Final Cut is a safe choice. Edius may be another good choice for editing software on laptops too.

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