An interview with Liu Shu, writer/director of Lotus
During the 2012 SIFF, I was asked to do an interview with Liu Shu, writer and director of the film Lotus, which arouses my curiosity once I learn it was shot on Liu Shu’s own savings. The story of a small town girl going to Beijing sounds just relevant as there are thousands and thousands of such girls (and boys), known as Beipiao (drifters in Beijing), among whom is a booming crowd of Wenqing (arty youth). Their stories vary, yet they bear something in common: to lead a life elsewhere, to survive in a wider world and to realize their dreams.
To my dismay, I was a bit disappointed after watching the film: I understand the director has a lot to say about a girl’s struggle in her remote hometown and metropolis Beijing and in the Q&A a day before, she expressed her wish to portray how the female character’s intelligence goes under-appreciated and how she is ostracized, ignored and abused by different kinds of male characters. Also, she said it is OK to take her film as sort of propaganda.
But somehow, the film fails to deliver the depth of the female character: it is a mere series of challenges in front of which she has gathered neither strategy nor wits to conquer. Set as a middle school teacher, Xiaohe’s only dubious inspiration to her students is to read an article by Oe Kenzaburo to question the meaning of going to school.
There is a rather amusing line to show Xiaohe’s disagreement with Karl Marx that “from the beginning, he was seeking enemies, not friends”. Seriously, Marx was an idealistic visionary, not a climbing social butterfly to win anybody’s heart. This episode nullifies the whole story as the premise of Xiaohe’s insurmountable struggle is that she is too intelligent to be accepted or appreciated by the institution and the men around her. It’s a pity the film fails to present her as a real educated person; instead, she looks just a pseudo-intellectual who is good at mechanical name-dropping and is apt to feel persecuted.
What was intended to be portrayed as the fault of the patriarchal surroundings and male indifference and intolerance, in the end, turns out to be the female character’s own fault of her unattained socialization and lack of profound thoughts. This film is thus reduced to an unfortunate tale of a head-strong girl, instead of a harsh accusation of the unwelcoming society. She dislikes the institution (Right, who does? esp. as a young person), but her insufficient knowledge corners her as a frivolous escapist rather than a persistent fighter. As to the institution she wants to sue: NOT guilty… until the story is restructured.
Also, it is interesting to notice Xiaohe uses the term “Mao” when referring to the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed doing this interview and admire the director’s courage. The dialogue was originally in Chinese; I then translated it into English.
Could you introduce yourself a bit?
I worked in some TV stations for several years but felt I couldn’t express myself freely in that environment. Before the end of an interview, you’d already known what could be broadcast and what could not, but I wanted to express what I really felt so I quit my job and started on my own in film-making. Besides, I work for several NGOs to launch film screenings.
Could you talk about your preparation before shooting this film?
Script writing took me a long time. I had an intense impulse to make a film about a small town girl going to a big city to seek a future as I found there was no such theme featured in Chinese cinema. It was the urge to express my friends’ and my own experience to a larger audience with filmic devices that made the script alive. However, after completing the script, the problem was, nobody was willing to invest in it for two reasons: one, I had no official approval for the script; two, I was anonymous. My desire to realize this film was so strong that I used my own savings to shoot this film, as a gift for myself. I was rather fortunate to find friends to work with me and everybody just took minimal pay.
What would you say was the most difficult part then?
I would say it was the script. I was afraid it was not detailed or vivid enough to depict the female protagonist’s inner conflicts. I could not judge whether it was appropriate or not, when it came to the dialogue and her struggle. Sometimes, even though I knew it was not good enough, I didn’t know how to improve it. This is my first feature and I am not so experienced: How should I express her feelings? Was the delivery too direct? How could I deliver what I want to say more effectively? You know, things like that.
Was there any difficulty during the film-making?
I was plain nervous as I was using my own money and there was a constant need to hurry things up. It would have been so much better to finish shooting within, say fifty or sixty days, but that was not possible as every day, accommodation of the crew would cost a fortune. The fact of a very limited budget restricted my artistic expression, for example, there was not enough time to get enough desirable takes due to the time pressure. It was a shame that I was not able to make a more elaborate film. In the end, the whole film was far from what I had hoped for. I am sure it is because of the budge limit. I myself could be part of the reason, but money was definitely a huge factor.
In the Q & A after the Nordic premier of Lotus, you mentioned almost all your friends have already compromised, but you still stick to your own dream. What’s your definition of “compromise”?
I have lots of friends who used to be budding painters, poets, dancers, musicians: they left their hometowns to embrace the cultural aura and pursue their dreams in Beijing. However, to survive and thrive, little by little, they turn out to be totally different from what they wanted to be. They now own cars and apartments and feel good about themselves, but they have forgotten their ideals. As I see it, that is compromise. Well, there’s nothing wrong about it, say, to run a beauty salon or a restaurant, or to be a rich wife. It’s just a matter of different personal choices. The thing is, somehow they were influenced by main-stream values and people would find it strange if you want to cling to your own pure pursuit as everyone else regards money and social status the criteria of success, a rather homogeneous and narrow-minded perception. People don’t appreciate those who lead a healthy but not-so-well-off life by doing things they have real passion for. I find such values problematic.
Also in the Q & A, you said Xiaohe’ story is a universal one, could you elaborate this idea?
You know, as a 25-year-old girl, Xiaohe is still not so mature. In a way, one can even say she is lost and lonely. She does not believe in socialism for various reasons and she finds it hard to adapt herself to the capitalist commercial world. She feels deprived of the right to choose and change all on her own. That young people feeling powerless and conflicts between different ideologies is a prevalent problem around the world.
Xiaohe seems to be under-appreciated and bullied by a series of male characters, but do you think real talents can be buried?
Sure. As a female, it is difficult not to notice in the patriarchal world, that the female have a relatively lower status than their male counterparts in fields of arts, literature and science. As far as “whether real talents can be buried”, I think it is a matter of luck. My life is quite similar to Xiaohe’s: well, it might be my problem that I haven’t met nice men. It is due to either bad luck or some personality problem. Xiaohe is rather headstrong and unconventional. She feels nobody is kind enough to her, well, not just all that, but I feel it is OK as she is just a female character. The viewer might not appreciate her or like her, but her type does exist in the society. She is not to be appreciated or appraised by all.
You mentioned Xiaohe’s stubbornness, but do you think she fights against what is not satisfying?
Definitely she does. Everything she does is a sort of fight. She says to her father that she wants her own life without others’ interference or arrangements.
Every time a setback or an obstacle occurs, Xiaohe just leaves, regardless in school, with her love, or her later jobs, so is leaving her way to fight?
Right, she just leaves. She is not so sophisticated to face what is in front of her. She keeps evading problems instead of solving them. You know, young people are like this: they keep wandering and searching for a long time before they find what they really want. After all kinds of setbacks, they might abandon what they have believed.
Will you regard Lotus as a feminist film?
Well, back in China where I showed this film to some Chinese male directors, they thought it too feministic: all male characters are portrayed quite unpleasant; there is not a single handsome man, from her husband, her boyfriend, to her father, a cop in Beijing; characters with repulsive words or behavior that the viewer would find hard to sympathize with. They wondered why I had created such male characters, but that is indeed the way I feel about men. Maybe I am just too cynical and hopeless about men.
How would you perceive Xiaohe’s situation toward the end of the film?
Right. In the end, Xiaohe marries Liu Xiangdong, makes her own business, and drives her own car so lots of viewers would think that she is now successful: she has become a person with resources at hand. For me, such a capitalist thing is not important because spirits are the most important thing in one’s life, whereas in terms of material possession, a medium income is sufficient. Especially in current China, too many people need some spiritual pursuits. An ideal situation would be to have a medium income, lead a frugal life, and engage in noble undertakings. As for money, I don’t pay special attention to it. I don’t think money is a criterion of success.
So you would define Xiaohe is nevertheless successful, instead of leaving with her suitcase at the very end of the film?
That’s right. I wish she could stick to her own way as such kind of people are too rare in the current society. Such bravery should be encouraged that each defends his or her own principle and lives up to respective individual expectations, instead of being yet another model on the assembly line. Along the way, she has experienced so many setbacks that she becomes disheartened and decides to take another way: you know, she is good-looking and that is a great asset so she will have more opportunities; besides, she reads and she is smart so it is not difficult for her to succeed in the competitive society. As a pretty girl, she could marry a relatively better-off husband.
Would you like to explain the title of the film lotus in the Chinese context?
First, lotus is a symbol in Buddhism. As a plant to blossom and bear fruit at the same time, lotus indicates karma. Second, Chinese intellectuals have, since ancient times, the inclination to use things as a vehicle to express their feelings, ambitions and ideals, such allegories like plum blossoms, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum. You know, their poetic spirits, pedantic tendency and inability to force a change.
What is your impression about Stockholm?
Stockholm strikes me as a very beautiful, peaceful and comfortable city, but as a film-maker, I prefer Beijing as every day you witness different kinds of furious events.
Have you watched any Swedish film before?
Sure thing. Ingmar Bergman is one of my favorite directors. I especially like Wild Strawberries and Cries and Whispers. He is the only director who managed to present subtle human feelings and struggles the way literature could capture.
Thank you very much for your time.
Thank you for this interview.
Afterwords: It’s quite impressive that Lotus has been chosen by several film festivals, but its major flaws are also impressive: there is too much violation of “show, not to tell” – the abuse of verbal info spoils its cinematic potential to shine. The director’s own explanation of the film’s ending is somewhat shocking as she defines Xiaohe finally gives in, marries the guy she doesn’t even like, and thus gets funding and resources to run her own business. She doesn’t try hard enough to force a breakthrough; instead, she chooses an easier way to score. This story is, once again, nullified by her bow to the dubious inevitable end. That is so not feministic. However, examining both the interview and the film, one might tell that Liu Shu is much more eloquent with her speech than her images. Her sincerity and honesty in this interview suggests a possibility of a better-designed story in her next film.