Berlinale Forum: FORGETTING TO KNOW YOU / MO SHENG (2013) by first-time director Quan Ling.
Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “The masses of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. That is somewhat the state of being in the film debut of writer and director Quan Ling FORGETTING TO KNOW YOU. A young couple struggles through daily bickering, jealousy, sexual desire, and inability to communicate with each other. Bitter and brutal scenes from a Chinese marriage, with occasional warm smilence. Resistance never subsides, crossfire never ends. Life goes on.
FORGETTING TO KNOW YOU has gathered much attention long before its Berlinale allure, as it is the third feature film produced by Jia Zhangke, in his Wings Project, exclusively aimed at promoting young directors. In addition, the debuting director is a sophisticated writer, renowned for her series of short stories, published in major Chinese literature magazines. After the film’s world premiere, Quan Ling accepts my interview in Hotel Hyatt in Berlin. She starts with a brief comment about the story and the controversy it has aroused in the Q&A after the screening by quoting a personage from Ingmar Bergman’s SECRETS OF WOMEN / KVINNORS VÄNTAN (1952): “The worst is not to be betrayed, but to be lonely.”
Xu Jia: Could you talk a bit about yourself and about this transfer from writing to directing?
Quan Ling: I write and publish short stories, but I love films ever since I was a child. My first memory about cinema is that I was watching movies sitting on my father’s shoulder. I saw lots of old Chinese films, like WHEN THE LEAVES ALL TURN RED / DENG DAO MAN SHAN HONG YE SHI (1980). There was a time when I felt fiction writing was a bit too monotonous, as I did not want to stay indoors all day long anymore, so I decided to make a film. First, it involves words, images, stories – it is a comprehensive art which summons my different hobbies. No matter if is a short story or a film, it is a vehicle of expression, an approach. But the possibilities film suggests make me want to try something new. So I kicked off as a director.
J: What is your family’s influence on you, in terms of art?
QL: My family, especially my parents, influenced me to a certain degree. My mother is a teacher, whose readings have a great impact on me. My father is a music lover. And their interests do influence me along the way.
J: Did you study literature before?
QL: Not really. What I learnt in college was close to economics. I think literature cannot be learned in school. It needs accumulation, as long as you like reading. After college, I began writing short stories. You know, you do not need to major in literature to write stories – writers’ background varies. For example, Yu Hua used to be a dentist.
J: Which are the directors who influence you most?
QL: I would say too many. I like Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Fellini and Truffaut, Godard and some Eastern European directors, like Wajda. I cannot think of anyone who influences me most at the moment. But yeah, I love watching films.
J: You said in 2009 that you have the idea of shooting a film. What drove you to the idea?
QL: Well, pure words cannot satisfy my creative needs anymore. People think my words are rather cinematic, and I like music, classical music: Wagner, Bruckner. And I like contemporary work of art. Now, I can integrate words, music and image and orchestrate all kind of faculties, with the cooperative support of my team, into a film. Of course, it does not mean that I will give up my writing career. You know, to watch what is in a film and to read what is in a story brings different feelings and perceptions.
J: You mentioned Truffaut and Godard. How do you relate to the French New Wave?
QL: I think of Duras. Her films are rather iconic. I came across one of her early films, which starts with a scene in a garden with a certain ambiguity. That is very different from what we could see in conventional cinema. I find such auteur films fascinating. Now when I start to make a film on my own, as a writer / director, I feel real excitement.
J: From words to a long feature film, this is a rather audacious transformation, is it not?
QL: In a way, you can say that I turned from a cinephile to a director. Now when I think about my courage at the time, I am a bit stunned as well. Lots of people would start as a director by making shorts and then try to make a full-length film, while I started with a feature. I guess the biggest drive behind this is the director Jia Zhangke, who provided me with a very professional team and constant support. So along the way, I did not feel nervous at all.
I guess I am an adventurous person. Once decided, I will carry it on, regardless others’ remarks. Even though people have very different opinions about my film, some even a bit sharp, I feel OK. No work of art is obliged to preach. The most important thing, for a work of art, is to express. I wanted to convey the Chinese status quo and people’s life in China. So I made this film. Just my observation and my attitude. I do not intend to win everybody. And there is no single film that could do so. Besides, this is my first try. Comments, criticism or acceptance are all normal reactions.
J: I do not want put any labels, but may be this has something to do with your Chongqing heritage, I mean, a craving and taste for spicy food?
QL: I would say there is a connection. This is my personality. The film was shot in July and August, the scorching summer months in the Yangtze River region (temperature could linger around 40 degrees). Before shooting, a female director friend of mine said to me that I will not be able to handle the heat and the intensity. But I declared I would certainly be fine. After shooting, my feeling is that it was not easy, but all within my endurance and control.
J: You spent three years working on the script. What triggered your initial impulse to go with this story?
QL: I have known that one day I would make a film, but I cannot remember when exactly this idea came up. I told Jia Zhangke my idea of making a film. Jia himself used to write stories and poems and he is a very literate person. Also, he knows a lot of men of letters. So we actually have lots of shared friends in the literature circle. I like what he did in UNKNOWN PLEASURES / XIAO WU (1997), so one day I talked to him that I want to make a film, and maybe he could be my producer. He said: “Sure, just give me a synopsis!”.
A picture of a weary woman, sitting on the stairs, popped up. She is from Chongqing. This is how my female protagonist Chen Xuesong was born. After that, I thought: “She would have a husband. What does her husband do? Where do they live?”. You can tell that my way of thinking is still very much of a novelist. So I wrote a synopsis for Jia. He liked it and asked me to write a script with it. I finished my first draft within 15 days, but yeah, it took me a rather long time to polish it. Jia has been busy, and I had a lot going on back then. So the script actually took me three years in total. Jia offered me a huge amount of pre-production support, and my script was quite grounded. My actors loved this script, like anybody else who read it. They are taken by its natural persuasiveness. I plan to publish this script and hope, one day, to publish it in different languages too.
J: What is your opinion about the continuity of female Chinese directors who appear in different international film festivals?
QL: This topic is too big for me. I have very limited knowledge about current Chinese cinema. I do not know what kind of films have been made, or who the filmmakers are. You know it is not easy to get a hold of these films, so I really have no idea about the situation.
J: Did you have to face any difficulty during this filmmaking?
QL: Some. Not many. For example, when we went to some place, the locals were not so cooperative in the beginning. I felt lucky that I have such a professional and experienced team, who solved many problems for me. So in general, it has been a smooth and pleasant journey.
This interview is originally done for Festivalists.com.