The 69th Berlin International Film Festival has just concluded, and many award-winning works will be premiered in Asia at the 43rd Hong Kong International Film Festival. A DOG BARKING AT THE MOON, the first work of Chinese female director Xiang Zi, carefully interprets the contradiction between contemporary emotions and traditional family concepts. It has won the Special Jury Award for Teddy Bear, and received a nomination for the Best First Feature as the only shortlisted Chinese film.
The film tells the story of two generations under the constraints of the traditional Chinese concept of “family”. The narrative of the film spans more than a decade and describes the different understandings of the two generations of family, trying to show the ethics of contemporary China and explore the perception of equality and gender in different time and space contexts. Our magazine interviewed the director Xiang Zi and the main performer Nan Ji.
Director Xiang Zi — Intense creation throughout pregnancy
CFM: Why do you choose the theme of the special group of LGBT? What is your original intention of creating this film?
Xiang Zi: Because the status quo of domestic LGBT group in terms of laws or social acceptance is not so satisfactory. I think that if China can become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, the overall international image of China will then be improved. We are one of the large economies in the world, so we cannot fall too far behind the world in these concepts. So, I hope this film will help more people understand and accept the LGBT group. I also hope that the country can start to pay attention to this group and let them truly enjoy the rights they deserve.
CFM: How long did it take to create the scripts, shoot the film, and do the post production? How about the creation process in general?
Xiang Zi: It was about the end of 2016 when this film basically took shape. I took the story outline with me to look for investment, but I tried in vain. From the end of 2016 to mid-2017, I was gradually enriching the outline. In August 2017, I completed the first version of the script, and then changed it 21 times intermittently before I got the final version.
Then I went on to look for investment, but realized that no one wanted to invest. So, my husband and I took out our savings and borrowed money from relatives and friends. In this way, we raised a small amount of money. I didn’t have much funds for shooting, but my actresses Nan Ji and Narenhua are very generous and were willing to join in the film creation with small pay. Nan Ji has a strong power of understanding and is very talented. Narenhua is also a very good actress, and she has won the Golden Rooster Award and the Huabiao Award. So I am very grateful to my actresses and staff.
The film shooting started in August 2017 and was completed on January 30, 2019. And I handed in the final edited version at that time. There’s not much time for post-production. It’s mainly because I was 4 months pregnant during film shooting and 9 months pregnant when I got the final edited version. And then came the toning and sound modification.
The version we initially submitted to the Berlin International Film Festival was an edited one without sound modification. When I was told it got a nomination, I went on to sound modification immediately. I was still in the post-production studio three days before Caesarean, and I came back there seven days after Caesarean. The whole process, for me, is very tight.
CFM: How did you choose the shooting locations?
Xiang Zi: As my first child was three and a half years old and I was later pregnant again, we tried to focus on locations in Beijing. I’ve got some places near my home and some provided by my relatives and friends for free, so the cost was reduced.
CFM: Do you have regrets about film creation?
Xiang Zi: It’s the sound. The recording effect on the sites was not that good, so we re-recorded the dialogues in the studio, so that some effects were not as realistic as they were on the sites. But the whole shooting process was very fun. It took 18 days. Basically, the shooting time was controlled within 12 hours per day, except for the 2 days with scene transition. I was then pregnant so I couldn’t work too long, and I wanted the staff to rest well. The production manager said that people were so happy during shooting as if in the New Year Festival. This really makes us happy.
CFM: A DOG BARKING AT THE MOON is your first feature film, and what types of stories do you want to try later?
Xiang Zi: My creation is more focused on family. I think family is a very important factor for the Chinese. So my next film is still about family. It’s about how a middle-aged male in his 50s chases love. The hero has experienced several failed marriages, but still maintains a much positive mindset, hoping to find true love.
CFM: Your husband is a Spanish and the producer of this film. Your family is a cross-cultural combination. Does it have any effect on your creation?
Xiang Zi: I was inspired by my family during creation. This film contains cross-cultural factors, and our second and third films will have such factors as well. I myself have a mixed marriage, so I am very interested in this type of subject matter.
CFM: What is your comment on the current creative environment of young directors?
Xiang Zi: In recent years, people have been very supportive of the creation of young directors. I think this kind of support is a very good phenomenon, and I hope that this booming momentum will continue instead of going down in one or two years. I hope to see all flowers bloom in the film industry.
Actress Nan Ji – It’s lucky to meet a director who understands actors
CFM: This film tells a very special story. What do you think is the most difficult in character shaping? What are the most memorable things in the shooting?
Nan Ji: I think the most difficult thing is how to approach this character from the heart, not only to understand her, but also to empathize with her. I think this is very difficult for an actor, but it is also a very enjoyable process.
I am very grateful to the director for writing such a script and such a character, which allows me to show a special aspect of performance, because it’s not easy to play such a role. We haven’t cooperated before, but still the director gave me such a complicated and challenging role. So I am very grateful to the director for her trust.
CFM: This role has a certain distance to your real life. How did you get into this role?
Nan Ji: The role I play was in the state of pregnancy during the whole shooting, so the director really helped me a lot. Ever since I took this role, I put a thick pad on my waist, and did my best to get close to a pregnant woman’s state of living. Basically, I lived for some time using the habits and ways of thinking of “Huang Xiaoyu”. So during shooting, I felt that I didn’t need to specially shape the character, as I was her during that time. I just thought so. I used to work with Mr. He Bing. He said the best way to shape a character is to forget yourself, which I think is quite useful.
CFM: Which scene is the most unforgettable for you?
Nan Ji: There are actually two scenes I find the most unforgettable. One is the scene where I give birth to a child at the beginning of the movie. I myself have no child, but the scene is about Caesarean. Luckily, the director has had such experience, so she told me how a woman might feel when giving birth by Caesarean. That feeling is quite wonderful. I haven’t had the experience before. Thanks to the director’s explanation, plus the scenes, tools, including the contact with the baby, when I lay on that operating table, I felt I was actually giving birth. I felt shocked deep down and suddenly experienced the feeling of being a mother.
The other is the scene where we are dancing on the square, because “Huang Xiaoyu” seldom laughs in the film, but that scene is very touching and everyone is very happy.
CFM: Do you have any other memorable cooperation experience with the director? Or any other stories to share with us?
Nan Ji: This film is not only the director’s maiden work but also my personal debut in a film. I think, for actors, it’s great luck to work with a director who can understand them.
I remember there is an emotional scene where “Huang Xiaoyu” is very depressed. Usually I would say “thank you” to the makeup girl after she fixed my makeup. But I was then absorbed in mood preparation, so I said nothing to her, which might have been seen by the director. Then she played the song Evening Bell at Nanping Hill, sitting next to the monitor. She was actually helping me to prepare emotions and complete the scene. I was then touched by the tacit cooperation between the director and me. I feel an actor is like a peeled octopus when performing, sensitive, like wearing no clothes, without reservation. At this time, he is particularly afraid that the director does not understand him, or does not look at the monitor or even is chatting with others. This is a terrible thing for the actor. He devotes himself to performance without reservation, but if the director ignores his performance or does not take it seriously, he will not trust the director again. So, at that time, I felt that Xiang Zi might be a particularly important director in my life. She understands actors very well.
CFM: What is your plan for your next work?
Nan Ji: It’s already in preparation and is a film, too.