On February 2, 2018, BLIND WAY, directed by Li Yang who won the Berlin Silver Bear award, was on show throughout the country. As the last one of the “Blind” series, a trilogy describing the disadvantaged, and after receiving good word of mouth and positive public opinion for BLIND WELL and BLIND MOUNTAIN, there is no doubt that BLIND WAY carries much memory and expectation of the creative crew and the audience. Before the film was showed, The Chinese Film Market interviewed Director Li Yang and learned about the creation process of BLIND WAY.
CFM: BLIND WAY is the last of your trilogy. How did you come up with the subject matter?
Li Yang: Actually BLIND WAY is my second work. I read a piece of news in 2006, saying that in many economically developed places, it was rampant for kids to snatch necklaces and purses. I felt it was a good subject matter for film, so I went to Guangdong for interviews. I interviewed many juvenile correctional facilities, teenager prisons, asylums, street children and their parents, and policemen. The story seemed exciting, but what was behind the story was completely another world. These children were not born killers, bandits or robbers; complicated social background, system problems and family problems made what they were. The more people I interviewed, the more strongly I felt that I should shoot a film to call for attention to such problems and to address the sources of such child crimes, which were not caused just by poverty.
For that reason I wrote a screenplay, called JOBLESS MIGRANTS. But it did not pass the censorship, and I did not have the money to shoot big scenes. I slowly dropped the subject, and shot BLIND MOUNTAIN first. However, I never let go of it.
In 2014, something touched my heart. My mother suffered from sudden cerebral infarction, which was shocking to me. Not only because it was my mother; I had a new perspective of looking at life and things. What if I had the same experience with my mother? I was close to 60, also one of the high-risk group. I would not like that after I die, people would say “This is a talented person, who died in his prime without completing what he wanted to do.” That was when I felt I could not wait anymore, and made up my mind that I would do it immediately, even it would be a low-cost production. So, building on the story of JOBLESS MIGRANTS, I used 13 days to write the screenplay of BLIND WAY.
Originally I worked with a friend to raise funds. But half way into the process he withdrew his investment. I had to mortgage my house, borrowed money and managed to finish preproduction, as a result the film was a bit rough. I did not have the money to insist on what I wanted, and for the same reason I could not engage a leading actor, so I had to play the role myself. We also did our own arts and props to save money. I am not showing off my capability. This was my own investment, and I had to save money and pay my debt first. I paid my staff salary, not one cent less. Perhaps it was not big salary, but it was agreed upon and I kept my promise.
When the shooting was over I felt that I was actually lucky. My friend Guo Yuguan introduced someone to me. This is a good person, and he made some investment. But it was still not enough, and Guo Yuguan himself invested some money. We made a contract setting forth stuff like investment percentage. Only after that I used the money to make some necessary payment, and now I have somewhere to live in. However, we still did not have sufficient money for post production. Then my good friend at the university Zong Qingping, who is our producer now, approached the then Authrule Digital Media that got involved to become the first producer, solving the money problem.
Although it was a tough process, I think it is worthwhile. I did not do it by myself; it was the help of many people that enabled me to complete the work. It was not ideal, and I revised it for over one year. Some asked “why do you compromise?” I told them “I have the responsibility. I signed a contract. I cannot get people killed for my film. People trust you, and you cannot be capricious.”
Therefore, I would rather make some sacrifices in art in order to complete this film, and pay back the investor with the License for Public Projection of Films. The investor also insists on taking the film to cinemas, which was also agreed upon.
CFM：Did you have any regret in the creation process?
Li Yang: Too many. One of them is the film was hastily shot due to lack of fund. For the same reason, we could not engage actors. Many actors explicitly said, “Director, I want to make some money. This is not good money. I don’t want to act in an art film.” Some said, “Director, how about changing the screenplay this way?” I said, in that case, you need to be the director, and I work for you. If you are the boss, you can change it in whatever way you want. But this is my work. And some actors had schedule conflicts. Under the circumstances, I was unwilling to depend my own life or career on stars. I decided not to wait any longer, so I had to play the role myself. I had not acted in over 20 years and was rusty in acting. At the same time, I had to worry about production, raising money, directing the film, and the shooting schedule. Consequently, my acting is not satisfactory.
The biggest regret, though, was actually that the film fails to completely present what I wanted to present due to various reasons. Some footage has to be cut for the reason of censorship, although I don’t think that is a big deal. For example, originally the ending lasted for four minutes, now there is only one minute. Nobody cares about the 4-minute crying. People are watching while talking over the phone – these scenes are cut now.
So I have made some compromises. But any work will definitely carry the stigma or mark of an era, which could be considered as a regret.
CFM: BLIND WAY is your first film to be screened throughout the country. What kind of expectations do you have for the box office or social impact?
Li Yang: I have never thought of the box office. I think as long as the movie is publicly shown, it already has some social impact. It is just a matter of big or small impact. At least during the promotion we will communicate the idea of BLIND WAY. Our idea is that the child wants to go home, and we help the child to go home. Another concept is helping others is helping ourselves. This is our core concept. We are passing on love, great love, and hope that people are not that indifferent. The entire film is criticism of people’s indifference. That is why it is a pity that the part depicting indifference at the end is cut. If a child cries for four minutes, and people are indifferent, then the impact made by the film is completely different. All we did was for the four-minute ending. As a result, people feel that it is not sharp enough, not good enough. Of course, I think this film cannot compare with BLIND WELL or BLIND MOUNTAIN. What can we do? Being on sea, sail; being on land, settle.
CFM：It’s been almost 16 years from you started with BLIND WELL to the completion of the trilogy. What was the biggest challenge you encountered in the process?
Li Yang: Capital. In fact, if I made other types of films, there would not be any issue. The film market is booming, and basically no investor says that Li Yang is not a good story teller. They all say I am a good director, and I would do well if I made commercial films. But I am a stubborn person, and hope that I follow through what I wanted to do.
Now that the trilogy is completed, I will probably make some commercial films later. There are many phases in one’s life, and this phase is over now. It is like working in an organization, where I might not be happy and am repeatedly suppressed; but because I am working on a project, I am willing to bear all kinds of pressures and complete the project, and then I will leave the organization. This way, I am not only fair to the organization, but more importantly, I am fair to myself. This is my principle. Unless there is absolutely no other way, I will not give up half way or easily quit. This is a process of exploration; the result is important, but the process is more important than the result.
CFM：What do you think of the creative environment in the country for subject materials that reflect social issues?
Li Yang: Our country is now advocating realism, or bright realism. I cannot comment on the creative environment. I always think that it should be the job of the posterity to evaluate the predecessors. Being in the environment makes it hard for me to compare.
But there is one indicator that we can discuss. When a society has tolerance for certain films, there is diversity in films and literary works instead of just one voice.
At the moment, there are basically several subject matters, including traveling through space-time, sadomasochism, Indie Pop and demons. Why is everybody recommending JOURNEY TO THE WEST? Because we are running out of creativity. It is always easier to draw a tiger than a dog, as dogs are close to us. We draw tigers, but have we really seen tigers? Basically no painter has seen a tiger; they draw tigers out of imagination. You have more room for creation when it comes to things that are far away, things you cannot reach.
It is difficult to handle realistic stuff as they are true. I am not a local, and I am far away from the rural area, miners and street children, which I portray in BLIND MOUNTAIN, BLIND WELL and BLIND WAY. You have to enter such a reality, spend a lot of energy understanding it, and find the character. The character you write about needs to be like the character, and his/her life has to be like their real life. That is difficult. And I want to take up the challenge while I still have energy and capability.
CFM：BLIND WELL and BLIND MOUNTAIN have participated in many international film festivals and have won many awards. What do you think of participating in international film festivals?
Li Yang: Needless to say, international film festivals are a big help to young directors and renowned directors. They represent recognition, and entering the shortlist means entering the final round. It is another thing whether you win or not. It depends on improvisational performance, or the preference of the jury.
Formal international film festivals are relatively a fair platform. On the basis of fairness, you have a reference standard and know which films are the excellent ones for the year, what the gap between your film and others’ is, and what you can learn from others. I enjoy international film festivals very much. You would see numerous talented people, and would marvel at their ideas, “How come it did not occur to me that it can be done this way?” For example, I like the Dardenne brothers and the Coen brothers a lot. The former can make seemingly plain and inner things, and simple stories breath-taking, like TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT and ROSETTA, while the latter have a different approach. By watching different movies, you feel you can learn much from the stories others tell and thus get inspiration.
In short, international film festivals are very good, but I basically don’t participate. If I am invited to go as a juror or guest, I will go, otherwise I definitely won’t spend several hundred yuan just to walk on the red carpet.
CFM：After the promotion event of BLACK WAY, do you already have any plan?
Li Yang: Yes. Probably in the first half of the year I will start shooting a new film, sort of a mass film, or you can call it a commercial film. But in my opinion, all films are commercial films. Indie films are commercial films, so are auteur films, just for different audiences. The difference with mass films is that they have more audiences. So far I have been confronting life squarely, and disintegrating the society like a scalpel. Next, I will shoot a popular film, and won’t touch many topics.
Although I will make mass films, I will never give up my bottom-line, the bottom-line of an artist. Films like TITANIC, BRAVEHEART and HACKSAW RIDGE are both commercial films and art films, making money while enjoyable. I feel that we should make some quality, conscientious films that people like, the so-called “commercial films with good taste”. This is what is really missing in China, not tearing Japanese invaders with hands.
CFM：Does this mean that there are many possibilities for your future work and you will try various types of films?
Li Yang: Yes, except for comedies. I am not capable of making comedies. I am just too serious, but I can do black humor. Being serious does not mean I cannot do black humor. But black humor is different from comedies.
Comedies tickle people, and this is something I am not capable of. Look at Chaplin. He made fantastic comedies. Rather than tickling people, he had logic. I cannot do low comedies or farces. I cannot do Indie love either. But I want to write love stories, those like ROMEO AND JULIET, THE BRIDGE OF MADISON COUNTY, or KRAMER VS. CRAMER. Just a kiss is not love. Human emotions are the most important.