The road feature film CROSSING THE BORDER-ZHAOGUAN, produced by FuGuang JingYing (Foshan) Culture Co., Ltd., co-produced by Wuxi Picturesque Landscape Film and Culture Co. Ltd. and Zhong Sheng Chuang Xin (Beijing) Culture Communication Media Co., Ltd., directed by young director Huo Meng, starring Yang Taiyi, Li Yunhu and Wang Zhong, wins “The Most Popular Film by Audience”, International Out-of-Competition Section of “Forward Future” at the 9th Beijing International Film Festival. Prior to this award, this film, by its heartwarming theme with spontaneous overflow of feelings, won the Fei Mu Best Director, the Best Actor and New Generation China Honorary Award at the 2nd Pingyao International Film Festival, annual film award at the 5th Beijing Youth Film Festival and annual best recommended film award of “Spiritual Appreciation” jointly founded by top Chinese film critics. This film is about an old villager who taking his grandson with him, embarks on a trip by motorized tricycle to visit a friend thousands of miles away.
In the interview, Director Huo Meng shared his inspiration for producing CROSSING THE BORDER-ZHAOGUAN with us, which comes from an old friendship of his grandfather. The director wants to “fulfill the unfulfilled wish for his grandfather” through the film. Huo Meng, who is a low-key and pragmatic person, puts his true feelings and inner life experience into his film, and expresses his own understanding and perseverance in film creation. In his opinion, contemporary young directors should focus on improving their capabilities and works, avoiding from being influenced by the external environment.
CFM: What’s your original intention to produce CROSSING THE BORDER-ZHAOGUAN? How did you think of such a story initially?
Huo Meng: Because my grandfather used to be a teacher, he was persecuted as a “Rightist” during the Cultural Revolution. One year, I returned home from university for my summer holiday. My grandpa babbled to me suddenly that he received a call from someone and he really wanted to see the caller. At that time, we didn’t take notice of it. My grandfather died a few years later. I don’t know why this sentence keeps running in my mind. I always imagine how grandpa would feel, what would happen and what story would be if he really went to see his friend. So, the film story starts from my grandpa’s that utterance.
CFM: So, you want to fulfill your grandpa’s wish through this film.
Huo Meng: Yes, I take that trip on behalf of my grandpa.
CFM: CROSSING THE BORDER-ZHAOGUAN is a country road movie. Do you think there is any special compared with other similar films?
Huo Meng: I don’t think it belongs to a normal commercial film under country road genre, although it adopts the form “on the road”. Generally speaking, commercial highway movies always have some definite purposes, such as redemption, growth and meeting. Different from them, in CROSSING THE BORDER-ZHAOGUAN, grandpa has a destination, too. However, in terms of figure setting, his departure is more like a farewell trip to say goodbye to this world. At the same time, grandpa imparted his life experience to his grandson in this journey and inspired the boy. Maybe many years later, the boy may not remember all the specific events that happened during the trip, but he will remember that it is a very warm memory for him to travel with his grandfather for five or six days.
CFM: How did you select Yang Taiyi and Li Yunhu to play grandpa and grandson in the film?
Huo Meng: I went back to my hometown and filmed along the planned route. Actors must be non-professional actors selected from my hometown as I planned previously. When I returned, a student of next door was admitted to Peking University and his family invited a troupe to performance in the village to celebrate his success. Now, many senior people are left in village. Old grandpas like watching dramas and so I planned to find someone from the show venue. My uncle also lived in that village. My uncle told me that there was an amateur theatrical troupe many years ago, which organized villagers to have some music performance. I thought that’s a good opportunity. A non-professional old actor shall not be shy. At least, actors are psychologically ready to act before audiences. So, I tried to find old man from this troupe. I also asked other similar troupes from other villages. Someone introduced Grandpa Yang to me. I met him soon. I found that his image and personality well fit with this role. Also, he has such temperament and his competency is also close to my role. So, we talked with each other for several times and had several rounds of walk-through and finally I selected him.
CFM: It’s proved that this choice is very successful. How about the role Ningning?
Huo Meng: For Ningning, I selected a batch of candidates in Zhengzhou, including from primary schools of my hometown and many kids from county training schools. They recommended many handsome boys. I told them I didn’t want this style. First, I want to a kid in change of teeth and loosing tooth, because this is a set scenario in my film. Second, this kid shouldn’t be from a sort of wealthy family. In the film, the child’s father is a migrant worker working in the city. The family background is between urban and rural areas. I want a kid looking like from poor family in the city. Before I leave, they sent a kid to me. He had several walk-through and wasn’t shy at all. So, I selected him.
CFM: When I watched this film, I was particularly impressed by one of the plots, which is the kind of treatment similar to a two-man act. Grandpa told his grandson the story and then the scene unfolded the plot. How could you think of such technique?
Huo Meng: This is related to our life experience. For example, when I tell you something, in fact, you often have pictures of story development in your mind, but what you hear is the speaker’s voice, right? In the film, when the character in the story is speaking a sentence, the voice of the narrator and the voice of the character in the story are perfectly matched. I just want to make an attempt. It’s actually a sense of presence. It doesn’t use the space-time conversion that other movies usually use. Instead, it intends to create a continuity between the scene of the narrator and the listener, and give the sense of presence.
CFM: Is there any difficulty in the preparation and shooting of this film?
Huo Meng: Actually, I had thought about it before I started filming. I adopt a small-crew model. My budget is quite tight, only about RMB 400,000, and most of cast members are my hometown friends. They have no any film-making experience before and just come to help. The crew members mainly include me, cinematographer and executing director. Three of us talked about how to film each day. In fact, this way gave me a lot of space for my creation and I was very free. I also thought that it would be difficult to shoot some scenes. For example, in the first scene, I thought that the scene might not work well. Anyway, I asked the actors to act this part in the audition and enabled them familiarize the scene. My hometown friends helped me to organize. Organization worked well for me.
As we know, the film shooting depends on the local environment. From the filming perspective, it’s always raining those days is the major difficult. This was quite annoying, because we had no light. I exchanged with my cinematographer and try our best to use natural light to shape characters. We selected those days with good light conditions to shoot the film. Unless otherwise, we had to wait for fine days. This way is quite interesting.
CFM: What regrets did you feel after the film was produced? Or some circumstances that weren’t properly set in advance?
Huo Meng: In fact, the regret is still related to money. For example, there is an angry scene. If I have a moving lens, I could vividly present various living scenes in my film, such as people playing cards, waiting a long queue and weighing goods. If I have a potable device, the images will be better. A slowly moving scene could better fit my overall film style and make the film more diversified. So, I have some regrets in this regard.
Actually, I always have some regrets after finishing each film. However, I could accept those regret parts in this film production. In other words, I am satisfied that I could finish this film in such hard environment and only with a few of crew members.
CFM: This film will be screened on May in China. Now, it’s at promotion stage. How’s your feeling?
Huo Meng: I feel more tired in film promotion than making movies. But I still hope that this film can be seen by more people. After all, it is not a road movie in the conventional sense. It is different from a commercial film. It also has its own special heartwarming part. I think it is a work that can touch your heart, so I hope more audiences could watch it.
CFM: How do you expect the audience’s response after the film is screened?
Huo Meng: If more audiences can watch the film, in fact, the box office will be not too bad. From the viewpoint of audiences, this is a quite different film. First of all, the theme of the film is relatively rare in the recent domestic movies. In addition, this film makes a breakthrough in the literary and artistic movies in the aspect of county genre. In many literary and artistic films, the rural image is distorted, depicted as a even somewhat evil environment. I grew up in the countryside until I was 9 years old, and then went to the township to study. I really want to preserve the true image of village life full of kindness through the film. This is the most valuable part in my film.
Sometimes, we couldn’t see real village life scenes in the films, which are replaced with a spurious atmosphere and style. Such depiction of village is a kind of utilitarianism. Every creator has his own aesthetic pursuit. My film hopes to present the most real human kindness. This is particularly valuable.
CFM: As a young director, how do you feel and evaluate the creative environment provided to young directors in China?
Huo Meng: Now the external environment may change every year or even every period of time. This theme is popular in recent months, while that theme is popular in those months. So for a creator, it is very difficult for filmmakers to follow the trend, especially for their maiden work.
I think the most important is to return our inner understanding of the film itself, regardless of the external environment, including film quality in all aspects, such as the ability to guide acting, script writing and film aesthetics. Those are really what we could control. So no matter how the external environment changes, improving our competency is the key.
When I producing this film, if I compared it to a circle, I would rather have that circle smaller. What does it mean? It means ignoring everything, such as government communication and coordination. I hope that the cast and crew team could ignore all matters not related to the film and just focus on film creation and acting. Without external disturbance, such focus makes a great difference. Instead of looking for something outside, it is better to dig deeper into your own heart and theme, because that is what the filmmakers could ultimately control. The external environment factors are often beyond the control of the filmmakers.
CFM: So what’s your new next creative plan? What genres and themes do you want to try most?
Huo Meng: I want to film the story happened in the whole village in the 1990s. Of course, this story has something related to my personal experience and growing environment. In my memory, the tide of rural migrant workers in China probably rose on a large scale after 1992, then the rural labor force began to flow out, and the previous rural order began to completely disintegrate. At that time, I started to form my memories and participate in many impressive events happened in the village. I especially want to take pictures of the local people’s sentiments in China’s agro-ecological environment, which has lasted for thousands of years. My next movie will depict an order in the agricultural ecology, or the last elegy or carnival in the rural ecology. At present, the film is still in the stage of script design.