This interview with director Wang Yichun was conducted in a studio at the FIRST International Film Festival Xining. It was a clear winter afternoon in Beijing – cold, but sunny. Wang Yichun’s temperament reflected the weather. No gloomy literary-film director she. Modern, liberal and stylish to boot, she appeared at the door in a cloak, with a fashionable handbag and black-framed glasses.
We took several photos before the interview began. Just as Wang Yichun picking up a book from the shelf, a little girl ran in like a gust of wind, crying “Mom!” Just as quickly she disappeared, leaving me and the photographer astonished. “Was that your daughter?” “Yeah.” “Such a big girl!”
Wang Yichun laughed. “It’s sunny. Let’s take some photos outside.” During the shoot, she offered frequent suggestions. “It might be better here. It feels right, somehow.” “It’s so unoriginal to stand like this. Shoot me when I am walking.” Then she would stride in front of us swinging her hands, wearing her constant smile.
Wang Yichun is nothing if not honest and sincere. Our interview was more like a casual chat between friends.
She is a new director without a significant background in film. These are competitive times, and there’s a myriad of new directors on the scene. However, as a newcomer, she has made waves. Her first work What’s in the Darkness won her Best Director at the 9th FIRST International Film Festival Xining, and was nominated in the new generation segment of the Berlin International Film Festival.
Wang began writing a novel in 2002. Others spoke highly of her work and encouraged her to turn it into a film. Ten years later, she finally decided to adapt it as a film script, which took another few years. It then took two more years from shooting What’s in the Darkness to the upcoming red-carpet show in Berlin. The film tells the story of a girl becoming a wife and then a mother.
Lucky, but no fluke
Wang Yichun spent a lot of time finding a name for her maiden work. In her own words, it was a tortuous process. What’s in the Darkness came to her unexpectedly. “It was lucky!” she says. What’s in the Darkness was originally the name of a book conceived by the writer Wang Shuo, but he never ended up writing it. “I don’t care where it came from,” Wang Yichun says with a laugh. “I know it is mine!” Then she laughed. For Wang, Wang Shuo is the master. She read almost all the books he wrote during her juvenile time.
Another stroke of luck for Wang Yichun was the film’s female lead, Su Xiaotong, who plays Qu Jing. A young actress, she was born in 1997. She played Su Fei in Director Zhang Li’s Forty Nine Days, to wide acclaim. Wang Yichun interviewed many actresses in this age group when casting the film. She chose Su Xiaotong the moment she laid eyes on her. Although young, Su came highly recommended by her agent. However, she was late to sign up for shooting. “Can you imagine that the actress had not checked in one day before the official shooting?” Wang recounts good-naturedly. “While I was waiting for her, the cinematographer asked me, ‘Director, are we shooting tomorrow?’ I answered, ‘Yes! Let’s shoot the part without the lead actress.’ He replied, ‘But she’s in in every scene!’ As it happened, Su was worth waiting for. She played the role of Qu Jing perfectly.”
Wang Yichun is persistent when she sets her mind to something. She has always had a penchant for literature, and has written since she was a young child. What’s in the Darkness was written as a novel at first, recounting Wang’s growth. During a period of more than 10 years, she experienced her father’s death, her marriage, and the birth of her daughter. She recorded everything, and used it as her plot.
Adolescence – we never forget
Few who have watched what’s in the Darkness would call it a youthful melodrama. Wang Yichun agrees. “Youth films don’t reflect my own adolescence, nor do they describe the majority of people. It isn’t about whitewashing bad memories. I want to depict genuine stories that can touch people and remind them about their teenage years in an honest way.”
What’s in the Darkness opens in 1991. The shooting was done in Henan Province, where Wang Yichun grew up, in a declining state-owned factory. She is still acquainted with many people at the factory, whom has known since childhood. Initially, Wang wanted to make a film that would appeal to post-1970s and post-1980s audiences, but she’s found that post-1985 and even post-1990 audiences have fallen in love with it, too.
Adolescence – good or bad – is impossible to forget. Wang Yichun’s aim with this movie was to offer a version of her own story both as a cautionary tale, and to chime with audiences who may have gone through something similar.
“I remember when I was a child, I would complain that my waist was hurting. Adults would say that a child didn’t have a waist. Later, when I was in senior middle school, a teacher said in the first day class: ‘You’re grownups now, so you should know how to save face. Do not force me to scold you!’ From this, it seems that we didn’t know how to save face before that. It always seemed that adults knew better. I want to remind them that I’ve never forgotten their overbearing attitudes.”
“Later on, I learnt that many people have stories of being picked on. It’s not melodramatic; it’s a common adolescent experience.
With What’s in the Darkness, Wang Yichun has demonstrated her ambition for filmmaking. The movie combines a suspenseful suicide with the growth of an adolescent girl. The two storylines are both probe into the identity of the “murderer”: one is visible, the other invisible. From the perspective of a young girl, it is ubiquitous emotional abuse, incompetent love and exaggeration, as well as ignorance of self-esteem. All this is a fertile field for the sin of false and erroneous cases. Respect and justice is more or less a “luxury” for adults and children alike. Wang Yichun says, “In a film critic’s words, this is NOT a story asking who the murderer is. It is a story telling who the murderer is!”
Some may say that this is a literary film, but Wang Yichun cannot offer a very accurate confirmation. In her eyes, this question is hard to answer. She doesn’t claim to be a professional director, so isn’t restrained by technical or professional terms and jargon. Her language might be literary, but the story must be popular. What she fears most is unreasonableness. She would never present a hypocritical or empty story, because it would not be authentic. This is why audiences from many different age groups have found resonance in What’s in the Darkness.
Filmmaking is a serious job
Wang Yichun believes herself to be an unrestrained and fussy person. But if she is unrestrained, how as she found her way into the film circle? She studied French at university and has held many jobs. She once worked for a French company, and then a media company firm, before opening her own advertising agency. So she isn’t short of experience. She believes that these previous jobs prepared her for making a film. “ All experience in life is useful. You might feel it is something of a waste, but only when you look back will you see that it was indeed meaningful.”
When asked about the rumor that she sold her house to shoot the film, she laughs to deny it.
All of the money used to shoot What’s in the Darkness came from Wang Yichun’s careful planning. Because she raised the funds herself, the process was long and difficult. She faced plenty of doubts and mockery. Some people felt that she wanted the money to start a new life.
Others saw her as deluded. She tried to explain that she was shooting the film for fun, as well as for professional purposes, but not everybody was convinced.
When she decided to shoot the film, Wang did not think it would prove popular with viewers. She was a film fan, but not a lover of literary movies, preferring commercial offerings instead. Because she is also the screenwriter, she considers how to meet an audience’s expectations. The story should not be boring. The director should not be conceited. No one would be interested in that. She says, “I hope to say what I want to say clearly, but at the same time I must consider the audience’s feelings, and raise a smile.”
It was with this ideology in mind that Wang Yichun began the creation of her maiden project. To raise funds, she gave up many of her happiness as a little woman. During the shooting, she often joked with the production manager that with one truck running out, one bag was gone, then 10 lipsticks. “Because I raised all the financing myself, they thought that I was playing for fun. They didn’t know that I live very frugally. Everything I did, I did it for the movie. I alone knew how nervous I was. Even at the time of writing the script, I would refuse invitations to dinner. ”
Some might feel that Wang Yichun was risking her life shooting this film, given all the problems that arose. The actual shooting only took 30 days, and the crew worked day and night. Due to the excessive workload, they nearly went on strike. Wang was reduced to skin and bone by the end. She returned to Beijing a shadow of her former self. An aunt who’d known her since her childhood took pity on her. “Money is not earned overnight! Why do you work so hard?” she asked. For this, Wang Yichun had no reply. “I didn’t know how to explain to them that it wasn’t about earning money, and that I may end up losing it.”
For Wang, it was well worth shooting her favorite story, even if the film fails at the box office. Her devil-may-care attitude is at once admirable and astonishing. Lack of experience, Wang’s preparation for the movie is trying her best to write as detailed as possible, even the wearing and dialogue of the background characters are considered.
Although her attitude is admirable in a way, the final effect is lacking in tactics, and appears immature. However, this chimes with the status quo of an adolescent girl in 1991.
With this experience behind her, Wang Yichun is now looking ahead. Her next film will be another youthful story with some dark and absurd elements, and she plans to prepare more carefully.
In December 2015, What’s in the Darkness was nominated in the new-generation segment of the Berlin International Film Festival, gaining access to a wider platform. Although Wang’s skills are still immature, she is full of hope and enthusiasm. She respects her audience as much as her own mindset. This is possibly the most valuable quality in a Chinese film director at present.
If What’s in the Darkness attracts comparisons to a literary film, it is only because of Wang’s artistic temperament. In today’s diverse Chinese film circle, it is indeed an eye-opener to see such a young female director. Let’s hope that she comes back from Berlin with a Silver Bear. If not, a Teddy Bear will suffice.
In the summer of 1991, a rape case breaks the peace of a small town. The fathers of two girls in the local middle school are the policemen in charge of the case. Nevertheless, they have very different working styles: QU’s father is a stubborn legal medical expert always insisting on ironclad evidence, while ZHANG’s father is a retired soldier who handled cases relying on his intuition and often extorted confessions through torture. The supposed criminal is caught by ZHANG’s father yet similar cases keep happening. Nobody has noticed ZHANG’s disappearance since she was kicked out of class.
Q&A with Director and Writer- Wang Yichun
What’s in the darkness?
There are unrecognizable scents of flowers, the stirring desire of love, a cold-blooded killer, the selfish, the indifferent and the helpless cries of the weak. Not to forget there are simple but kind people who help guard and illuminate the path for you with a small glimmer of light.
However, for the young girl in the movie who has a pair of big, dark eyes, the harder she tries, the more difficult it gets for her to understand what lurks in the darkness.
Why does the real criminal never appear?
He doesn’t appear because even I don’t know who the real killer is, like many cases of that period. I have researched many misjudged cases for this story, and later realized those exposed to be misjudged are merely the tip of the iceberg. Among the cases, the chance for those who had been wrongfully accused to prove the truth was usually random and rare. I want to tell a murder story without knowing who the murderer is. On a broader prospective, the killer could be anyone. The passive aggressiveness from the family and school and the disrespect for individuality both help plant and nurture the flowers of evil.
Please tell me about the beginning, the eye exam scene. Also about the ending. It’s a fascinating open ending, but it seems like the young protagonist Qu Jing has chosen to head into “the darkness” of some kind?
The eye exam at the beginning of the film is a metaphor. There are many things in the world that the harder you try to focus on, the more obscure they become. All you can do is to stagger along the path to adulthood. The ending to some extent is a reflection of the beginning. Qu Jing thinks she has seen through everything, but Zhang Xue’s postcard subverts the understanding she has just built of this world. She feels so shocked and overwhelmed that she walks into the darkness to find the truth.
You majored in French in university. What changed your mind to become a filmmaker?
Probably because people who was born in the 70s and the 80s are gradually influencing the conversation in the society these days. Some of them have made films about growing up in 90s. However, I feel like the scenes in those films are very different from those in my memory.
It’s almost like everyone decided to Photoshop, maybe even embellish their past. Therefore I wanted to make a different film about true youth and growth. I think it resonates with many people because it confronts the confusion and awkwardness of growing up.
I heard that you wrote, directed and invested in the film all by yourself with a very small group behind you. It is a very typical way of making an independent film, but your film’s values are somehow different from typical independent films. Can you summarize the differences?
I have never thought about this, but it is an interesting question. Each generation in modern China lived through a vastly different experience. Therefore each generation has unique ways of expression. Several days ago, director CHEN Kaige at one occasion stated that those who were born in the 70s and 80s have nothing to reminisce about, because they never suffered. In my opinion this is a bit too harsh. Every generation has its unique struggles.
We were born at the beginning of China’s economic reform. When we were children, all of our essays opened with cliché lines like ‘the breeze of the reform caresses our motherland’.
The father in the film says that our generation is born in a honey jar, and arrived just in time to eat, as previous generations suffered so much hunger. But does having enough food mean everything? This is the question the little girl in the film wants to ask her father, and the same question the activists and intellectuals in the 80s and 90s wanted to ask the government officials.
I almost named this film ‘In the Honey Jar’.
I hope this film will at least encourage more open expression of our generation.
(Provided By Wang Yichun, the material has been edited and condensed.)