Who Are China? Watching Guo Xiaolu's films

See video

 A Commentary on Guo Xiaolu’s We Went to Wonderland (2008) and Once Upon a Time Proletarian (2009), October 3, 2014


This essay’s title is inspired by Guo Xiaolu’s novel, recently published in the United States, I am China. I’m always slightly hesitant to speak for artists, their intentions, or their core.  And even though artists themselves are often reluctant to do so too, I gravitate toward their own reflections on their work.  Xiaolu is a novelist and poet as well as a film-maker.  She trained in film in Beijing, but (in her own recall) made no films in that whole time. She moved to the UK in the early 2000s, and has spent time since then in London, Paris and Berlin, in a prolific period. She’s spoken at the University of Westminster and the University of Georgia, Colgate University, and others.  She was one of Granta’s top young novelists in the year for 2013, and in 2014  participated in a lively panel on “The Global Novel” with Jonathan Franzen, Jim Crace, Jhumpa Lahiri and Maaza Mengiste at the Jaipur festival in India. I am so glad that – thanks to the hard work of the organizers here, in particular Lingzhen Wang—she was part of the second Brown University Chinese Women’s Documentary Film Festival, and I have had the chance to watch and think about her films.

Let me start with her words, from an interview in the Guardian in March 2009 after the release of her film “She, A Chinese.”

I am interested in exploring a rooted emotion that people lose when they re-plant themselves on another land. They drink water that tastes differently and suck soil that contains different elements. That is a profound feeling for a peasant culture. I am from a peasant background and I will always write about that feeling.

(“Xiaolu Guo: I wrote the film with PJ Harvey in mind.”)

This sentiment resonates quite directly in the film “We went to Wonderland” (2009).  The film, shot in black and white, traces a visit by a Chinese married couple (Xiaolu’s parents) to Europe.  After spending some time in London—a mix of “tourist time” and everyday life in a small flat—they travel by train through France and Monaco to Rome, where they visit the Pantheon and other antiquities.  The woman—who self-identifies, like Xiaolu herself, as a peasant—maintains a commentary on her immediate surroundings—her criticism, and her discomfort at feeling “out of place” becomes clearer throughout the film. I felt it most strongly when, finally in Rome, sitting at a café table, shoveling the contents of a bag of crisps into her mouth, looking around without interest, surprise or any affect, she says “I think home is best.”  In the film’s coda—a blank screen, with only the audio of a telephone call between film-maker and subject—she reflects on her time in Europe by saying “we couldn’t talk or feel there.”

Her husband—old Guo—is a more engaging visual presence in the film.  From the start, though, we learn that due to throat surgery 13 years ago, he cannot talk, but can only write. We therefore see rather than hear his words; either as he writes them, in fluent, neat calligraphy on a pad he always carries, or as flashing inter-titles during the film.  He tells us, specifically (foreshadowing that Guo interview from 2009), that the water is better in Europe.  Here, and throughout the film, Xiaolu Guo manages to present the strength of the bonds that hold these two characters together as they navigate a strange world; and also to highlight their very different ways of being in, and interacting with, that world.  Old Guo seems to be continuously in motion:  exercising vigorously, even on a train platform in London. And he is continuously engaging with his surroundings, restless and inquiring as he takes photographs.  Everything he does, it seems, leaves a presence in the world—his paintings, and also, literally, his words—presented to us so artfully in the film that we almost forget there is no timbre or tone to what we hear from him.   And instead we are invited to focus on the virtual dialogue; when in Rome, at the café table, he offers the note “So can we finally visit ancient Rome?”  As she is counting the hours until they return to their home in China, he is thinking about visiting Leningrad. 

From near the start of the film, when he is introduced as “Old Guo” for the first time, we suspect the familial relationship with the film-maker.  The intimacy of access also suggests this; but it is (I think) only in the telephone conversation at the end of the movie that the English sub-titles, at least, make this explicit.  And it is with a similar light and late touch that we learn of old Guo’s personal history; as an intellectual, he spent ten years in a labor camp being re-educated.  And in that final phone conversation, we learn that he is at work, painting in his studio—still, perhaps, seeking through hyper-productivity to make up for those lost years.  And at the same time (in his wife’s words) that he too was in the end disappointed by Europe, feeling that they have lost their history:  the victim of the cultural revolution criticizes the self-destructive decadence of the West.

And as a final note on this film, I found intriguing Xiaolu’s own voice as film-maker, and as daughter.  There are pulses of images interspersed with the primarily observational style, which I loved, though I imagine purists of the observational mode might not.  Again, like the flashing inter-titles that voice some of Guo’s observations, I felt that here as an artist confident in the medium in which she was working; and those passages extend the dialogue into additional dimensions—giving the film a sense of connectedness across space (as in the stark contrast between the busy public sphere of Chinese city streets and the deserted pavements of London), time (as in the Chinese revolutionary posters of the 1960s) and the imagination (the playful montage of  French icons, architectural and individual).

But the force of love and connection, and the shadow of distance are perhaps encapsulated best by the longest, simplest shots from the end of the trip.  As her mother explains in the most literal terms the things they carried to and from Europe—we see their three pieces of luggage.  And as she narrates how they have used up Guo’s medicine, given away his paintings, and acquired books, we are left with a sense of their life together—she cares for the mundane and the everyday, and it is that care that allows and sustains his attention to broader horizons.  His material exchanges in their trip to Wonderland provide the mother with words, and daughter with images, to articulate the nostalgia that joins and divides them.

“Once Upon a Time Proletarian” addresses similar themes on a larger canvas.  Here are 12 stories from changing China, each told through the techniques of documentary film—interviews with or observation of strong characters—but introduced through what I believe is a persistent form of Chinese public discourse, the apocryphal, cautionary, didactic or enigmatic joke/story/fable, as circulated through popular magazines, and here told by kids (see for example Yan, Hairong, New Masters, New Servants, 2008: 197). One of the differences, I suspect, between the ways in which Chinese and non-Chinese audiences, as well as different generations, might experience this film is the different resonance/familiarity of the stories that the film-maker uses.  Some can be tracked down by a resolute googler:  story number eight, “The Wolves are Coming,” for example, is reported elsewhere as being a trope that circulated as a description of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, and fears of predatory foreign capital (Zhao, Yuezhi, Communication in China: Political Economy, Power, and Conflict, 2008: 138). And the story of the alleged mute beggar, standing in for his blind friend, is also available online here.

In each case, Xiaolu offers a different riff off the joke or fable in the story that follows, showing something of the dramatic changes that have occurred in China in recent years.  She opens with an elderly farmer expressing a variant of post-authoritarian nostalgia familiar from Eastern Europe and Russia; his view, that some things were better when Mao was alive, echoed by others.  She also interviews a range of younger folks in the city, either comfortable with the new consumerism (like the young women shopping for hair-extensions, whose knowledge of film does not extend much beyond Jackie Chan and Hollywood blockbusters) or, in the case of recent migrants to the city, acutely aware of the persistent stereotypes and prejudice of long-time Beijingese.

The sense of rhythm, and also the variation between styles and stories, are incredibly engaging.  The tenth story, for example, entitled “Running after bullets” simply documents an evening in the security camera surveillance office in a mall. With no narrative or to-camera interview, this is cinema verité at its most powerful. But I want to dwell on two other episodes which elicited intertextual connection with the earlier film, and also demonstrate the film-maker’s willingness to play with formal structure.

In “We Went to Wonderland,” one of the more visually arresting segments, which also portrayed a human connection, was the sequence in the park in England.  The Guos are approached by a park official, who it turns out is friendly (where they anticipated hostility or officiousness).  In “Once Upon a Time (Proletarian),”  the ninth story opens with kids responding to the question what they would like to be.  It then focuses on a Beijing park, and follows a park official around as he instructs patrons to put out their cigarettes or compels sellers to move on, while over loudspeakers we hear the code of conduct announced.  The sequence closes with the park official in conversation with some park patrons, one of whom remarks that the park is now for the people, not the emperor—which seems a sly rebuke to the petty exercises of power we have just witnessed from the official.

The scene adds layers, I suggest, to its counterpart in the “We Went to Wonderland.”  First, it provides context for both the Guos’ initial concern or nervousness in the face of a public official, and their apparent surprise and relief that they escape a scolding. But second, in a wider structural sense, it makes clear how much easier life is—for representatives of government as well as citizens and visitors—when there is an operating consensus over the value of rules, the legitimacy of those charged with enforcing them, and the codes of conduct which govern the exercise of power.  In the context of confrontations in Hong Kong—but also what happened in Ferguson, Missouri in late 2014, or in London in August 2011, there is something important that runs across these scenes and these films—meditations on the importance of conversation and civility.

And the twelfth story (“Everyone calls me Boss”) also provides a point of contact as again, a Chinese woman states that life in China is better than in the West.  Where Xiaolu’s mother said this to her London-based daughter, against a black screen, in “Once Upon a Time Proletarian” we hear it from a successful investor and entrepreneur.  Her hotel business is thriving as she provides accommodation to those in the construction business, helping expand the city outward onto former rice fields.  And whereas Xiaolu’s mother acknowledged only verbally, in passing, that China has a pollution problem, this time, Xiaolu juxtaposes the account of the virtues of fast urbanization and economic growth with images of trashpickers on a vast sprawling garbage dump. Again, the message is delivered with China-based material, but speaks to the larger processes of capitalism and the waste and inequities it can generate.   What the economists refer to as negative externalities, here and elsewhere, are shown to be far from external, but hard-wired into the system.

That could be the end of the film:  but its not.  I’m not sure whether the last few minutes are a continuation of story twelve—that is, still governed by “Everyone calls me boss”—or a form of coda or conclusion.  In either case, this last segment again sets up and plays off a host of the binaries that so fascinate the film-maker, as she presents two older art students, a boy and a girl, speaking to camera. The boy, beautiful and self-confident, has a lot to say—in full performance mode, he categorizes a clutch of distinguished European artists as “pitiful” and showcases a sense of freedom from old taboos in labeling Leonardo da Vinci as a gay cross-dresser.  Yet he also answers some of the questions with stock, parroted phrases—either from a rather crude sense of irony’s working, or simply uncomfortable with genuine exchange.  The young woman, by contrast, is earnest and thoughtful—she is able to respond quickly and authentically about her passions and aspirations.  Grounded in the specific and the concrete, she comes across as less guarded and evasive. Knowing what she loves and appreciates appears to give her greater freedom to express herself, and show the broader horizons of her imagination.

Who, then, are China?  Guo Xiaolu here juxtaposes ambivalent pasts, offering images of peasant stolidity and intellectual unrest. What I find compelling in these two films is their power to illuminate the importance, for personhood, of connections, and transitions.  Film theory, of course, has long preached the narrative power of the cut; it is the space between scenes, and the fact of their juxtaposition that carries the story and the meaning, rather than simply what we see or hear.  Anthropologists of Melanesia, India, and Socialist Eastern Europe have also emphasized the importance of thinking of people as composed of the relations they have with others, often mediated through food or objects, rather than as autonomous individuals—suggesting the latter view is an artifact of Euro-American capitalism.  By compelling audiences to think first about the spaces between people, and the ways in which people engage with their lived environment, their shared and separate pasts, and with larger dynamic systems of meaning and order, these two films are important resources for audiences inside and outside China, interested in trying to understand the world-historical changes that have been taking place there over the past decade.