Saturday, December 11, 2010

Zhao Liang on his new documentary Together

A tearful moment for Hu Zetao (left), one of the HIV+ volunteers working on Gu Changwei's drama Life is a Miracle, captured in Zhao Liang's new documentary Together.

Zhao Liang is undoubtedly one of the leading lights of the independent Chinese documentary scene, and in the past I've written about his films Petition and Crime and Punishment. Recently Studio-X, a space in central Beijing run by Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, hosted a series of screenings of Zhao’s earlier works, alongside a small exhibition of his photographs – more on this in a future post.

At one of the screenings, I was surprised to hear from Jillian Schultz of Three Shadows Photography Art Centre (an institution that has supported much of Zhao’s work) that Zhao had just completed a film about HIV in China that had been passed for official release. Given the controversial nature of Zhao's earlier documentaries I was surprised to hear his new work was going into cinemas, and frankly dubious about whether this information was correct. A few days later, however, my friend Wu Jing, programmer at Beijng's BC MOMA cinema, mentioned to me that they had a new documentary – which turned out to be none other than Zhao Liang's new film, Together.

A few days later I was able to see the film for a feature article I am writing for the January issue of the Beijinger magazine, which I’ll post here once it’s published. In the course of writing that piece, I had a short email exchange with Zhao Liang about the film, which I’ve reproduced below. Unfortunately time constraints meant our exchange was very quick and I had no chance to ask follow up questions about any of his answers. I’m hoping to conduct a longer interview with Zhao about his life and work soon.

Before the interview, a few words about the film. Together was conceived by veteran director/cinematographer Gu Changwei (dir. And the Spring Comes, Peacock) as a companion piece to Gu's new feature Life is a Miracle starring Zhang Ziyi. The characters in Gu's drama suffer from a strange disease referred to only as “the fever,” an appropriate metaphor for a disease that for many in China remains shrouded in mystery.

Together is partly a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Life is a Miracle, and the interactions of the cast and crew with a group of HIV positive volunteers who work on the shoot. One of these is a young boy called Hu Zetao, who appears to play a central role in Gu's drama.

Zhang Ziyi and Guo Fucheng (Aaron Kwok) in Gu Changwei's Life is a Miracle.

The broader social context of HIV is also traced in the documentary, as Zhao delves into online chat rooms set up by HIV sufferers. Zhao's conversations play out as text scrolling across the screen in real time, as if we are sitting with the filmmaker in front of his computer. This stripped back approach makes the pain woven into the simple lines on screen all the more heartbreaking. Zhao also persuades several of the chat room users to appear in his documentary, though most insist on having their faces pixilated to hide their identities.

It was a strange feeling watching a Zhao Liang film in a commercial mainland cinema, and it’ll be interesting to see how the work is received. The screening I attended wasn’t exactly packed (there were about half a dozen people in the cinema), but then again it was Monday afternoon.

There were parts of the film I loved – mainly Zhao’s interactions with the chat room users – and it seemed to me these were the sections that remained most true to Zhao’s incisive, critical approach to China's social problems. Other sequences, such as a protracted “we worked, we laughed, we cried” montage set to string music of scenes from the Life is a Miracle shoot, felt like they were straight from the superficial feel-good template that constitutes most of CCTV’s output.

Together's stylistic schizophrenia was also reflected in its dual concern with documenting the Life is a Miracle shoot on the one hand, and Zhao's interactions with HIV sufferers he meets online on the the other. For me it was the latter strand that really brought the film alive, which is a problem given that the Gu Changwei thread is ostensibly the film's focus.

Zhao is one of my favourite filmmakers so I was expecting a lot, and upon reflection I think Together's great sequences probably outweigh the film's weaknesses. I'm keen for a second viewing, however, and interested to see what Gu Changwei’s films is like – at present it's slated for release in March or April 2011.


Interview with Zhao Liang

Conducted on December 8, 2010 via email. Thanks to Wang Yi for her help translating.

Together is quite different in many ways to your earlier works like Petition, Crime and Punishment and Paper Airplane. How did your involvement in this film come about? Was it your idea, or did Gu Changwei ask you to make a documentary about the making of his feature drama?
This film was carefully planned by Gu Changwei – Together is the sister film of his feature. They are different films but they also complement each other.

Together is the first of your films to go through the approval process for official release in China. What was this process like and did it necessitate any changes in your approach to filmmaking?
This film was approved by the Ministry of Health. They were the producer, so they then applied to the Film Bureau for release. This film was really different to my old films. Because this was a not-for-profit film [by this I think Zhao means a film made in the public interest], I needed consider a lot of social factors. To me, if the film has social value then it's worth making.

The ending of Together is considerably more upbeat than the conclusions to your earlier works. Was this a genuine expression of your feelings towards the film's subject, or was it necessary to adopt this tone for commercial reasons or to get the film passed for distribution?

Partly this was my feeling, but the more important thing is that the film gives hope to other people – this was also the thing we wanted to achieve. This film has absolutely no commercial aims at all.

Were you aware of the discrimination faced by HIV sufferers in China before making Together, or was making this film a learning experience for you?
Before the shoot I had no knowledge at all of HIV – I gradually learned through preparing and shooting the film. Actually the Chinese are a very tolerant people. The discrimination is because people lack knowledge and mainstream media stigmatises the disease.

Do you think the situation of HIV sufferers in China has improved since the disease first arrived in China?

It's improved a lot. There are a lot of good policies. For example HIV sufferers can enjoy free anti-viral drugs, and the “four frees and one care” policy. Of course, many urgent problems still need to be solved.

Can you tell me a bit about Gu Changwei's feature? Was his film influenced by your documentary and your interactions with the HIV sufferers?

In fact his film is about human nature, because the people in the movie have a disease called “the fever” – no-one says “AIDS.” You see the nature of people exposed in the face of disaster. It is a profound movie. It don't think he was influenced by my film, but the entire crew learnt a lot about AIDS, and then were no longer afraid.

We are trying to promote the process of understanding I document in my film through the whole of society, to improve the situation of AIDS sufferers.

Zhao Liang's Together is screening at Beijing's BC MOMA cinema throughout December-January. Gu Changwei's Life is a Miracle is scheduled to be released in March or April 2011.


  1. Dan:
    Thanks as always for your very informative writings on Chinese cinema.

    Producer, The High Life

  2. "Together's stylistic schizophrenia was also reflected in its dual concern with documenting the Life is a Miracle shoot on the one hand, and Zhao's interactions with HIV sufferers he meets online on the the other. For me it was the latter strand that really brought the film alive, which is a problem given that the Gu Changwei thread is ostensibly the film's focus."

    For me, this reflects more of an inability of the reviewer to actually understand how Zhao Liang work has developed in new and very interesting directions. I am further troubled that you even ask if ending on a happy note was a comprised take on the issue on HIV in China, this perpetuates the myth that nothing good can come out of cooperating with the State and that provocation and agitation against some form of unthinking behemoth is the only value of film practice in China. I am rather appreciative in this instance of how Zhao has navigated through the complex terrain of emotions and expectations in order to produce such layered narrative.