Gu Xiaogang, 35, is quickly becoming one of the most prominent Chinese filmmakers of his generation. Earlier this month, he became the youngest-ever recipient of the Akira Kurosawa Award at Tokyo International Film Festival. His second feature, Dwelling by the West Lake,also premiered at the festival.
Compared to Gu’s debut film Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, which meditated on the changing face of his hometown, Dwelling by the West Lake is a more conventionally plot-driven film. During TIFF, I was able to speak to Gu about his changing approach to storytelling.
[This interview was conducted in Chinese, with direct interpretation. Some responses have been edited for clarity.]
You took a very different approach to narrative in this film versus your debut, which was a ‘fictionalized documentary’ featuring non-professional actors.
Yes, there is a big difference between my debut feature and Dwelling by the West Lake. This time, my primary objective was expressing the story in a way that captures people’s beliefs and their spirit in a metaphysical sense. It’s rooted in the way we tend to discuss these topics in Eastern culture, especially in China.
It would be very hard to directly address the main theme of the film – ‘awakening’ – particularly as it has some religious overtones. This is why using a more allegorical approach was necessary.
In contrast with my debut film, I started with the theme this time and then considered how to express it through a story. I built the narrative around three motifs – tea culture, the folk story where Mulian saves his mother, and pyramid schemes. They all connect to different aspects of the main theme. It is said that zen and tea share the same flavor, so the focus on tea farming expresses zen culture. In a popular Chinese Buddhist tale, Mulian rescues his mother from hell. Pyramid schemes are an expression of desire in modern culture or civilization.
All of these motifs connect to the theme of awakening, which cannot be expressed very directly – not only because it's rooted in zen culture or something religious, but also because I prefer to convey my ideas more implicitly, using the cinematic language of concealed signs and symbols.
West Lake is described as ‘scroll two’ to [Dwelling in the] Fuchun Mountains. I find this ‘scroll’ framing very interesting. On a basic level, it suggests a juxtaposition between traditional and modern art genres and perhaps ways of life too. Could you talk a little about what that means to you?
It all starts from my debut film, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, which shares its title with an ancient painting. I grew up in the scene of that painting – that’s what inspired me to pursue a ‘scrolling’ style of filmmaking.
Whenever I return to my hometown, it objectively forces me to think about how to use film as a medium for transferring this specific way of expression. In these two films, I have already explored many possibilities. With West Lake, I wanted to add more genre elements – that is why there are a lot of audacious shots. I want to keep exploring the possibilities of combining my scroll-inspired cinematic language with genre elements.
In an earlier interview, you described the 1st film as a ‘scroll montage’ – which I love. West Lake has significant genre influence and a different narrative focus. Do you still view it in the same conceptual framework?
The answer to this question has to do with the relationship between film and director. Let me go back to my debut feature again. During the creation of that film, I was standing with my back turned to the audience. I was trying to get as close as possible to the medium of film itself, to become a tool for expressing something bigger. I came close to abandoning myself completely. It was a very enjoyable process.
This time, I felt that there is a different meaning to the filmmaking process – it was all about the audience’s enjoyment, rather than my own. I temporarily stopped what I was doing with my previous film, and allowed myself to be guided by the subject matter.
A close relative of mine has been involved with a pyramid scheme, so it feels personal to me. I wanted people like that to feel touched by the film, even though most of them aren’t regular movie-goers. That’s why I tried to tell the story from their perspective, rather than using a more detached approach.