Interview with Director Diao Yinan: Death and Beauty are Inseparable

Diao Yinan

CineCina: Your latest film is known by two names: “A Rendezvous at a Station in the South” in Chinese and “The Wild Goose Lake” in English. I find both names very interesting and artistic. So why do you want two different names, and how do they relate to the film respectively?

Diao: “A Rendezvous at a Station in the South” is what I first wrote when I started writing the script. The south is a very romantic and tropical place. The station is where people gather and scatter, or where people part forever. It is an important memory for us. Our memory of growing-up is inseparable from the station, be it the platform of the train station or the building of the station. As I said just now, it just feels like a place of gathering and scattering, a place where stories happen. So I think “A Rendezvous at a Station in the South” has such a special “taste” in it. Why does it have that English name? That is purely the translator’s suggestion.

CineCina: The English name is “The Wild Goose Lake.” Obviously the element of water is always there in the film, whether it is the lake or rain. How do you interpret this important element?

Diao: Water, as you can imagine, is very soft. It represents femininity and mystery, so the two of them (Hu Ge and Gwei Lun-mei) have completed the most euphoric part of the film on the water. Then you can understand it as lust, which is somewhat the opposite of death. It’s very cruel there: night is death, but water is lust. Lust and death are the two sides of the coin of our life; usually, when you show one side, you cannot do without the other side. With the other side, lust may go further beyond our normal experience and become a test for people.

CineCina: In addition to the lake, another important space in the film is the urban village, including the crowded tube-like apartment buildings. This setting reminds me of some Hong Kong films and genre films inspired by the Kowloon Walled City. So how did you come up with the idea of combining lake water, which relates to the traditional Chinese underworld (jianghu), with the urban village in modern society?

Diao: This is because we decided from the getgo that there must be lake water in this film, and there must be elements such as swimming female escorts. I also said that when I wrote the script, I decided that my character would work as a swimming escort, which is a marginal profession. My idea comes from a photo of a girl on a boat, which was found in a news report on swimming female escorts on Silver Beach in Guangxi, China. This photo inspired me and thus I wanted to find a city with both the urban village and the lake. It was very difficult to find. In the beginning, we scouted for a long time in Guangdong Province, imagining that we should find it there. But in fact, Guangdong only has a few lakes and all of them are very small. Later, a friend reminded me that Hubei is known as “the province of a thousand lakes” and Wuhan as “the city of a hundred lakes.” So we went directly from Guangzhou to Hubei. After spending two days in Wuhan, we immediately decided to shoot there. Many of the urban villages in Wuhan are surrounded by lakes, so it fits our need for such a space perfectly.

This space is where the fugitive hides. It is essential. You can’t make him hide in an office building or in an alley in the city. That’s not the space I imagined, because the space I imagined should be more peripheral and can bring more diverse life experiences. For example, outside the place where we live, there is an alternative space. We call it heterotopia; it brings us mysterious, incredible feelings about life and heterogeneous spaces. These are all brought out through these spaces.

CineCina: Was the concept of the entire space setting 100% determined when you wrote the script, or was there something that might be newly created or changed during the location scouting or shooting?

Diao: It was basically determined during the screenwriting. During the location scouting, we looked for spaces according to what the script requires to make them overlap.

CineCina: In addition to the physical space, I also want to talk about the so-called “cultural space,” which refers to the use of dialects in the film. This is also a great feature of the film. After deciding to shoot in Wuhan, did you adjust the script according to Wuhan dialect, including some changes in the lines?

Diao: Yes, if you decide to shoot in Wuhan, you must speak Wuhan dialect, because a lot of our extras and supporting characters are casting on location. I think it is better to speak the local language, thus requiring the two leading actors to speak Wuhan dialect. The process of learning the dialect can also help them find the “crutches” or “keys” for their performance. During the shooting, we also adjusted the lines because of the dialect, which has a different context and tone from Mandarin. So these are inevitable adjustments.

CineCina: Speaking of the actress, you worked with Gwei Lun-mei in Black Coal, Thin Ice, in which she gave an amazing performance. What’s the reason that you want to work with her again?

Diao: This is because our collaboration in Black Coal, Thin Ice was very pleasant and tacit. After finishing Black Coal, Thin Ice, we had the idea while chatting that we could have the opportunity to work again. I think she is an actress with great potential, and for her, such a character would also bring a very different experience to the audience. So during this process, a certain kind of tension is formed through her image and identity. She has a very different temperament from women working in such a gray industry as we imagine, which has instead created some interesting psychological space and tension.

CineCina: Why did you choose Hu Ge as the leading actor? Because we know that he rarely appeared in films and has worked in television for most of his career. How did you come up with the idea of casting him in this film?

Diao: Indeed, Hu Ge hasn’t appeared in many films and thus I actually want to cooperate with such an actor. He may be a blank piece of paper. And it may be better because it is easier to fill him up with the character’s actions and gestures. He has to fill himself up to form a very pure performance style. Hu Ge also has a melancholy temperament, together with his handsome appearance, which gives him the natural conditions to play such a fragile bandit. So it’s a pleasure to work with him on this role.

CineCina: But I feel that his role is very different from how he looks in other films and TV shows, whether it’s the character itself or the changes in body shape and accent made in preparation for the character. So is there anything you would like to share about how he got into the character?

Diao: To get into the character requires him to perform in accordance with the style of the entire film. Performance should not exceed the style formed by the image; it is part of the whole image. In this film, the image includes not only performance but also space, art, and mise-en-scène. They all form the language of the film. So performance must be unified with these elements. I asked them to do a “neutral performance”, which emphasizes more on body movements. This is also determined by the film’s style.

It’s more like the inspiration that Peking Opera gave us. When we watch a Peking Opera, the content is not important anymore. We pay more attention to what kind of singing voices and what kind of body figures the performers show us. These aspects transcend content and meaning. It’s a purer way of expressing the characters. So in this film, I also asked the actors to give me more actions and movements to open up their inner worlds, to express their emotions and personal feelings, and to complete the characters through actions and movements. Because the sum of a person is made up of their behaviors.

CineCina: There are also some supporting characters and even extras who I find very interesting, such as the character played by Huang Jue and Chen Yongzhong. How did you come up with these two actors as guest actors, and what roles do they play in the film?

Diao: They were invited because they were suitable. Everything went well and they are very cooperative. Both of them are very much in line with my requirements for the characters. They are also part of the group portraits in the film. There are many such “punctiform characters” in this film. These characters outline the images of different people in society. They make you feel that there are different animals in this society, wearing different faces. Just like the people we meet in our lives, they flash by, or hit you, or pass you by. That’s how they are.

CineCina: You mentioned that you were inspired by Peking Opera and, as you mentioned in some interviews, by the so-called chivalry in the “jianghu.” How do these Chinese traditional aesthetic elements influence this film?

Diao: In fact, I really like the Hong Kong martial arts movies in the past, including those of Shaw Brothers. Directors such as Chang Cheh, Chor Yuen, Tsui Hark, and King Hu are all in my must-see list. These movies have deeply influenced me. For my film, we are talking more about some of the most basic dilemmas of people. The most basic distress of people is about death. In fact, the final outcome of our lives is how we die and how our death is. Death also has its own aesthetics: death and beauty can be combined.

The protagonist started as a person who drifted along, but in such a “non-emotional” world, his fate was suddenly interrupted, and he was suddenly faced with a choice. Before that, he was nothing, as good as dead. But as soon as he wants to change himself, avenge these fates, and deny the threat of death, he may gain some kind of existence.

CineCina: In the film, the relationship between the two female characters (Gwei Lun-mei and Wan Qian) is also very delicate; both of them have something going on with the male protagonist. So how did you create these two characters, and how did you define the relationship between these two women?

Diao: You can also understand these two female characters as the two sides of one person. One is in the background and the other in the foreground. Their influence on Hu Ge’s character is different. But when they merge together, it brings out the concept of a woman. In this process, they are both mirrors of the character played by Hu Ge. The film ends with the women’s victory and the man’s sacrifice. The women have shown their bravery and intelligence during the process, and achieve their self-actualization.

CineCina: In addition to the outlaws, there is also the police. Almost all of your films involve policemen. Here,  Liao Fan plays a police detective. What is the role of the police in your film?

Diao: The police is the other side of the conflict. This is the meaning that it actually has. In the end, with a cigarette, Liao Fan stands there thinking, as if he had also achieved a transcendence or transformation of some kind of emotion in his heart. This character is not only functional, but he also has a soft and human side, which is also presented through the ending.

CineCina: In addition to the story and characters, the style of the film also left a deep impression on me. One such example is the lighting design throughout the film, whether it is the light on the scooters, or that on the shoes, or some neon lights, such as the light in the hotel scene. What are your ideas behind these designs?

Diao: We found the lights mostly in the edges and corners of China. We did not go over-designing, but just found them and adjusted them accordingly, in order to present it in a very realistic way. It produces a dreamy effect. The magical effect you may feel comes from reality.

CineCina: Also, in terms of the action scenes, there are many times when fast cutting is combined with long takes. Why did you choose such a style?

Diao: Because I think fast cutting and long take are complementary. For example, you may be talking about the fighting scene at the thieves’ meeting. In fact, before the fight, we used a long take for Hu Ge, whose fight was completed in one shot, which actually is rather challenging for actors and photographers. Then, there is a fast decomposition. I think in this way, I can create a certain musical rhythm for the image. It’s not that you want long takes then it is all long takes, or if you want cuttings then it is all cuttings. It would be too dogmatic in that way. I think there is a certain sense of musical rhythm, which is part of the power of the film itself demonstrates. Following these principles, both long takes and cuttings are made. The fight scene in the hotel is also a long take at the beginning that moves between the three or four people, and then it shifts to fast cutting after it bursts out. I think this is also musical.

CineCina: I think the film also features some very Tarantino-esque and imaginative scenes of violence. How did you find these inspirations?

Diao: It’s not something you can find whenever you want. It’s something that suddenly appears in your mind, which even makes you feel like a device. For example, the umbrella is like a flower blooming on his back—this is what I exactly wrote in the script. It is just a nightmarish scene printed in your mind, and you want to realize it. In terms of physics, it may not be realistic, but in terms of style: style is more important than physics in this case.

CineCina: There is also the forklift scene.

Diao: Originally it is not forklift but steel wire. We later found out a real-life video on the internet. It’s a shocking video with a forklift in it. So I changed the steel wire to a forklift. When I wrote this scene, I imagined it as an unpredicted attack of fate. In general, it represents the horror in our daily life. 

CineCina: I also noticed the costume design in the film. It didn’t feel like it was intentional, but it gives me a sense of vintage style, such as Gwei Lun-mei’s hat and Huang Jue’s clothes. They remind me of those costumes in King Hu’s martial arts films. Is this an intentional choice, or is it just a coincidence?

Diao: These are also inspired by real life, and we dare not invent them ourselves. These are the images we obtained during our research, and then we made some adjustments to make them suitable for the characters.

CineCina: Whether it is some of the creative ideas you just talked about or the film itself, I think they can be summarized into two aspects. On the one hand, it is very stylized, but on the other hand, it is rooted in reality. These two sides may seem to be a contradiction. How do you balance the two?

Diao: In fact, all the spaces we shot are real, and the story itself is very real. However, the attitude of our creation is very modern. We are simply subverting some usual habits and expectations of the spectator. For example, unlike a traditional Hollywood movie, this film does not provide you with a clear three-act structure or a complete dramatic story. Every character and plot are relatively autonomous in each sequence, and it ends after reaching the zenith of autonomy. It does not continue to develop but reopens to a new autonomous sequence.

It is like fragments, a moderate number of fragments. When these directional fragments run towards the same place, a storyline is formed. This storyline is a bit vague, but it is open-ended. Instead of simply explaining to you, you get the chance to experience it. This is what I mean that our methodology is modern, but our implementation is realistic. What you see is very real but you feel is different.

CineCina: I also have a few questions about the connections between this film and your previous works. I find that you especially like to shoot dance scenes from real life, such as the ballroom in Black Coal, Thin Ice, and there is also a square dance scene in this scene. Could you please elaborate on it?

Diao: Dancing, or, similarly, chasing, are actions extremely close to the cinema. There are always such sequences in my films that let actors perform their actions and movements. I find them especially cinematic. Cinema likes these things and is close to these things. So you should try to use these things to express your meaning and the inner emotions of the characters, instead of letting them talk or act like in a play. It’s not because I particularly want to show these actions, but I want my actors to be kinetic and in action. 

CineCina: Another connection with Black Coal, Thin Ice is the use of animals in the film. In Black Coal, Thin Ice, there is a horse in the building, and there is a scene taking place in a zoo in The Wild Goose Lake. In a story that is about human beings, is there any specific meaning of these animals?

Diao: Because when I was a kid, there really was a very important felon hiding in the zoo after escaping the prison. At that time, all the police in the city were looking for him but failed. When he was finally arrested, he said he had hidden in the elephant pavilion of the zoo, looking at the tourists who came to see the elephants every day. He stayed there for half a month to avoid the hunt. I remembered this vividly and thought that I would have a fugitive also hiding in the zoo in my film too. I think there can be a very interesting relationship between him and the animals.

CineCina: What I find particularly interesting about that scene is the close-up shots you used to the animals, treating them like human beings. Are you intentionally trying to suggest parallelism?

Diao: Yes, it is the concept of hunting. At this time, humans have become animals. Animals look at people as if they were animals in their eyes. So this is the concept of hunting. Humans are animals. Animals and humans are equal and the same.

CineCina: Okay, that’s all for today’s interview. Thank you!

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