Li Ruijun is a rising star of China’s independent cinema. He was born in Gansu Province in 1983 and has a background in music and painting. Since graduating from the Communication University of Shanxi in 2003, Li has made four films, including The Old Donkey (2010) and Fly with the Crane (2012), both of which were nominated or won awards at various film festivals.
Li’s movies tend to focus on the relationship between human beings and the land as well as the rural attitude towards family, life and death in a fast changing China. Li sets most of his films in his hometown in Gaotai in northwestern China’s Gansu Province. Many of the actors and actresses appearing in his films aren’t professionals but rather are selected from among his close friends and relatives in Gaotai. The Old Donkey and its sequel Fly with the Crane both deal with elderly farmers and their relationship to their land against a society that pushes forward reforms and policies relentlessly. Fly with the Crane, based on a novella written by the renowned Chinese author Su Tong, which won the Special Jury Award at Australia’s 4th Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival in 2014; the Young Director’s Award at the 5th China Film Directors’ Guild Awards; and the best director award at the Brasilia International Film Festival in 2013. Li’s films are uniquely rustic, showcasing the haunting beauty and the wild abandon of northwestern China.
The following interview with Li Ruijun was conducted in Beijing in May 2016.
KM: You made several movies about the elderly living in rural Chinese villages, including The Old Donkey and Fly with the Crane. Why are you so interested in issues related to the elderly?
LRJ: I go back to my village in Gaotai, Gansu Province all the time, and I’m familiar with the many issues that concern these older people. I found society pays little attention to old people left behind in rural China or about their worries and life attitudes. Yet there are close to 200 million elderly in China, and how can a group of this size be ignored? Right now we seem to be only interested in the future not the past. But the future is very much based on the past, and we’ll all get old someday. We should care more about what concerns these old people.
I also had a lot of questions about life and death, like what’s the purpose of living? Or why is it that many peasants prefer boys to girls, etc. In the process of filming The Old Donkey, for example, I found many answers. I found out why Chinese peasants are so insistent on having sons—because as farmers, they don’t enjoy any social security benefits. I know this because my mother was a farmer. And since daughters will leave sooner or later after getting married, having sons is about the only way for farmers to ensure that someone will be there to look after them when they get old.
In your movie Fly with the Crane, we see the grandfather character so opposed to the idea of being cremated that he asks his grandchildren while he’s still alive to secretly bury him. Why is it that the elderly in rural China are so against the idea of cremation, so much so that some would rather die early so they can be buried?
I think it has a lot to do with the fact that they work with the earth all their lives. When you work day in and day out with the earth, your livelihood relies on harvesting from nature and you come to see the power of the earth and how it perpetuates the life cycle. Harvest is life itself, and the earth is what bestows life. Life begins and ends with the earth. So to them, it’s a very natural thing to want to bury their bones in the earth, to return them back to the soil and to make that final contribution to the land. Being cremated means breaking this cycle. That’s why, in the movie, the old man seriously contemplates dying early in exchange for a traditional burial rather than waiting to die and being cremated. This attitude is common and very much a reality.
Anqing, a city in Anhui Province, is one example. There, several elderly people who had saved up for years, perhaps decades, for a coffin, committed suicide in April and May of 2014 ahead of a June reform deadline that prohibited the deceased from being buried in the ground according to the Chinese tradition. After the deadline, cremation was the only option available to the villagers. Many policies in China are made in offices without taking into account the practical situation. It may be reasonable to implement the cremation policy in cities given its environmental benefits and the limited urban resources, but less crowded northwestern China should not be under the same policy.
I also want to add that to my relatives and many older folks in my village, death is part of life, and they’re not afraid of it. They’re not at all superstitious about death. In fact, my great uncle – who won a prize at the Australia-based Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival playing the lead role in Fly with the Crane – is no different. When we heard he’d won the best actor prize, we had to scramble and find him something presentable to wear at the festival. We were in such a rush we didn’t bring any proper clothes, and in Australia, we couldn’t find any clothes that he felt comfortable in. Eventually we stumbled upon some funeral homes in Chinatown selling special clothes for the deceased. My great uncle was very pleased with the clothes we purchased there and didn’t feel strange or unlucky at all about their association with death. He wore the clothes to the ceremony to receive his award.
In Fly with the Crane, you used a lot of very long takes, and the pace of the film is extremely slow. Why did you employ this technique?
I did this deliberately because I wanted the audience to get a sense what the passage of time is like from the old man’s perspective. “Should I choose this moment to die or not?” is a very important decision for the grandfather character, and he needs a lot of time to think about it. It’s my observation about the passage of time, which really is life itself. I believe the psychological rhythms of an old man come in waves, and I wanted to express this in the movie. In the film you will notice it’s the children and old folks who end up spending a lot of time together because they are the ones with a lot of time on hand, to think about the meanings of life and death. The adults, on the other hand, are too busy worried about making money.
I also feel that as human beings, we come into this world without a choice over when and where we’re born. But we should at least have the right to choose when, where and how we end our own life. In the movie, the grandfather’s friend wants to be buried but his wish is ignored and he is cremated in the end. That gives the grandfather a lot to think about when he considers whether to take things in his own hands with this last wish.
In The Old Donkey, we see how the elderly defend their land to the bitter end against the county government’s decision to give retired farmers’ land to those who agree to use agricultural machinery to farm. Land grabs are a serious issue in rural China. How much of the story is based on events in your hometown?
Land reform started in 2009 across China, not just in Gansu. These reforms caused a lot of conflicts with farmers. Although the central government said land reforms should not be implemented by force, regional governments often didn’t listen, causing many local conflicts. These problems were especially common a few years ago. Unfortunately, many policies are made in offices without taking into account situations in practice.
In The Old Donkey, you also talk about changing family relationships in fast changing China, particularly involving elderly left behind without anyone to care for them. For example, none of the three sons in The Old Donkey is there to care for the grandfather when he’s sick. Ironically, it’s the daughter who ends up taking him to the hospital and cooking for him. Is this arrangement intentional? Why?
Yes, you could say that I intentionally arranged that all three sons would be absent from the village because it is based on reality. In rural China, almost all the young men have gone to the city as migrant workers. Women are generally left behind to take care of the older parents and tend the fields. In many ways, the wives of migrant workers are forced to pick up the slack and are doing the double load of farming and domestic chores.
In the movie, there’s a reference to the Great Famine in 1960 that did not survive the cut. In the original version, several old men gather around a table and talk about how they saved their limited food rations for their sons during the famine years and let their daughters starve to death. The characters thought this was absolutely necessary because they needed the boys to care for them in their old age. As an old saying suggests, “Raise boys for one’s old age.” They believed their daughters would marry and leave town and provide no practical insurance for their old age.
But in the end none of Old Donkey’s three sons stay in the village to take care of him when he’s old and sick. It’s his youngest daughter who stays and helps him tend the field, bringing him lunch, and going to great lengths to take him to the hospital when he falls ill. Other elderly in the village are jealous of Old Donkey’s daughter since they don’t have anyone left to care for them. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Chinese tradition of raising boys for your old age has not survived the changing times, as many young males flee the village to make money, leaving their aging parents behind unattended. There’s a real gap between the tradition and the reality of Chinese society right now. So what’s next for these older people? How will they cope with their lives and old age? These are urgent questions I wanted to raise in the movie.
If you can sum up the one theme that connects your films, what might that be?
I’ve never really considered the themes of my movies, but if there were one common thread, I’d have to say it’s the relationship between transformations and those who are forced to transform. In China, policies are very top-down, very subjective, directionless and not at all well planned. And despite the government’s best intentions to improve lives, many policies have in fact caused people’s lives to go backward. And in the process, a lot of resources are wasted.
You mentioned at one of your screenings that you don’t have the courage to take on documentary projects, that you much prefer making feature films. What did you mean?
Documentaries are far too real for me. I don’t think I can handle the raw truth if I were to do a documentary—the cruel reality would be hard for me to accept. I might just collapse and find I was unable to go on recording people’s suffering. I would have a very hard time distinguishing the ‘me’ as a recorder from the ‘me’ as a human being. I probably would end up giving money away to help solve people’s problems instead of filming them. Not to mention it’s even harder to make a living that way. You spend years doing a documentary knowing that your work will never have a chance to be screened in theaters. I want to make films for an audience. And hopefully, that can lead to some change in society.
How did you decide to become a filmmaker? Was it difficult for you to start out making your first films?
I was good in the arts but not in math or science, so my father sent me to a special high school to study painting and drawing. When I graduated, my teacher suggested that I learn how to do commercials at the Communication University of Shanxi. It was while taking these courses, which included watching a lot of movies to learn how to tell tales, that I discovered my love for films.
I had a rough start. In 2006 when I was filming The Old Donkey, I had an investor who pulled out at the last minute. I was left in a bad financial state because I’d already set up a film crew and needed 300,000 RMB. My dad had a chunk of savings he was going to use to buy a house. He ended up lending me the money. I cobbled together the rest of the money from relatives and friends to finish the film. It was really rough there for a while because people thought I was a hoodlum since I wasn’t making money like other people. I did get a lot of support before 2009 from my director friend Yang Jin, who helped me as the cinematographer and recording artist for free for The Old Donkey. It was only after I won 100,000 euros from a film festival in 2010 for The Old Donkey that my parents heaved a sigh of relief. Luckily, I got another 200,000 euros for a post-production award, which allowed me to pay back some of the money I owed to my parents and friends. I also worked temporarily as a TV director for a while to finish paying off my debts.
How do you see the future for Chinese independent films? Critics say one of the reasons Chinese art films aren’t thriving is because there are so few venues for independent filmmakers to screen their films. Do you agree? And even if there were more arthouse theaters, wouldn’t censorship still be a major hindrance to their development?
Indeed, the lack of venues is a big problem for independent film in China. If only the Chinese government could donate even five percent of the profits made from commercial films to build art house theaters as a way to cultivate a following and develop new talent like Europe does, the Chinese art film industry would be in much better shape. And unfortunately, it’s very true that censorship continues to be a major hindrance to the development of Chinese art films, which invariably touch upon sensitive issues about individuals and humanity. This is something directors will struggle with continuously.
What are you working on next?
For my next movie I will be focusing on retiring migrant workers going home, and how painful it is for them when they realize there’s really nothing left for them to return to; that in fact, the ‘future’ they’ve been dreaming of all these years remains elusive because they’ve missed it altogether. This is something I see in current Chinese society.