Premiering during the online edition of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Tiger Competition section, Queena Li’s Bipolar is a seductive debut. It tells the story of a young woman setting off for a pilgrimage in Lhasa, Tibet. She seeks answers: to change her life, to overcome the phantom of the gone love, to get hold of a pinch of happiness. To accompany her, in this fable that reminds of a travesty of the Orpheus myth as a road movie, is a holy lobster, occasionally tinkling with a liquid that breaks with the film’s monochrome palette – a psychedelic pee. Indeed, Queena Li’s piece enthrals for many reasons, leaving an aftertaste of cinematic intoxication. It navigates boundaries: the cinematic expression is vastly extended, just as boundless as the Tibetan landscape; the pilgrimage becomes just as much a neverending story, as it figures as a reconciliation with one’s dreams (the most surreal ones); and those of gender fluidity, embodied through a captivating role by Leah Dou. A one-and-only punk Buddhist prayer captured in frames.
I met Queena Li on Zoom. It was a gloomy afternoon for me; a late evening for her, shortly before the world premiere. While sipping her Asahi, Queena was a bit here and there. We both felt the unusual circumstances of the meeting and the unbearable notion that it would probably stay this way for a while. Facing our avatars, drifting between the time zones, we discussed dreams and waking-ups, boundaries or the lack of them, inspirations and mentors (Khyentse Norbu is the name), the landscape of Tibet, as well as the landscape of illusions, and the bitter taste of unhappiness – it clings to us all these days.
Where are you currently?
I’m still in Tibet. For now at least. It’s quite safe here, so I’m managing to avoid the effect of pandemics.
“Everyone is lost in the happy land”. This is the quote from your film. Why the happy land and who’s lost?
There is a saying that it is easy to get mired in the situation of unhappiness. Happiness is suffering that has not grown into adulthood yet. Just like a seed that grows into a plant, in the same way happiness grows its way into unhappiness. We always grab onto happiness and we don’t know when to let it go. That’s why it easily grows into unhappiness. We tend to lose ourselves in happiness, like in this quote, but then we don’t know that it is just temporary. It doesn’t last long. The pain comes up. While we don’t realise the suffering, we become lost. Lost in the land we call a happy land. That’s the situation the protagonist of my film is in.
Bipolar is based on real-life experiences, but also on the book, Hasting Express by Gosha Wen. You also combine various myths and fairy tales. How did the story begin for you?
Indeed, the first inspiration came from the novel. As for my experiences – I’m interested in combining the illusionary, and the dreamy with what you can call real. I guess it’s similar to my life. I’m hastily daydreaming through it. The story brings together all kinds of different metaphors, from fairy tales to local Tibetan sagas. I tried to reflect on my life and the area where the film takes place in Tibet through different lenses.
The film also starts with a quote from Khyentse Norbu (Bhutanese filmmaker and writer, the director of Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait, 2016), who also appears in the film and worked with you on the script. What initiated this connection?
He’s my mentor and I simply love his work, and I’m really happy you know Hema Hema, it’s a great film! Initially, I wanted to make this film in Canada, where the novel takes place. But then, Norbu told me that it’s better to do it in Tibet. There is a quote from one of his books in my film: “True surrealism to see your whole mind”, which shines a very important light for the message of Bipolar. He also appears in the film as a wig seller and his dialogue with Leah’s character really fits him as a person, as it’s full of wisdom. Well, you can say that he’s like that in real life.
Why was it better to do it in Tibet (Lhasa in particular)?
The girl in the film goes on a pilgrimage. She’s seeking spiritual answers. Lhasa is a very typical place to do that. It’s a classic motive. When we find the answers not in the place where we thought we will find them, we set off in the next direction. It’s only after she leaves Lhasa that she starts her real pilgrimage.
Your protagonist sets off to find a lighthouse. What’s the symbolic meaning of this place in Tibetan culture?
Lhasa is very profound for Tibetan people who instinctively attach a lot of meaning to the metaphorical reading of the place. The lighthouse, just like the city, has two layers. This is the destination of the pilgrimage – you are supposed to end your journey at the lighthouse; it also signifies hope, the direction of the pilgrimage. The important aspect is that you never know if it’s there. Just like how the protagonist in my film leaves Lhasa to find the answers, to look for the lighthouse. She tries to find it, but it is not entirely clear if it’s out there, nor if she will find her answers. The answers she needs might be in a completely different place or, perhaps, she might not need the answers at all.
There is a quote about the teacher in the film: “When the student is ready, the teacher will show up.” Is it linked to your relationship with Norbu?
He’s certainly one teacher, but the quote can point to many different things. Once one’s ready, it can be the dog that appears, or a delivery guy, one’s brothers or sisters. It doesn’t even have to be a person. It can be a rainstorm or a dream. When the student is ready, and if one has an open mind, then the teacher will eventually show up. But it doesn’t have to be Norbu.
Another recurring line is: “When you lose your mind, come back. When I’m back, I’m here. And when I’m here, I’m out there.” Why did you decide to make it as a text leitmotif?
This is the line that I got from my other teacher. It was his way to help students practice searching their minds. It’s an exercise, that I really like, and I thought it would fit the film. It’s about losing oneself, but it’s also about coming back to one’s senses again. It’s a mantra that can remind oneself of coming back to the here-and-now, to the moment of presence, both of flesh and mind, time and place.
The time and place in your film revolve around surrealistic and dreamy forms of expression. How did you seek for the right language to grasp it?
I think that as a person and a creator, I try not to draw strict lines between the real world and the imaginative one. Limiting oneself to these two categories, real and unreal, is not my thing. When I was filming Bipolar, I wanted to film the dream as if it was reality. In that way, I made the line of fuzziness. I had to convince myself first, that the dreams are just as real. Only after that, I could convince the audience about the same. There’s a small exercise that I suggest you try if you can. It doesn’t have anything to do with the film, but it can be interesting. In the morning, when you’re awake, tell yourself that you’re dreaming. And when the evening comes, when you’re about to fall asleep, just tell yourself: “I’m waking up now, and going into the real life.”
What are your dreams?
I have a lot of very weird ones. But the most interesting ones, are these during which I wake up and then I decide to come back to them. Then, as I’m dreaming, I know what is real and what is not. When I decide to go back to the stream of dreams, I can influence the direction that it goes and what happens in between.
Is there a connection between you and the protagonist (played by Leah Dou)?
I think it’s a half-half. Half myself, half the character.
What would you say is from you in her?
As I said, I mix dreams, reality and illusions, and make them as one. My dreams constantly affect me and I guess my work affects my dreams. I’m not the one to judge what is real or fake, or where are the boundaries for the illusions. We have a habit of considering things in two categories: real or unreal. Sometimes what we think might be real for us, but in reality, it might just be an illusion.
How was the collaboration with Leah Dou?
We’re very good friends, so it was very easy to work together. It was very relaxed, sometimes even too relaxed. It was almost no effort at all. Whenever I had something in mind, I would tell her and she would deliver. She was a perfect reflection of what I was thinking about during the shooting. She’s very natural, so the result was fitting to my vision.
It seemed to me that one of the important themes in your film is gender expression. How did you project your characters and their gender fluidity in the film?
First of all, I think that the borders between male and female shouldn’t be so clear. For me, there are no clear boundaries. When you cross Nepal and go through the immigration office, you have to tick a box saying whether you’re male or female. In that case, defining one’s gender shouldn’t be so important, right? When we shot Bipolar, we intentionally avoided gender-addressing. I didn’t want the viewers to say that these problems are typical for women or men.
Your whole universe of characters is very peculiar, weird. How did you approach the concept of building such a bunch of distinctive personas?
I knew you would use that word, weird (laughs). Since Leah’s character is having her trip to find a spiritual awakening, she needs some serious answers. Normally in a film, you would have people helping her out to navigate around her dilemmas. These would be very non-weird, very normal people. She would find her teacher and then go straight forward to the enlightenment. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted to mess with the convention a bit, so she meets all sorts of weird, random people. The answer she desperately seeks is not in them, but they somewhat help her get around to what she needs. As for the audience – one gets to know that through witnessing this weirdness. The answer is not in Lhasa, not in Tibet, but a different place altogether.
I guess that meeting different, even weird people is also related to the process of filmmaking. Did you have any particular difficulties in accomplishing your piece?
The main difficulty was entangled with the production process because it was an independent project. We had to do everything ourselves, so that caused some headaches. But yes, exactly like in the film, I had to meet with all kinds of different people and they could help us in different ways. The entire process turned out quite smooth, though, it’s not like it was a struggle or a hardship. Luckily, we managed to avoid many difficulties and we didn’t have many setbacks.
Censorship about Tibet?
Not at all. We were very lucky that we didn’t run into any trouble. The censorship bureau only asked for a small adjustment. They said that when Leah Dou’s character travels from Tibet to Yunnan, we had to make it clear that she’s no longer in Tibet. We couldn’t leave it unspecified. But it’s also because my film doesn’t tackle any problematic issues.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I really don’t know, because I don’t know how I came to make films and I have no idea if I will make another film.