I first talked with Wei Shujun back in 2020 when his debut film, Yema fenzhong (Striding into the Wind), had its US theatrical release. However, we met in person only three years later in Cannes after the premiere of his third feature, Hebian de cuowu (Only the River Flows). His previous works were selected and screened in Cannes, but because of the pandemic it was Wei’s second visit to the Croisette – he first came with his short film Yanbian Shaonian (On the Border) which won a Special Distinction in 2018. 

When watching his works, it strikes me how each of them reflects on the realities of the Chinese film industry. Striding into the Wind focuses on two students of sound recording who have a hard time completing their degree since they spend more time on film sets instead of a classroom. Yonganzhen gushi ji (Ripples of Life, 2021) are three intersecting stories happening simultaneously during the pre-production of a film scheduled to shoot in a small town in the Chinese interior by a film crew coming from Beijing. Although Only the River Flows is a detective story, and at a first sight doesn’t concern the film industry, the fact that many scenes are set in an abandoned cinema theatre gives a broad space for interpretation.

The filmmaker is acutely aware of various institutional mechanisms, which become a source of inspiration. In his films he explores the now non-mandatory practice of “experiencing life” (jingyan shenghuo) in the PRC fiction filmmaking – the phase of pre-production in which film crews from film studios located in the cities went to various communities, often in the countryside, to live with the locals for few months so as to be able portray them realistically on screen. Wei Shujun reflects on different aspects of experiencing life through the cinema, remaining in dialogue with the history of filmmaking in China but also venturing beyond realism into dreamscapes and expressionism. 

In conversation, Wei answers in a sharp and quick manner, giving the impression that he knows exactly what he is doing and has a clear vision of his career and filmmaking environment in China. After our meeting in Cannes in May, we got the chance to continue our talk five months later at the Pingyao International Film Festival during which Only the River Flows had its domestic premiere. 

The film focuses on a detective, Ma Zhe, who investigates a series of murders in a small town in Southern China. The police soon find the weapon and detain the suspect. However, the abundance of other clues keeps bothering Ma Zhe who tries to make sense of the whole story. Attempts to decode the complex narrative proved addictive also for the domestic audience. After its theatrical release across China on 21 October, Only the River Flows achieved one of the highest box office revenues for an art film in recent years.

– MK

Maja: I have just finished reading Yu Hua’s short story that your film is based on. I’m curious, who recommended this work to you?

Wei: My producer, Tang Xiaohui, told me about the short story back in 2018 but he didn’t ask me if I would be interested in adapting it to screen. After reading it, I thought it would be great if I had the opportunity to shoot it. The text was published 30 years ago but it still feels experimental and avantgarde; I can feel that it stands out from other works. I thought adapting it is a challenge but also an exciting possibility. So, in 2020 when I completed Striding into the Wind my producer turned to me and asked if I want to shoot the adaptation. 

Maja: Are you familiar with Yu Hua’s work? Do you know him in person?

Wei: I am very respectful of him and his work. I met Yu Hua for the first time at the Pingyao International Film Festival this October. Before the meeting, in a span of few days, he watched all three of my full-length works and one short film. It felt overwhelming that such an established writer and a senior made such preparations just to meet me. But we hit it off like old friends, cheerfully chatting about movies, music, and life. He likes cinema very much. In short, he is a wise man with a great sense of humour. After Only the River Flows was released, we would send each other netizens’ interpretations of the film. He often says, “The audience has a broader understanding than us.” One time during a meal, he shared with me a sentence he heard during a visit to Germany many years ago. Marx said, “We are not here to understand the world, but to change it.” I was moved to tears after listening to this. Yu Hua preferred to leave the work on the film to us. He felt he doesn’t need to add anything to the text to make it more cinematic. He said that I can do whatever I want with the text because his task – writing the short story – is already completed. Many journalists asked me about the process of adaptation, and I gave them an example: if this novel is an apple, it is already ripe. I cannot work on an apple that has already fallen to the ground but on a seed that is left from it afterwards. From this seed a new apple tree grows – a film – which derives from the previous one but is inherently different. 

Only the River Flows

Maja: I fully understand. The plotline and the first-person narration in the short story are very different from the ones in the film. One element that does not appear in the text is relocating the police station to an abandoned cinema theatre. Moreover, in the short story Ma Zhe’s wife is not pregnant and plays a bit of a different role in the plotline. I am very curious, why did you add these details to the story?

Wei: In the film, if there is only one plotline that reflects Ma Zhe’s mental condition, it is too flat. Not enough to portray his state of mind in its complexity. Therefore, I decided on three intersecting plotlines: the murder case, the family life, and Ma Zhe’s memories influenced by his perception of reality that begins to slant. Some situations might be only his projection, and in the end, he succeeds in solving the case only by accident. I wanted to portray a situation that we experience sometimes: a feeling that you are the only one who remembers what actually happened. It is a fascinating aspect of memories. We sometimes ask another person if they remember this one thing about a conversation, a place or an event you attended together, and it turns out they don’t. Or in fact you shared this information or experience with someone else. I recently read a short article about a man who was very thirsty and went to buy a drink at a bubble tea shop which he visits every day during lunch break. The staff knew him well and prepared his usual order. However, after tasting, he complained that the tea tastes differently, there were no sparkles from popping tapioca pearls. The staff confirmed him that it is in fact the drink he always gets for the last two years. He decided to go to other bubble tea stores of the same brand, but still the taste was off. Then he called the sales representative who apologised but assured him that this specific bubble tea never had such popping tapioca pearls. Then one day the man went to a supermarket to buy a soda and realised that it is the taste he was obsessing about. Why does it happen? I think exploration of such very subjective and sense-based perception of reality through the means of film language is very fascinating. The pregnancy of Ma Zhe’s wife and his memories are examples of it in Only the River Flows

Maja: And in this way, Ma Zhe’s mental state feels a little more tangible. At some point he seems to have completely stopped working on the murder case, giving in deeper and deeper to paranoia. 

Wei: Yes. In fact, in the middle of the film the case is already solved. We are told who the murder is: he is found with the weapon; all the evidence clearly points towards the perpetrator. I think Ma Zhe is confused, because some details, facts or people involved in the case just don’t make sense for him: a cassette tape found on the scene, a boy who is the only witness, a hairdresser who stubbornly wants to be taken for the murderer. Why were the second and the third victim were killed? I’m interested in the cause of their death from the logical, but also the philosophical perspective – as a moment of transgression approached from different standpoints. For example, the old lady who takes care of the madman. Their relation is quite ambiguous, might involve different forms of dependency, exploitation, even sadomasochism. The motivation is very unclear. Maybe the cause of her death is a search for extreme pleasure through ultimate pain? The third victim, a boy, is very young and his death feels especially groundless, unmotivated, illogical. Why is he so interested in the case – what a murderer looks like, and what time did the murder occur? That is, if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss will look back at you. So, you are interested in something that should not be of interest to you, but you dig – the deeper you are the less light there is. In the seemingly unrelated breakup letter written by the second victim, it is as if he had foreseen his own death. When I think about these things, I feel the creeps coming down my spine. Sometimes these things happen in a dream, the fiction organically combines with reality. Dreamscapes does not occur in the short story, but I decided to incorporate them into the film. 

Only the River Flows

Maja: The ending is also completely different from the one in the short story. I think the common denominator is that Ma Zhe will not do what others want him to do, because he feels that it is too obvious, too taken for granted. 

Wei: Yes. I think Ma Zhe is convinced of the power of reason, but suddenly realises that this empirical rationality has failed him. What he is perceiving is beyond the scope of experience, because countless coincidences are happening simultaneously, and he just doesn’t know how to decode the larger picture anymore. He follows the clues, but the resolution of the case does not fit the logic of cause and effect so neatly. It is like in the role-play game in the opening scene of the film. The boy playing the policeman opens each door in the corridor but doesn’t find the ‘thieves’ he is chasing. Instead, behind one door there is an open space left after a building that was demolished. There is no room behind the door, just another dimension of things. I think Ma Zhe is turned around like a marionette, as if his life is scripted. He somehow starts to sense it and this dawning awareness pushes him into paranoia. 

Maja: In the short story Yu Hua does not specify the time or the period in which the events take place. Ma Zhe only mentions that he married in 1981. Why did you choose mid-1990s in particular? 

Wei: There are several reasons. The first is that after 1996 there was a reform in China’s criminal investigation. In addition to the change in management and limiting the number of people employed in the law enforcement system, the process moved more towards modern criminal investigation. For example, it was made possible to detain physical evidence and make a claim based on them. The investigation was to be based on chain of proofs and a two-way identification. Ma Zhe has followed some of those steps: the murder weapon has been found on the crime scene, but what if someone else picked it up in the meantime. Some evidence points towards other people. He feels that solving this case is too simple, just as if the murderer was walking in front of the camera, looking right back into the lens. Another reason for choosing mid-1990s is that I was born in 1991. The more I grow up, the more I want to revisit my childhood idols, understand the atmosphere of the period I remember from back when I was a small kid. I can find this feeling through photos, through the descriptions of my parents and family, but I look for it myself – trying to find the missing pieces that escaped my memory and awareness. I become more and more curious, because the environment and people at that time seem so different from how it is now. In Only the River Flows I try to reconstruct the period through these visible and sensible scenes and props. Finally, although this case happened in the 1990s, the philosophical questions it tackles are not outdated. The case is not limited to a specific time or space, it is still ongoing today. We are still facing the failure of reason, which hits especially hard since we rely on scientific proofs and explanations very much these days. If we can’t explain something, we get upset. Ma Zhe is relying on empirical reasoning, but he encounters a situation he hasn’t experienced before. For a while, he tries to avoid it and escape into the routine, but the nagging suspicion refuses to go away. It forces him to face the problem that lies behind this uneasiness. The feeling isn’t connected to any specific era, so the story can as well take place in the 1990s. 

Wei Shujun

Maja: I later thought that you chose the mid-1990s because Chinese film industry at the time saw the biggest decline in attendance and the government decided to allow Hollywood films to enter the market. 

Wei: I didn’t make that connection, but I remembered what you just said. I recall a film from the mid-1990s talking about many cinema theatres being changed into dance halls because the Chinese box office was too low. We only had successful large-scale commercial films in the 2000s.

Maja: Ah yes, Feng Xiaogang’s works. I think the motif of setting up a police station at an abandoned cinema theatre is particularly interesting. Quite absurd but I can imagine it happening. 

Wei: It gives the film the metafictional layer, saying straightforwardly that story on screen is entirely fictional, and you decide whether to give into it or not. Moreover, you find yourself in a sort of a doubled space: in the real theatre but also watching the process of solving the case from the perspective of sitting in the rows of cinema shown in the film. The doubling is multiplied rapidly in the scene in which we find ourselves in Ma Zhe’s dream. 

Only the River Flows, festival screening

Maja: In a way, detective Ma Zhe becomes the director of the film. However, at some point he cedes the responsibility over developing the narrative and solving the case to his assistant. 

Wei: Identity-wise yes, Ma Zhe is also directing. He’s a little evasive, wants to resign but the police chief won’t let him. At first, he thinks that he already grasped the solution of the case, but reality just refuses to fit neatly into his way of doing things. It resonates with the English title of the film; the material world has its own unpredictable laws and exceptions; it just refuses to submit to our logic of reason and efficiency. 

Maja: Embracing the chaos is scary at first. The film turns towards a psychological thriller or even horror by the end. Only the River Flows can be viewed as a metaphor, it somehow makes me think of Polish genre films of the early 1970s. I’m curious about what kind of feedback you’ve received from the censors. Did you have to make a lot of re-edits? 

Wei: Not a lot, I think maybe because it was a good timing. The film industry is recovering from the pandemic, the diplomatic relations and cultural exchange between China and France are frequent, and Yu Hua is also a well-known writer globally so there is an overseas market potential in the film. Moreover, the film is quite abstract, it discusses metaphysical and philosophical questions therefore it is not a direct reflection of reality.

About The Author

Maja Korbecka is a PhD candidate at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses include Sinophone cinemas, film festival studies and Southeast Asian cinemas. She is also interested in film curatorship and different forms of film criticism such as audiovisual essays and podcasts.

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