Huang Ji and Ryûji OtsukaFamily as a Film Collective: An interview with Huang Ji and Ryûji Otsuka Maja Korbecka May 2023 Interviews Issue 105 The third full-length collaboration between the filmmaking duo Huang Ji and Ryûji Otsuka, Stonewalling, had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice Film Festival and from 10th March this year started screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. In their latest film, they continue to reflect on womanhood and sexuality in contemporary China, the topics that had been the centre of their two previous films, Egg and Stone (2012) and The Foolish Bird (2017). The two started their career in the independent documentary movement in China and, although the duo make fiction films, their filmmaking remains conceptually connected with this tradition. The boundary between fiction and reality, conceptual and material, is very porous. Production is preceded by research, the work on set is adjusted to the main actresses’ physical and mental state during the filming. Already for a decade the duo works with the same non-professional actress, Yao Honggui, who the filmmakers met in Huang Ji’s hometown back in 2012. Tokyo-born Ryûji Otsuka came to China in the 2000s fascinated with the vibrant independent filmmaking scene. Huang Ji grew up in a small city in Hunan province in central China. At the beginning of their work together, Huang assumed the position of the scriptwriter and the director and Otsuka was the cinematographer because Egg and Stone as well as The Foolish Bird were based on Huang Ji’s own memories. However, Stonewalling is directed by both as the story they develop moves further away from Huang Ji’s individual experiences into the world at large and life of the next generation of Chinese women. Egg and Stone Stonewalling focuses on Lynn, a young woman in Changsha who undergoes training at the school for flight attendants. In the meantime, she helps her parents financially as their private medical clinic runs into trouble. When part-time jobs become scarce, she considers selling her eggs in an illegal fertility clinic. There, she finds out she is pregnant with her boyfriend. She decides to halt her studies for a while, give birth and sell the baby to a young woman who sued Lynn’s mother for malpractice that led to miscarriage. The film develops within a conceptual framework that focuses on time passing and gradual changes in body and mind of a young woman. Stonewalling is deeply embedded in the contemporary social phenomena in China, with influencer culture, egg donation and surrogacy making headlines in domestic and foreign newspapers in recent years. Huang and Otsuka are partners professionally and privately. The initial idea behind Stonewalling was a question posed by their daughter who one day asked Huang Ji: “Why did you give birth to me?”. I talked with them via a Wechat call in late Autumn 2022. While chatting to the duo, I was most interested in the collaborative nature of Huang and Otsuka’s filmmaking. During the conversation their answers sometimes cannot be separated neatly because they were talking together, complementing and supporting each other. The ideas we touched upon during our chat was the potential of a family turning into a sort of filmmaking collective and the way the duo approaches reality in cinema. – M.K Stonewalling is backed by solid research. I would like to ask about the preparation for the production. Where did you conduct fieldwork? How did you meet your respondents? Huang Ji: Stonewalling is a continuation of our two previous films – Egg and Stone and The Foolish Bird. They all centre on a girl going through different stages of life. In Stonewalling she is already a university student in her early 20s therefore during the fieldwork we interviewed young women who come from the countryside to the city – in this case Changsha, the capital of Hunan province in central China – to study at one of the more mediocre universities. The main actress starring in all three films, Yao Honggui, is now also a university student herself. She moved to Changsha from her hometown in the rural part of Hunan. Therefore, firstly we tried to understand Honggui, her living environment, friends and lifestyle. We discussed our questions in a group so it was more like loosely exchanging ideas and experiences instead of a one-on-one interview situation when both sides feel a bit constrained by the formal arrangement. We were mostly interested in understanding Honggui and her female friends’ consumer habits, the amount of monthly spendings, if they are able to earn money during their studies, what sort of work they engage in. We also asked about the relationship with their parents and partners, but we focused mostly on their part-time jobs and economic situation. All the young women we met were based in Changsha, the city where we shot the film. Stonewalling When I was watching Stonewalling I was stunned how comprehensively and multidimensionally it grasped contemporary reality in China from the economic and social perspective. The struggles of the young generation of women. In the film you discuss social media and influencer culture. Did social media have an impact on your own filmmaking practice? How do you see the transition from digital cameras to smartphones in daily practice of recording reality? Ryûji Otsuka: We didn’t contemplate it so much. First of all, social media and the constant use of smartphones is already part of this generation’s lifestyle. In my opinion, no matter what sort of device you are using, in the end it is all about filming. The difference is between the attitude, dynamic or static, the amount of time you set aside to take the photo. Filming with smartphones is most dynamic, the device is easy to use. It is more of a motion, an instinctive and automatic gesture, like blinking of eyes, just a moment. However, taking such photos has its clear purpose which is to show it to others. If you want to make a photo public, you definitely want to show a better side of yourself or a more beautiful look. Many college students dress up for taking photos and videos. Everyone has the desire to express oneself, especially the young people. It has always been like this in modern societies regardless of generations. However, the emergence and popularisation of digital viewfinder and memory cards in cameras and smartphones brought a lot of changes. Now you see the look immediately in the viewfinder, but before you couldn’t control it so much. Therefore, to continue shooting you had to understand a little bit how to take pictures so that the reality represented looks good. Some people believe that cinematic language is characterised by relatively fixed shots. I think the contrast is not between interventional and guided style, but between the static and the dynamic. The speed of taking photos is different and inside it you can see shifting forms of distance and difference. The aspect of distancing is very interesting. When I saw the first scene in Stonewalling, I was confused about where this film is set because it looked so much like a scene from an American independent film: dinner in a garden decorated with strings of small white led lights; a group of young people speaking perfect English. It feels so surreal when the illusion is broken. It very much reflects the ability of cinema and social media to fabricate reality. Huang Ji: Yao Honggui herself influenced this scene a lot, setting the tone for the whole film. The opening scene is all about performativity, the young people from a language school speak perfect English without an accent, they prepare to go overseas to study so they want to prove to themselves and their peers they will fit in perfectly in the environment of English-speaking countries. The main character is a newbie in the language school and can speak only basic English. When she starts to speak Chinese, multiple illusions are broken. Not only of the probable location, but also of the class of people we see on the screen. The character played by Honggui, Lynn, is persuaded by her ambitious boyfriend to take the expensive English course in the school in hope the two of them can go abroad to study. The moment when she breaks the illusion and starts speaking Chinese she also defies high expectations towards the contemporary urban middle class womanhood – cosmopolitan and elegant – in China as well as in other parts of the world. We did not specifically consider our attitude towards the protagonist. We had the outline of the storyline, but we did not determine each scene already on the stage of scriptwriting. The portrayal depended on Honggui since her identity and character have many similarities with Lynn. We observed Honggui, watching how she reacts in different environments and spaces. So during the work on set you made a lot of changes to the original script? Huang Ji: Basically, everything changed except for the main storyline: her finding out she is pregnant, leaving school and her boyfriend, meeting him just before she is about to give birth to their baby. We shot the film during 10 months so the time of principal photography corresponds with the time within the film, seasons change and Honggui/Lynn also gets older. We lived together with Honggui in Changsha for ten months. We have been observing her real life and life of friends around her, we have put some of what happened in the story. We looked at Honggui’s reactions in different spaces and with different people. It was a little bit like cooking or chemistry, putting various elements together to create different tastes and feelings. The shooting of the film took 10 months, a little bit over the time of regular pregnancy. The film runs over 2 hours 30 minutes, but when I was watching I didn’t feel it’s especially long. What are your thoughts on experiencing time in cinema? Huang Ji: We decided from the beginning that we will be filming over 10 months because we wanted to see the different stages of Lynn undergoing physical and mental changes. This is the key concept around which we organised our work. Ryûji: The decision about the length and rhythm of the film belonged to the main actress, Honggui. We adjusted the pace to her, therefore the whole film is extended. It’s not the rhythm of storytelling, or the rhythm of seeing someone’s attitude or reaction, but the rhythm of one’s life. In the end, I have to say that we didn’t consider that the film must be under 90 minutes. From the first shot onwards, everything is edited according to the rhythm we started in, and in the end, we felt the film somewhat naturally becomes complete. Stonewalling Why does each of your full-feature films have a stone or egg or bird in the title? Is there any special meaning behind the three objects? Huang Ji: I prefer to use nouns in film titles because a noun is something that exists in this world physically. When people look at an object, each person projects their own feelings and associations onto it. For example, when we think of a stone, everyone may imagine a different stone and come up with various associations drawing from one’s own experience. An adjective defines the feeling and I don’t want to impose any attitude in the title of the film. In Egg and Stone the main character was a 14-year-old girl that was sexually assaulted by a man. There is no predetermined judgment in the title but an invitation to discuss the story together. Ryûji: The English title of the film was suggested by one of the students we met during the interviews we did as part of the fieldwork for the film. “Stonewalling” is a verb that indicates the refusal or inability to communicate with others. Communication in a literal sense is not a problem every time. It can be talking and chatting but doing it to achieve one’s own goals without the consideration for the other person. Direct translation of the Chinese title of Stonewalling is “stone gate” which is a noun, but it feels too hard and cold. The verb in present continuous – “walling” – made the title softer. It corresponds with Lynn’s state of mind and heart as she goes through changes. Huang Ji: In terms of “stone gate” is it like “egg and stone” – two nouns bound together. There is a sort of unity, but the specific feeling is different. Stonewalling is more connected to social processes, daily life in urban environments, the issue of class. What do you think about the Chinese and the English title? I think the Chinese title “stone gate” reminds of old stone defensive walls surrounding old cities in China. Stone gate also makes me think of the shape and feeling of heaviness of a smartphone when held in one’s hand. Whereas the Chinese title has more to do with the environment Lynn lives in, the English title “stonewalling” is more in tune with the main character’s state of mind. I was also wondering about the work with other actors starring in Stonewalling. Huang Ji, your real parents play the roles of Lynn’s parents. How was directing them on set? Huang Ji: Both my mother and my father experienced a lot of things when they were young. They have very rich life experience, tried different jobs, worked outside of the centralised system of assigned posts (gangwei 岗位). They used to be doctors in the hospital. Later, following the market reforms, they left their assigned post and started doing business (xiahai 下海). Their life experience is very rich, so basically I am not able to give them any special guidance. I instruct them about the characters’ actions and just let them act, commenting on and adjusting only the intensity of their performance. Since they have day jobs, I mainly discussed with them the shooting schedule. We could shoot only after their working hours, so sometimes they were tired. As long as they support what I am doing, everything goes well. This is very important. Have they already seen Stonewalling? Huang Ji: Not yet. After we finished shooting, the post-production was done outside of China. Then the pandemic started, so there was no way to show the film to them properly on the big screen. I originally wanted to take them to the film festival and let them enjoy themselves. However, because of the lockdown in China, they couldn’t go. I feel very sorry about it. I really wanted to take them to Venice to see the world premiere, or to Stonewalling North American premiere in New York. Showing them the film in a suitable setting is important for me. We are based in Japan and we hope the film could be released in China, but there is a small possibility of screening at domestic film festivals without the dragon seal. Well, it doesn’t matter to me right now since many film festivals in China have been postponed because of the pandemic. I would like to ask you two about the Chinese film industry, what is your opinion on the production of independent films. What is the environment like right now? Ryûji: Many young people don’t think about making independent films anymore. They want to make films that can be released in theatres in China. Young filmmakers want to express themselves. Some youth are very rich and they are willing to spend money to shoot movies. Then there are producers and investors who are also willing to provide funding for young filmmakers. So I think the film industry environment in China is much better than before. Now there is a gap between young filmmakers in their 20s and us who are in our 40s. Let’s just say that what they want to express is different, maybe they are not that interested in social issues. If they are interested, they would make a documentary instead of a fiction film. Huang Ji: I think in terms of production, the current conditions are indeed much better than when we started out, because the filming equipment available is cheaper and more convenient. I think the industry is to a certain extent more open than before and many young Chinese filmmakers decide to start their careers abroad. Looking back at your decade-spanning career together, how did your filmmaking practice change overtime? Ryûji: The biggest change in the past 10 years was us having a child. Our daughter influences our work and when we were developing Stonewalling she was already big enough to be beside us during production and post-production. The main question posed in the film is whether to have children. We also think about this issue from the perspective of our own child. I think our creative work bears a reflection of our own life in each following stage. This is a source of joy too. Huang Ji: It took three months to shoot Egg and Stone, half a year for The Foolish Bird, and ten months for Stonewalling. The time of production is getting longer and longer, meaning that after having a child it is possible that our patience and experience have increased. There are many more things that I want to talk about and now all these can be discussed with our daughter. I have more patience now and in the future because the production stage will become longer, the cinematic world we create will also expand to accommodate the reflection of changes happening in the world in real time. In those ten months between 2019 and 2020, the events we have come into contact with, all this will influence our filmmaking. Although we are making films, we basically have stopped watching those made by other people. Because we have to shoot our own film every day, and we need to follow what is happening around us on this earth. This seems to be more attractive to us than watching films. Observing the world around us is much more interesting. Ryûji: It’s the feeling that we have already merged filmmaking and our life almost perfectly. Working does not have to be a chore we are anxious about, it is a natural part of life. To make a film, we have to adjust our lives. We put a lot of effort and thought in our creative process. In the past few years there have been a lot of discussions about collective filmmaking and from what you are saying it seems that family can also turn into a film collective. Ryûji and Huang Ji: We hope there are more and more people turning filmmaking into part of their family life. Such a home production is a way to encourage the development of cinema. Making a film fully within the family – scriptwriting, directing, acting, cinematography, marketing – allows to turn it into an independent, self-sufficient small unit of film production. Huang Ji: Sometimes I see other film directors being alone, they rely on the help of others in the film crew. It takes so much time and effort to bring the group together and start filmmaking. I am very curious, what does your daughter think of filmmaking? Huang Ji & Ryûji: She is very interested, but because we are not her we can’t really answer in her place. She will give us suggestions on the use of music or on the filming location. For now, she wants to meet many stars through us, because we are taking her to film festivals. There she is very interested in observing and being around people, especially the ones with charisma and a certain out-of-ordinary style. In previous interviews you said that Stonewalling was inspired by the question she posed to Huang Ji: “Why did you give birth to me?”. Therefore, I guess she is already a filmmaker.