Korean-Chinese director Zhang Lu, a former writer and academic, ventured into the world of cinema in the early 2000s. His debut short, called 11 sui (Eleven, 2000), was selected for competition at the 58th Venice International Film Festival. This unexpected success inspired Zhang to become a full-time filmmaker, leading to the production of feature-length works such as Tangshi (Tang Poetry, 2003), Mangzhong (Grain in Ear, 2005), Chongqing (2008), and Douman jiang (Dooman River, 2010). 

Born in 1962 in China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Zhang has been lauded for his socially and ethnically conscious exploration of the lives of those living on the margins of the society. His particular focus is on Korean-Chinese – known as Chaoxianzu – an ethnic minority group that remains gravely underrepresented in contemporary Chinese cinema. Zhang’s realist camera makes visible the Chaoxianzu experience, whether it is following Korean-Chinese migrants drifting at the periphery of the city or capturing Korean communities living in the China-North Korea borderland. Travelling subjects and cross-border encounters feature prominently in Zhang’s films, enlarging our understanding of ethnic minority existence, which has been typically anchored in minority regions within the boundary of the nation-state. 

As an auteur whose work operates essentially transitionally with overseas funding and international distribution,1 Zhang was able to circumvent the Chinese government’s heavy censorship on ethnic minority topics to grapple with sensitive and underdiscussed issues. Chief among them are the cultural and emotional spaces of the Korean minority in China, the Sino-Korean borderland, and politics in Northeast Asia. 

In 2012, Zhang Lu relocated to Seoul to teach film production at Yonsei University, and began to base his filmmaking primarily in South Korea. He consequently turned his lens toward Korean society, as can be seen in Punggyeong (Scenery, 2013), Gyeongju (2014), Chun-mong (A Quiet Dream, 2016), and Gunsan: Geowileul nolaehada (Ode to the Goose, 2018). Despite the change of setting in his films, Zhang continued his long-term focus on the Chaoxianzu while extending his attention to other disenfranchised groups living in South Korean society, including immigrant laborers, the urban poor and unemployed, North Korean defectors, diasporic individuals, and so forth. 

Zhang’s 2021 feature, Manchang de gaobai (Yanagawa), was the first Chinese film he made in over a decade, and his first work to ever be officially released and publicly screened in China. His latest film, Baita zhiguang (The Shadowless Tower, 2023), another Chinese production, was selected for competition for the Golden Bear at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival.

This conversation is focused on Zhang’s works made before 2012, concerning his portrayal of China’s marginal groups, especially ethnic Koreans, the borderland, and transborder (dis)connections.

– Y.W.

Yanbian, your hometown, and the Chaoxianzu (the Korean minority in China) have been recurring subjects of your films. Would you talk about your hometown, your childhood, and your experiences while growing up? What impacts do you think these backgrounds and experiences have on your filmmaking?

I was born in Yanji, [capital of] the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture of Jilin province in China. My paternal grandparents and my mother migrated from the Korean Peninsula to Northeast China at the turn of the last century. I spoke Korean until I was five years old. Then, at the age of five, I relocated with my family to a remote Han village, where my mother had been sent down during the Cultural Revolution [1966-76]. The village was surrounded entirely by mountains and had no access to electricity. My family did not return to Yanji until I was in my third or fourth year of primary school. When I stayed in the village, I spent most of the time with my Han friends who spoke Chinese. Additionally, I studied in a Chinese school, so my Korean degraded, though I was later able to recover my native language quickly thanks to my good memory.  

My childhood memories mainly revolved around that space. In the countryside, the land was so vast that humans appeared little. This may have had an impact on my visual and auditory senses. Visually, if you grow up in an open space, your eyes will adapt to such a large space. The frames and scenes you create in a movie are what your eyes see – or, to put it differently, what your eyes identify and select. Similarly, the rural space impacted me auditorily. An open place is very quiet, but it is in such quiet places that many subtle sounds can be distinguished and heard, like feet stepping on snow and running water. I think this is how I may be able to hear a bit more details than children who grew up in the city.

Also, I grew up essentially at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution. At the time, we were close to nature, but barren in the intellectual realm. So, our generation’s humanistic foundation was poor. But interestingly, as I grew older, I realised that there was also a lot of waste and pollution in arts and humanities [laughs].

You studied Chinese literature at Yanbian University and taught there as a professor after graduation. You also wrote poems and literary works. How has your literary background influenced your filmmaking?

I have thought about this myself. If there is really any influence, I don’t think it is on the practical work or the story structure. The literary background provided very little support in those regards. What I took from literature is more of an emotional reserve. At its core, literature is about emotion, and so is film. However, when people discuss the similarities between literature and film, they usually focus on the dramatic aspects or the structure of the film rather than the emotion. In reality, when it comes to the creative process, film and literature are very different.

Your first cinematic creation, which is the short film Eleven, was highly successful, and was shortlisted for the Venice Film Festival. Many themes, images, and styles in this film reappeared in your subsequent works, such as the decline of the region, marginalised identity, aphasic characters, childhood trauma, the blurred boundary between dream and reality, static camera, long takes, scenery shots, and so on. Would you like to discuss the creation of this short film? Can we consider this film a more personalised work of yours?

When I shot this film, I had not received any training in filmmaking and had never seen an art film. At best, I had only seen revolutionary movies and some Hollywood movies. My film watching experience was very limited. When we were shooting, my assistant director often mentioned the Soviet-Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. I had no idea who they were. After completing the film, he gave me some hazy videotapes of their works. I was taken aback when I saw them. If I had known how they were making films, I would not have started filmmaking [laugh]. I was like a newborn calf. I made this short film this way precisely because my knowledge in filmmaking was almost nil. I shot the film purely based on my emotional reserve in space and characters. 

All creative works undoubtedly contain the creator’s projections. However, during the process of working on this film, I hardly consciously thought about this. It was not until after shooting was completed and during the editing and later processes that I realised that the film reflected some of my childhood ideas, or that some childhood scenarios that had been forgotten resurfaced in the film. In retrospect, the state of the child in Eleven seems to resemble that of my childhood. When I was a child, I had a stutter and did not grow out of it until my senior year of high school. Other children avoided me because of my speech problem. However, the lonelier a child is, the stronger their desire to join a group, and his/her emotions tend to be highly sensitive. A socially challenged child may sometimes behave strangely, like the child in Eleven who kicks the football into their own goal.

The relationship between the child and other boys in this film ultimately reflects the game between individuals and groups. Normally people want to join a group to gain strength from it. However, when one doesn’t make it into the group and instead confronts the entire group, many things would happen unexpectedly, hence breaking with the established practices and mores of the group. 


Is the protagonist in Eleven Korean-Chinese? Other children in the film speak Mandarin, but this child never utters a word, so I cannot distinguish clearly. Since you mentioned that you wanted to explore the relationship between individuals and groups, I was wondering if this child has an ethnic minority background.

No, he did not. I shot the film in a small, abandoned mine site in Mentougou in Western Beijing. All the child actors were Beijing children from a primary school in Mentougou. Now, I remember why this film was called Eleven. A total of eleven children, who were also at the age of eleven, were selected from the same class, and I began the shooting on November 11. Since I could not think of a title for the film, I ended up using Eleven. 

Well, eleven years old also marks the coming of age of a child. The early 2000s saw the rise of independent filmmaking centred on ethnic minorities, such as Pema Tseden’s films about Tibetan existence and Ning Cai’s Mongolian narratives. You seemed to be the first one in this cohort to have focused on Chaoxianzu, right? 

Han directors must have previously shot films about Korean cultures and customs, but I am not sure who else prior to me shot films on the Korean minority in contemporary Chinese independent cinema.

Those earlier films about Korean cultures largely fall into the category of “Minority Nationalities Films,” which tend to exoticize minority cultures and fall short of in-depth exploration of issues and problems confronting ethnic minorities.2 I initially thought the little boy in Eleven was Korean-Chinese. Thank you for clarifying that he does not have a special ethnic identity. That would suggest that Grain in Ear is your first film focusing on the Korean minority in China. This film is about a Korean-Chinese woman who comes to Beijing to sell kimchi. Why did you tell a story of a Korean-Chinese person who drifts outside?

After I left Yanbian, I typically couldn’t identify a fellow townsman until he or she said something to me. However, if a person didn’t say anything, how could I tell if that person was a Chaoxianzu from my home region? I recognized them immediately if they were peddling kimchi. At that time, kimchi peddlers from my home region could be found everywhere throughout China, even in remote villages. I might buy kimchi from them or talk to them sometimes, and my emotions would change. She looked like she could be my sister.

Also, those who sold kimchi from carts didn’t belong to the mainstream. They were very marginal in the society.

A drifting Chaoxianzu person I saw would always evoke memories of the space of my hometown. Chaoxianzu people are mostly from my home region of Yanbian or the larger northeastern area of China. I knew that these people were not like this in their original living environment. The change of life space subsequently changed their emotions. Of course, this is all in hindsight. I did not have time to think about this while making the film. In this sense, don’t believe what the director says [laughs].

Grain in Ear

The film also depicts the neighbours of the female protagonist – several migrant girls who engage in sex work – as well as the interactions between her and them.

Sex workers could be found all over China at the time. They were young and full of energy but, at the same time, they were very confused. Their circumstances compelled them to sell their bodies as the means to support themselves or their families. This was a common occurrence at the time. Those sex workers were beautifully dressed, but where they lived looked the opposite. They would almost always live alongside those on the margins, such as those who sold kimchi.

Humans are interesting. Their selection of space is based on and reflects their identities and feelings. If these marginal groups lived in a more central environment, they would feel uncomfortable and would not share common language with people surrounding them.

It looks harmonious when the young ladies live alongside the middle-aged kimchi-selling protagonist. The emotions flow between them. When these characters are in other spaces in the film, their emotions are frozen rather than flowing. They just absently trade their bodies or kimchi for money.

Yes, their shared feelings of marginality connect them. In a sense, they are in a mirroring relationship – their images mutually reflect each other, seeing me in you and seeing you in me. When it comes to the portrayal of their interactions with male characters, the camera often fixates on the lower part of the male body, demonstrating how the female protagonist and those young girls are similarly sexualized by their male counterparts. However, the protagonist has an additional Korean ethnic identity, which is especially emphasised in this film. For example, when she is questioned at the local police station, the policeman keeps asking her what her nationality is in a provocative manner. What does her Korean ethnic identity tell us?

More marginal. The young sex workers in the film are Han Chinese – the mainstream in China in terms of nationality – and they can be proud to say “I am Chinese.” In this light, they assume a mainstream perspective. No matter how difficult and poverty-stricken their life is, they can come to believe – in spite of all this – that they are part of the mainstream. Just like in Western countries, when people say, “I am white.” Ethnic minorities are minor in Chinese society. If a minority person commits a crime, his or her nationality is always underscored when being questioned. As a matter of fact, each Chinese citizen’s nationality is indicated on the identification card, which inscribes ethnic distinctions.  

The cinematography of Grain in Ear is overall static, but you employed somewhat shaky tracking shots following the protagonist at the end of the film. The protagonist has been living at the periphery of the town, on the outer side of the railway, but the last scene shows her walking through the railway station and entering a green field. The soundtrack accompanying this scene also sounds quite unusual, producing a lingering effect. 

This protagonist’s dwelling by the railway indicates her travelling experience from home to this place, and in the future from here to other places. She stays at the location that features departures and arrivals. This alludes to her status as a migrant. When I shot the film, I initially never arranged any scene to take place on the other side of the rail. Subconsciously, I simply did not want to shoot the scene there. It was not until we approached the film’s end that it occurred to me that she should go to the other side, no matter what lay over there. It turned out that there was a wheat field on the other side. In fact, we reworked the space a bit, having removed the other items in front of the wheat field and planted wheat seedlings instead. Whatever the woman’s fate would eventually be, I hoped that she could make it to a green place.   

The sound editing of the film was completed in Paris. While working on this, I had an idea, which was strongly opposed by the sound mixer. Typically, the farther the characters are away from us the smaller the sound of their footsteps. What I did was different. As the protagonist walks into the wheat field, the sound of her walking becomes gradually distant, but then the sound returns and gets louder and louder. This sound effect was contrary to common sense. My thinking was that she might leave us on screen, but she would – this was my hope – eventually come back to our hearts. Therefore, I insisted on doing the sound effect this way. To me, this is the charm of film: the power of the sound and visuals. When you watched the film in any standard theatre, you’d feel the sound coming out so strongly that it would cause your body to react to it. Literature falls short of that mark. 

Grain in Ear

Dooman River holds a special place in your oeuvre. You had always dreamed of making this film – even before your debut short, Eleven. It was also the first film you shot in your hometown, Yanbian. It portrays the everyday life of a Korean-Chinese community, as well as its encounters with North Korean defectors in a Sino-North Korea border village. Can you talk about how this film originated?

Yes, Dooman River was the first film I wished to make, when I knew nothing about filmmaking. In my hometown, events involving North Korean defectors occurred daily. This situation was extremely serious prior to the year 2000. The North Koreans’ escape from their country during that period was known as “the Arduous March.”3 Back then, I spent some time in Beijing and some other time in my hometown, which I returned to several times a year. You couldn’t help but feel sad when you kept hearing and seeing North Korean defectors’ deplorable experience every day. It jarred my nerves, particularly in terms of visual and aural senses. So I mentioned to people that I wanted to make a movie about it. But it was difficult to get funding for a full-length feature then, especially considering that I had no credentials in filmmaking. After Eleven, I made Tang Poetry and Grain in Ear and some companies and organisations began to show interest in becoming investors. I initially thought that the Arduous March phenomenon might have already gone away by then, but it turned out the situation continued, so I went ahead and shot the film.  

Location is central to your films. Many of your works are named after places, including Dooman River. Is “Dooman River” a term from Korean?

It is, in fact, Manchu language. Tumen River is the administrative name of the river. In my hometown, however, no one refers to it as the Tumen River. Instead, they call it Dooman River, which is a local transliteration of its name in Manchu. I could have used its administrative name, Tumen River, in this film, but it was not what people living there called the river in their everyday language. They called it “Dooman River” instead. So this choice had nothing to do with politics. But it was intended to authentically reflect people’s life in that space. In this sense, film has the power of curbing lies. 

This Sino-North Korean border river is where the film starts and ends. Many scenes and plots in the film also revolve around it. What’s the significance of the river? 

In fact, people live on both sides of rivers in all countries and locations. Those people share lots of similarities, but nuanced differences between them exist as well. For example, people on the south and north sides of the Yangtze River are physically close but their lifestyles and emotional flows diverge from each other. The same is true of the people living on the two sides of the Yellow River. What interests me as a filmmaker is to be sensitive to and capable of identifying those subtle differences in what looks identical. 

With rivers, what people ought to think of more is how they are connected by drinking from the same river. This way, people would live in greater harmony and their cultures would be enriched. The reality, unfortunately, is the opposite. What we witness is how people and states use rivers to separate, isolate, and block, to the point that delimitation has become their only function. All borders function in similar ways in today’s world. 

This phenomenon in the borderland surrounding the Dooman River is particularly salient. In the past, Koreans on both sides of the river used to be able to cross from one side to the other pretty casually. Nowadays, the connection has been virtually completely severed. But think about it: the Korean people in China are all immigrants from the other side of the river. The Korean peninsula is their native place or ancestral home. 

The diasporic experience is a characteristic of ethnic Koreans in China and marks one of the biggest differences between Korean-Chinese and other ethnic minority groups in China.

Right, there is a felt sense of difference for Korean Chinese. When ethnic minorities sit and talk together, Koreans are the least confident among them. Tibetan, Mongolian, and Manchu people are, on the contrary, filled with confidence and a sense of entitlement. They’ve lived in this land for generations upon generations, for hundreds of years. Mongolians and Manchus once even ruled over the land. Koreans, however, are essentially recent immigrants. Being allowed to live here has already been a big favour [laugh]. 

The Chaoxianzu is regarded as “a model minority” in China, and its people are also the most educated among the minorities.4

Yes, it has been seen as a nationality that sings and dances to delight others. Without reflective thinking, a high level of education can mean greater obedience. 

The unnamed border village represented in Dooman River looks very desolate and empty. Those who remain are only the elderly and children. A few scenes that take place in a neighbouring town show the townscape to be equally depressed. From the perspectives of economy and population flow, this film is very contemporary. It captures the situation of the rural area in Yanbian, Northeast China, at the beginning of the 2000s.

Not just that village, but every one in that region was depressed. It resulted from the changes in China’s economic development. The region was lifeless and couldn’t provide economic opportunities, so people flocked to places where the economy was thriving. Many went to South Korea for work. Domestically, some people travelled to Qingdao and Yantai, where there were many South Korean enterprises. Some others – those with a bit more education – went to Beijing. As a result, only seniors and children remained. In fact, the children in the village where I shot this film were even scarcer than what is shown on screen, and I had to find children from other villages to act in the film. 

A lot of changes have occurred. When I shot Grain in Ear, I was able to see those fellow Chaoxianzu from my hometown selling kimchi on the street. With South Korean kimchi companies mushrooming in China in recent years, these people simply disappeared. 

Dooman River

North Korea is an absent presence in the film. However, the audience can imagine the situation in North Korea from the perspective of North Korean border-crossers. For example, a scene in the film depicts a teenage boy who manages to escape to China but suddenly collapses on the way to China’s interior. The other children with him did not seem particularly surprised after finding out that he died, and they just walked past him and moved on. Starvation and death seem to be part of their everyday experience. 

If the situation in Yanbian at the time was depressed, then that in North Korea on the other side of the river was brutal. We often invoke ideology to understand people’s choices, but in reality, the belly dictates how one makes decisions. Regardless of ideology, when people starve, they flee. 

Actually, the pendulum swung back and forth. When China was hit by three years of “natural disasters” between 1959 and 1961, a hundred thousand people from Yanbian fled to North Korea. The North Korean government not only allowed them to enter, but also offered them jobs as North Korea was better off back then. With this history in mind, many people on the Chinese side of the river actually were indebted and willing to return the North Koreans’ favour.

The film depicts a lot of children’s games, the interactions and friendships among children, children’s emotional wellbeing, and so forth. Many scenes are also shot from children’s perspectives. Why do you focus on the lives of children? 

Each of us used to be a child, and we all went through childhood. I think how much innocence or simplicity a child has retained as they grow up can serve as an important index of social health. The ways in which children play in games derive not only from their own bodies, but also their imitation of the adult’s world. How much the adult ways of playing expand as they enter the society is an indication of a society’s unhealthy condition. This is why it’s usually the out-of-step, lunatic poet who sounds the alarm for a society. It’s because a poet has retained the most human innocence. 

Dooman River

Indeed, the state of children can best reflect that of the society. Lu Xun called upon us to “save the children” in his short story “Diary of a Madman,” which marked the beginning of modern Chinese literature. The child protagonist in Dooman River, Chang Ho, undergoes a process of growth and identity (trans)formation in this film. He appears in the first scene of the film, in which he imitates the death of North Korean escapees on the river, and this scene foreshadows his tragic ending. If Chang Ho is light-hearted and has a playful mentality at the beginning of the film, he becomes serious and even self-destructive when he suicidally jumps off the roof at the end of the film.

It’s worth noting when one goes from just playing to getting serious. In a game, one feels senses of identification and solemnity. When a game cannot end through playing, these senses may push one into desperation and even cruelty. 

In the case of Chang Ho, he bears the most burdens in his family. Of course, the grandfather carries a lot as well, but his burden is more connected to the past. Chang Ho, on the other hand, is most encumbered by the present situation of the family and is most responsible for its future. Let’s think about his circumstances. His father was swept away by the Dooman River and cannot possibly return, can he? His mother migrated to work in South Korea, a faraway and completely foreign space for him. His grandfather speaks about death with him and tells him where he wants to be buried. His one and only sister is not only mute but is also, as we know, raped by a North Korean defector. The last straw for him is the arrest of his North Korean friend – the friend he cherishes –  in front of his eyes. […] All possible emotional outlets for him are blocked, so he’s forced to take radical action. It is ultimately our society’s responsibility. Had Chang Ho been in a different situation and been provided with just one emotional outlet, he wouldn’t have jumped. He could have kept playing games and enjoying a happy childhood. 

Dooman River

Chang Ho’s grandfather and sister are both very compassionate and kind to North Korean defectors. To what extent do they help the defectors out of a sense of identification and sympathy with their ethnic kin? Or is their help mainly based on a more universal sense of humanism and humanity? Their kindness reminds us of your portrayal of a local man in Mongolia receiving the mother and son escapees from North Korea in your film Bianjie (Desert Dream, 2005). The Mongolian man obviously doesn’t share his ethnic origin with the pair, but is nevertheless willing to lend his help.

They do it mainly out of our common humanity, but the sentiments also vary. For the grandfather, he does have a sense of connection with the North Korean defectors, as he is originally from the other side of the border. Nevertheless, the primary focus is still people. For instance, in the film when a Han Chinese villager – whose sheep have likely been stolen by North Korean refugees – sees some children in the village violently beating people from across the river to punish their theft, he thwarts them by questioning whether sheep are of such great importance at all in comparison to humans. 

The film overall adopts a realistic style to capture everyday life in the village, but it is also interspersed with surreal elements, such as the telepathy between Chang Ho and his sister. There’s also the final bridge scene, which is derived from Chang Ho’s sister’s drawing. Why did you incorporate these surreal plots and images into the film?

My sense is that whether we speak of telepathy, dream, or surrealism, they are all part of reality. I do not separate them from reality. The world would become unbearable if our wishes, dreams, and fantasies were removed from our life. So, whatever I can think of and feel, I take it as reality.

Dooman River

There seem to have been a great deal of changes in your filmmaking in terms of both the subject and the style after you relocated to South Korea for a teaching position at Yonsei University in 2012. Your films made in South Korea appear to be less brutal and less heavy. What brought about these changes?

It has a lot to do with the changes in my life and my surroundings. When I taught in South Korea, people around me changed significantly. I interacted mostly with students, professors, and people in the film circle. With this shift, my perceptions of the space and its inhabitants also changed. Of course, my memories always resurfaced, and what existed in my body inevitably entered into my filmmaking. However, the subjects of my films began to diverge. I could still make films like Dooman River. However, such subjects had little to do with my actual life in South Korea over the past decade. 

This may be my prejudice. It is all but natural for scholars to keep pondering one subject. However, for a creator, what is most important is to be sensitive to the changes in his or her life. As long as I film in a certain space, I will be faithful to that space and the feelings of the people who inhabit it. This is my guiding principle in filmmaking.


  1. For an in-depth discussion of Zhang Lu as a translocal filmmaker, refer to Ran Ma, Independent Filmmaking across Borders in Contemporary Asia (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020), pp. 69-98.
  2. For discussions about “Minority Nationalities Films,” see Chris Berry, “Race (民族): Chinese Film and the Politics of Nationalism,” Cinema Journal 31, Issue 2 (1992): pp. 45-58; Paul Clark, “Ethnic Minorities in Chinese Films: Cinema and the Exotic,” East-West Film Journal, Issue 7 (1988): pp. 15–31; D.C. Gladney, “Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/Minority Identities,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 53, Issue 1 (1994): pp. 92-123; Yingjin Zhang, “From ‘Minority Film’ to ‘Minority Discourse’: Questions of Nationhood and Ethnicity in Chinese Cinema,” Cinema Journal, Volume 36, Issue 3 (1997): pp. 73-90.
  3. “Arduous March” refers to the large-scale famine and economic hardship that hit North Korea between 1994 and 1999.
  4. See Fang Gao, Becoming a Model Minority: Schooling Experiences of Ethnic Koreans in China (Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2010).

About The Author

Yanjie Wang is an Associate Professor of Asian and Asian American Studies & Coordinator for the Asian and Pacific Studies Program at Loyola Marymount University, USA.

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