‘Only The River Flows’ Director Wei Shujun Talks 1990s Mandopop & Reviving Chinese Indie Cinema
Chinese director Wei Shujun has just premiered his third film, neo-noir thriller Only The River Flows, in Cannes Un Certain Regard to positive reviews.
While he’s now had three features selected for the festival, this is the first time he’s been able to walk the red carpet in person, at least with a full-length film.
His debut, semi-autobiographical drama Striding Into The Wind, was selected in 2020, the year that Cannes didn’t take place but still presented an Official Selection. His sophomore work, Ripples Of Life, premiered in Directors Fortnight in 2021, but he was unable to fly to Cannes due to Covid travel restrictions.
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However, he’s been to Cannes in person before, with his 2018 short film On the Border, which won a Special Jury Award. He says that watching the Dardenne Brothers’ Palme d’Or winner Rosetta in 2016 (a few decades after it was made in 1999) was an inspiration early in his career. “Cannes was like my library,” says Wei. “I devoured everything I could find and started thinking about how to make a film that could one day play at the festival.”
Only The River Flows, which premiered here on May 20, is based on a novella, Mistakes By The River, by Chinese writer Yu Hua, who also wrote the novel To Live, adapted by Zhang Yimou into a film that won the Cannes Jury Grand Prize and Best Actor (Ge You) in 1994.
Mistakes By The River was brought to Wei by producer Tang Xiaohui, who suggested he adapt it. The story follows a policeman working on a murder case that appears to be easy to solve, but leads to the discovery of the secret lives of his fellow citizens. After the policeman and his wife are told that their first child may have a birth defect, he starts to unravel as he drifts between dreams and reality.
Zhu Yilong, a big star in China due to his work in TV dramas and recent hit Lighting Up The Stars, plays the policeman, while his wife is played by Chloe Maayan, whose credits include Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which premiered at Cannes in 2018.
Yu Hua’s novella, which Wei adapted with his Ripples Of Life co-writer Kang Chunlei, is set in a small town in 1990s China, and Wei decided to keep the story in that decade, because there are elements in the investigation that would have been unrealistic in the context of modern-day forensic technology. However, as one of China’s so-called ‘Post-90s’ generation, born at the beginning of that decade, it wasn’t an era he was familiar with.
Wei explains that the ‘90s remains a time of huge significance to Chinese people – as it was a period of massive change and economic growth driven by the reforms brought in by Deng Xiaoping. “I had to do a lot of research to understand that decade – I consumed books, films, TV dramas, listened to music and went through photo albums,” Wei says.
One of the songs he listened to during his research – Flower Heart by Taiwanese singer Zhou Huajian – is used in the film. The ‘90s was also a period before the birth of mainland Chinese pop culture, so young mainlanders grew up listening to Mandopop from Taiwan.
“It seems to have been a time of great hope and positivity, and also pride in what China could achieve, as we started hosting major international events like the Asian Games,” says Wei.
It’s also a decade that is impossible to still find in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. “Fortunately, this story is set in a small town, and you can still find places that have those old-style buildings from the ’80s and ’90s,” says Wei. “We looked for locations in the south of China as we needed a large river and lots of rain.”
The production finally settled on a town called Nanfeng in Jiangxi province, where they found an abandoned cinema, untouched by China’s multiplex revolution. Wei decided to incorporate it as a key location into the script. “We didn’t have to build anything – just dress a few things inside.”
The abandoned cinema, and some dream sequences involving burning celluloid, almost serve as a metaphor for what has happened to Chinese cinema over the past three years. With theatres closed for months on end, and audiences repeatedly locked down at home as China battled the pandemic, the future of the country’s cinema, especially independent films, has looked precarious.
But Wei is testament to the fact that Chinese indie films were still being made during the pandemic, and after a gap of a few years, are returning to major international film festivals. Only The River Flows was backed by a group of private and state-owned local companies, including Lian Ray Pictures, which is handling distribution in China. MK2 Films is handling international distribution and Ad Vitam will release the film in France.
Getting films released in China, however, is a more complicated matter – not necessarily because of increased censorship, which the rest of the world has been watching closely, but because after lengthy periods of cinema closures, China still has a huge backlog of local films to release. It’s also a market that doesn’t have an established arthouse distribution circuit.
Wei’s debut Striding Into The Wind has already been released theatrically in China, but his second film, Ripples Of Life, is still waiting for a slot. Having a big star in Only The River Flows might help with box office, although the film will have to wait in line, as Zhu Yilong currently has three films in the can and waiting for release.
But Wei is hopeful that the market will eventually return to pre-pandemic levels of business: “We just need time – the young generation lost the habit of going to the cinema during the pandemic, but if we continue to make films that arouse their curiosity, they’ll start to come back.”
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