An interview with Teng Wenji

by George Semsel

from Jump Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 110-116
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1989, 2006

Teng Wenji is among the most important of the current group of young middle-aged Chinese film directors. All but the first of his films have caused considerable controversy within Chinese film circles. AT THE BEACH, completed in 1984, though approved for release by the Film Bureau, was withheld for a period of time shortly after its completion. It was the first Chinese film to explore extensively the possibilities of space within and outside the frame. His next film, NEW STAR, starring Yin Tingru, is China's first film musical. Initially scheduled for release in January, 1986, it, like most of his other films, has been criticized by the leadership in China and was withheld from the public screens for a considerable period of time.

I interviewed Teng Wenji on February 19, 1985. Victor Ochoa and his brother, Adolfo, two young men from Venezuela who have spent most of their adult lives in China, translated. Yin Tingru, currently a graduate film student at Ohio University, who stars in several of Teng Wenji's films including NEW STAR, was also present.

TW: I attended the Beijing Film Academy in 1964. In 1966, the "cultural revolution" came to the Academy. In 1969, I went to work for the People's Liberation Army, and stayed there for four years. You might say I was in the Army for as long as World War I. In 1973, I was assigned to the Xi'an Film Studio.

GS: I understand that a number of promising directors now in their forties didn't get to make films during the ten chaotic years and are still awaiting their chance to direct. People tell me you are luckier than most of them because you got your chance earlier.

TW: I made my first film in 1979, working from a script I finished writing at the end of 1978. At the big studios, you can work for a long time before the older ones move on and you get a chance to direct. You know the truth is I expected to be assigned to the Beijing Film Studio, or some place, because in Xi'an I was only working as a "script girl," not doing much of anything, but one day the studio leadership asked me to show them something I had done. Since I didn't have anything right at hand, I wrote a script. When they saw it, these people at Xi'an liked it very much and asked me to direct it myself. That was THE SOUNDS OF LIFE (1979), my first feature.

The film is about a violinist who recalls, with great sadness, the memory of Zhou Enlai. In those days, if you wrote something like that, you could easily get permission to make it into a film. I thought it was good business as well as good politics. Practically speaking, it was just about the only sure way you could get a film done. You have to understand that in 1977, after the fall of the "Gang of Four," the atmosphere was strong for remembrances of the Prime Minister. All kinds of things were being done: plays, films, books, stories. There was even a Chinese opera. I had studied music in the past, so I approached the film from the musical side. I wanted to make a musical feature.

GS: Was it successful?

TW: As it turned out, it actually got a number of favorable reviews, and I was given a government award for it. I was only thirty-four then, and the award was one given to encourage young artists. The Communist Party in Shaanxi Province, where Xi'an Film Studio is located, gave a prize often thousand yuan [about $4,000]. But even though I was the writer and director of the film, I only got ninety yuan [about $36]. You see, the film actually got the award, and everyone in the studio where it was made got a share of the prize. Even the porter got a share, because he was considered a collaborator on the project.

GS: Nonetheless the success of THE SOUNDS OF LIFE did give you a start on your career, didn't it? Were you able to go right into another production?

TW: I held a series of good posts as the result of this early work. I served on the Committee for Culture and Art, and was also a representative of the Film Association. I wrote a number of articles, too, and started to become known around film circles a bit more. You know, it all happened quite fast for me, and I'm not exactly sure it was a good thing. I held the highest post in the Xi'an Film Association, which was a highly visible position. The attention was all quite pleasing, I have to admit, yet I think I might have been growing too quickly, and I really couldn't afford that. I was like a gas balloon, you know, starting to float up into the air, getting a swelled head. I started to walk differently, talk differently [he demonstrates]. In all honesty, I didn't like that first film.

GS: AWAKENING must have a greater meaning for you then…

TW: Yes, my second film, AWAKENING (1980), was an entirely different sort of thing. It's about a girl with a great deal of musical talent, although the film is not a musical. Chen Chong, the leading lady, who's studying in the United States now, was very famous at that time. This film concerned some of the social problems in China then, a study of the generation gap that we had here. Like every place else in the world, our young people wanted to get away from traditional customs and develop their own freedoms. I wanted to work with this problem in as subtle a fashion as possible because it was clear to me that the only way anyone could treat this kind of thing effectively would be through understatement. I prefer to work in an indirect way. I don't like to take a very direct approach. You know, the bulk of Chinese films lack any subtlety. Most directors make their statements in a very direct way, so you know too quickly what a film is going to be all about. I wanted to do something different, to probe more deeply into the problem.

GS: AWAKENING is quite different from your first film. What kind of response did it have?

TW: People of a low cultural level couldn't understand the film, but university students, political intellectuals, scholars, people who had been to school, liked it very much. At Fudan University in Shanghai, the students watching started shouting "Long Live AWAKENING." Of course, there was another bunch in the audience who shouted that the director should be lined up against the wall and shot. The Government didn't like it because they said people couldn't understand it. I guess the Government thought that if it couldn't understand it, then people couldn't understand it either. The leaders actually pretended that the film was incomprehensible.

But I must confess there were people in the Government, leaders in the Ministry of Culture, who protected me from the critics. These people were very clever. They agreed that the film was not understandable so that a close critical analysis would be avoided. They were afraid the real meaning of the film would be discovered, that the subject of the film might be considered too dangerous. I'm really grateful to these leaders for doing that. We do have some very wise men working for China. I discovered Yin Tingru while making this film. She had a minor role in it, playing the sister of the lead character, an artist.

GS: That minor role led you to cast Tingru in your next film, A CORNER IN THE CITY?

TW: Yes, I almost immediately turned to A CORNER IN THE CITY (1982), a film about a shipyard in Shanghai. Yin Tingru plays a woman who is named a model worker and, as a result, becomes terribly isolated from her fellow workers. For six months, we lived, ate and worked all around the slums in Shanghai, and in the suburbs, too, on one side of the city. This film caused a lot of controversy after it was released. But Chen Huangmei, one of the Vice-Ministers of Culture, who was in charge of film, thought it was one of the best films of 1982. Of course it didn't win any awards. In fact, the man who wrote the script was accused of plagiarism. It all turned out to be quite a fiasco.

The critics complained that model workers in Shanghai were not well presented, that they were not isolated at all. The truth, they claimed, is that the Party is very warm towards them, and the masses love them. "How dare you claim they're isolated?" they asked. "Shanghai is full of tall beautiful buildings. Why don't you go and film them instead of filming in the slums?" They were bothered, you know, by the big fire scene in the slums. Then they complained that Yin Tingru didn't look enough like a worker. Workers are supposed to be strong and tough. Model workers, especially, are supposed to be very tall and solid. Actually the critics helped her, because all the attention the film got made her quite well-known. Everyone started taking photographs of her and she ended up on magazine covers.

GS: Did it help you, too?

TW: I have to admit that I did all right, too. To console me, I was given an honorable mention at the Golden Rooster Awards, the awards given out by the China Film Academy, you know, the professionals. They gave me an honorable mention as the Best Young Director of the Year [1982]. They couldn't give me the full award because of the controversy. Besides, the cultural circles were talking about the film, and that was certainly important, and Film Annual centered on the film. So the criticism turned out to be helpful, and led to a lot of thinking about the film, and the subject, too, for that matter, and that certainly was a good thing.

GS: Obviously the criticism didn't stop you from working.

TW: On the contrary. I don't have time to rest. There's just too much I want to do, and besides, I'd never back away from the controversial. I do what I think is important. I don't have time to worry about whether or not a work will stir up a lot of trouble. I don't know any serious artist who does. My next film was SYMPHONY OF COOKING UTENSILS (1983), which many people find strange and amusing title, at least. It was based on a short novel, but I wrote the script. It was attacked by all the film magazines in China. There wasn't a single magazine or paper which didn't talk about it. The film is about a reformer who is always fails at love. I was accused of painting this reformist black, of putting him down. The critics said that reformists should be considered saints, or angels. But this guy, every time he has a love affair, falls flat on his face. Yin Tingru plays the female lead. The two stars fall in love, but they never "make it" together. After that, I started working on a film about Hou Baolin, a famous storyteller, a man who did crosstalks and monologues, but I didn't finish that script. Instead, I made AT THE BEACH. The scriptwriter, Qin Peichun, the man who was accused of plagiarizing A CORNER IN THE CITY had been criticized to the point where he couldn't hold his head up. He was feeling very down, really dragging, and had become very pessimistic. I wanted to help him, so I rescued him with this film. Both of his scripts are originals, not based on stories.

GS: Is it hard to find original scripts in China?

TW: Not at all. There are two sources of film materials: scripts based on literary works, and those written from scratch. I've only done one film based on a novel; the others are all from original scripts. In this particular film, I was a friend of the writer, and wanted to give him moral support.

GS: A number of people I've talked with here tell me that China considers film a literary art, that it is not an original art form. I've met people in the business who say it's not an art at all, but a form of propaganda.

TW: I'm sure you've found a bit of that, but that's really old-fashioned thinking. You have to understand that a lot of the critics, and directors, too, came into film from literary circles. They're the ones who think that film is only a mirror of literature or, at best, a creation of literature. They're wrong.

GS: Clearly the best films I've seen in China, at least the newer ones, are very strong cinematically. ON THE HUNTING GROUND, GIRL IN RED, YELLOW LAND, YAMAHA FISH STALL, and your own new film are all visually very interesting, and are loaded with fresh energy.

TW: It is true, though, that not a great deal of effort has gone into visuals or sound, either, over the years. A few filmmakers pay some attention to beautiful scenic shots, but emphasis has generally been on the qualities of the story. The story has always been thought of as the most important thing in China, in all of the arts, not just in film.

GS: Which is why, I suppose, that at the discussion of AT THE BEACH the Film Bureau held at the Minorities Palace, many speakers didn't seem to have an especially strong vocabulary for criticizing the visual aspects of film. I remember being quite surprised at the time because I found that the cinematography in the film was a central issue. The camera work is outstanding, and contributes a great deal to the meaning.

TW: You had a solid glimpse into the current state of cinema in China. Each step for the critics and those dealing with film is very difficult to take. They simply don't care about the things they should care about. They don't consider what they should consider. They don't consider the visuals. They don't consider the sound. Their thinking is terribly old-fashioned. In the end, they simply pass off film as propaganda. They don't understand just how wonderful a medium it is. A lot of people, including the leaders in film circles, say they don't understand AT THE BEACH. They say they don't understand what I'm teaching, what the message is. They don't see the propaganda. They don't get it. I'm not straightforward enough to suit them.

GS: That surprises me because I found it clear enough despite my meager grasp of Chinese, though the film certainly warrants careful analysis. I was taken by how the characters in the factory of the new town are often filmed through pipes, as though caught in cages, maybe even cages they built themselves. I thought this visual concept was echoed clearly in the fishermen's nets, especially when the lead fisherman spreads his net dawn the street of the town.

TW: You're very observant, but you may be looking at films in ways the Chinese critics do not. There's no doubt that people here didn't get that message. Some of them said they thought it was about a wedding between close relatives, about how incest might lead to having a retarded child. Yes, some people told me that they thought that was all I was getting at. They didn't make the metaphoric connection between incest and other things in society.

GS: Incest is the central image, but the richness of the film goes beyond that. I liked the use of the beach itself, the images derived from it. I was struck by the strength of the cinematography, by how the beauty of the beach is countered by the crude lives of the fishermen who won't surrender their primitive methods because that's all they, or their forefathers, have ever done. I also saw an implicit warning that industry in the new town could cause the destruction of the environment even though, in this instance, fish come. The sound track is wonderful, something I haven't found in many other Chinese films. In fact, I've been disappointed with the music in most Chinese films.

TW: I consider visuals a form akin to music. Before we did any shooting, I did a series of paintings for every shot in the film, a very carefully prepared storyboard, and the cinematographer tried to create each painting as accurately as possible. Color in the film is also based upon musical rhythms. I wanted to do with color what was done so very well with sound. That's why I did the main frames myself. In the shooting, of course, it wasn't always possible to duplicate what I painted, but generally speaking, things were the same. I've done two films this way, and it's led me to be more precise in the shooting. I feel it gives me beforehand some guarantee of what I'll end up with in the can.

The film I'm working on now, China's first musical, will be done the same way. I'll shoot some things on the spur of the moment, if it seems wise to do so, but everything's a response to what I've already established. This means that I must have a close relationship with my cinematographer in the pre-production phases. In most cases, even if I shoot as the situation demands, I expect the result to conform to my plan. The few deviations add flavor to the work.

GS: Do you approach the music in the same way?

TW: I treat music in exactly the same way I do the visuals. Tan Dun gave me an exceptionally wonderful score for AT THE BEACH. He used electronic sounds in place of all natural sounds. It does things to the film. It gives a stronger dimension to it. You know the Chinese don't often work closely with the musicians in films, and that creates problems. I feel I have to work closely with the musicians. I studied conducting for a while at the Music Academy, and that helped me understand the rhythms of film a great deal. Not enough directors are acquainted with music, but they should be. I was fortunate, I guess.

GS: Have you had any responses to AT THE BEACH? I know it hasn't had general release yet, but it has been shown at a number of universities, and the Film Bureau held a lengthy discussion of it at the Minorities Palace. I was asked to sit in on that.

TW: The Film Association has already published some notes, and a number of magazines have taken up the controversy. The main comments are probably what you heard at the Film Bureau discussion. Officially they called it immature because they expected me to provide some kind of final answers or conclusions. They found instead that I only gave them ambiguity. Ambiguity is not a virtue in the Chinese arts, traditionally. It's not really what they expected. They don't want people to draw their own conclusions. The Chinese audience is trained not to think, but to accept a given end. As you said, the film has not yet been shown to the masses.

GS: A film like AT THE BEACH would find an interested audience in the U.S. Would China ever send a film abroad without releasing it first to the domestic audience?

TW: Only one film, MY MEMORIES OF OLD BEIJING, was every released outside before it was released in China, and that was only to make sure it reached the Manila Film Festival on time. It's unusual for such a thing to take place, but maybe now, under the new policies, there will be other things like it. All films, you must understand, belong to the Government. They represent the State. They represent the Party. It's all under the direction of the Central Committee of the Party, the propaganda division. Its task is divided into different administrations. Film, for example, falls to the Ministry of Culture, yet it is also under the Communist Party.

GS: I understand that you're working now as the first independent filmmaker in China. I find that very interesting. Can you tell me about that? Is it part of the reforms now going on in the People's Republic?

TW: While it's true that I'm the first filmmaker in China who's able to work outside the studio system, I'm not the only one. It's different than in the West, though, and there's still a close relationship with the studio. I'm independent as a creator, but my freedom isn't total. Investment and distribution still depend on the studio system here. It's become possible for me to use several studios for a single film. I can present a script to a number of studios instead of one to which I've been assigned. Maybe I'll need to shoot at the Pearl River Studio in Guangzhou, but do my sound recording at Beijing, where audio facilities are better. Funding can come to me from any interested company, and then I'll pay the studios for whatever services I require. If the Friendship Hotel wants to put up production money, fine, I'd welcome it. But I don't have power to distribute, and the Film Bureau still must approve the film for release.

GS: How is distribution arranged, then?

TW: As of now, maybe fifteen or sixteen studios have been given permission to distribute. What I must look for are the people who can give approval. You see, it's up to the studios to get the approval. Once they have it, a film can go into distribution. There are some special situations, but still, I can't distribute myself.

GS: Is this new arrangement the way you are making your musical?

TW: NEW STAR has outside backing, but I'd call it a special case. The boss of the producing company is the widow of a famous artist. She became known first as an actress, then later, as a writer. Now she's a businesswoman. She's got good backing, if you know what I mean. She doesn't censor the script, either, so I have an advantage over the usual routine. I have some flexibility, and it's really no more complex a system than the previous way of working. The film, though, has to have commercial value. In a set-up like this, that's very important.

The second film I'm planning this year [1985] will be made with the Co-production Company, and it, too, is outside the normal situation. They operate with special permission. Until recently, all foreigners had to go through them, but even that's changing under reform. The company's no longer so meaningful. In the past, it was responsible for all co-production. Now things are different, and foreigners are able to make their own films.

GS: What are the real advantages to the way you're now working?

TW: Freedom and profit. There's no loss to share (don't tell your unit about this, now. This is a very special case in China.) Both companies I mentioned are out of the norm for Chinese film. If I went back to the Van Studio, the situation wouldn't be like this. The investing companies want to succeed very badly. They work with me because I have a certain amount of fame, a good reputation, and access to excellent and famous people. The way things have been set up, I get no share of profits the first year. In the second year, fifty percent will be my condition, and I'll not have to accept losses should there be any. I'll get my pay regardless.

GS: It's obvious that you're breaking new ground in the Chinese film industry. I suspect you are not alone. Do you find new energies going into film these days?

TW: Of course. It's an exciting medium, and always has been. You know, because you're with the Film Corporation, you've seen a lot of the "official" films. But there's always been a group of "underground" people who have been working, too, trying to do things that are different from what's officially accepted. You've got to meet these people who are working really very hard. The best people aren't necessarily at the big studios, you know. I'll tell you this, in Shanghai, I'd be treated like a first-grader wanting to get old and be recognized.

But in the small studios, things can happen. They don't have all these old "stars," these authorities, so young directors get a chance to work. It's healthy. You have to realize that the leaders of the smaller studios don't understand the ABC's of film. They're ignorant about filmmaking. When young people are sent to work for them, these leaders are willing to listen to them. The tendency is to accept the young. The little studios give fewer limitations. In the jungle where there are no tigers, the monkey becomes king.

GS: Do you put much of your own life into your films?

TW: Remember the drinking sequence in AT THE BEACH? I knew an old man, a peasant, who was quite calm. He seldom spoke, but he always expressed his thinking in a tune. The tune he used sounded like a kind of Chinese violin. Things like this, when they happen in real life, are hard to forget. I knew that if I ever had the chance, I'd use his tune in a film. So: THE STORY OF LONGLIGGER. Generally, at the beginning of very month, this old man, who never said anything, would receive a letter from home. After he got this letter, he would go to his own place and close the door. We'd all go look in his window to see what would happen. The old man would read the letter, and if the news was good, which meant that his family had received the money he sent, he'd be very happy. He'd sing a simple song: [singing] "Longligger, longligger, longligger long…" If, in another month, the old man received the letter from his home and the news in it was not very good, his family hadn't received the money, and things were going badly, the old man would sing the same tune, but with a different meaning: [singing] "Aiyoyo, Aiyoyo, Aiyoyo, Aiyoyo…" We all started to joke about this among ourselves. We'd imitate him when we went out thinking.

GS: Are there many moments like this in your films?

TW: Yes, I do this often. My life experiences have been very rich. I've got a lot of stories to tell. Besides, I find many things funny. In each film, I add something from my own life.

GS: You write the script first, then add your own life experiences to it?

TW: The films I make are sometimes written by me, and sometimes by others. Even in those written by others, I add a few things from my own life.

GS: All your films have faced criticism. Why?

TW: Each film has been criticized except the first one, which was about the 1976 Tienam'en incident, when the flowers were removed from the memorial after Zhou Enlai's birthday. At that time, my thinking was in close alignment with the people's ideas. At the beginning of my film life, which began right after the fall of the Gang of Four, I wasn't criticized. The second film, AWAKENING, expressed the truth that after the Gang of Four, young people, and the government, too, thought in the same way. Several years later, however, though young people were still thinking progressively, the government stopped them. In AWAKENING, I wanted to say that we'd been living one way for thirty years, and that now, maybe it was time to try something new. But the government stopped it, saying that wasn't allowed.

In the film, meaning was expressed indirectly. The university students welcomed it, but the younger students and ordinary workers couldn't grasp it. Later the government wrote a number of articles criticizing it. The little sister in the film, played by Yin Tingru, had this line: "Art is the movement to break the chains." That one sentence caused a lot of trouble. The two generations in the film had a great gap between them. The father liked to eat conch, but the son didn't. So when the father asked him to eat a bowl for him, the son said, "No, I don't like it." Understand? A CORNER IN THE CITY, my next film, was criticized because a model worker was shown as isolated from her fellows.

GS: When the government criticizes a film, does that mean it restricts it? Is the film suppressed?

TW: The Government can ban a film if it thinks it necessary. I walk a thin line and try to keep my balance. Someone's been supporting me, I guess. I haven't fallen yet.

GS: But AT THE BEACH hasn't been screened for the public yet.

TW: The Film Bureau gave permission to release it, but recently, it was criticized. They even issued a book about it, and in that book is an article you wrote. The publication was based on the discussion held by the Film Bureau.

GS: I was struck by that discussion because it centered on the content and ignored all other values. I didn't understand why this was being done.

TW: Things like that often happen in China.

YIN TINGRU: They don't care about form. They always talk about content and meaning.

GS: But meaning in a film like AT THE BEACH lies in the form, in the cinematography, in the structure. I can't separate them. The same story told another way wouldn't be this film.

TW: In China, if you want to issue a film, a book, an article, and they want to determine how good it is, they'll spend ninety percent on the content. They don't care about form.

GS: They should.

TW: We do have a few respected writers here who have a deeper understanding of the issues of film. If one of them wrote nine articles about content, and one about form, we'd leave the nine and read the one. Some of these writers have attacked me, saying that behind the forms in my films is a criticism of the socialist system. In writing about A CORNER IN THE CITY, for example, in which the colors are predominantly white, black and blue, one of them argued that these three colors were an implicit criticism of the socialist system. In AT THE BEACH, when I first went on the location, I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the sea. I took shots of old men walking along the beach to show them thinking of the glorious past and the wonderful things which are yet to come. But then somebody said, "An irony! A criticism of the new technology!" The critics said the old fishermen probably feel lonely because they have nothing to do.

GS: I'm never surprised when I hear people outside of film criticize like that, but I'm unaccustomed to hearing it come from within film circles.

TW: People are used to such criticisms here. If no such criticism came forth, I'd feel uncomfortable. I don't care about that kind of criticism. If I did, I'd dare not shoot any film.

GS: Will AT THE BEACH ever be released?

TW: Yes. The policy in China is changeable, like the four seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. Sometimes you feel very hot, and sometimes you feel very cold. I'm used to such changes.

GS: How's the weather today?

TW: Now it's the end of Winter. Now Spring will come. I can read it in the newspapers. Things are getting better. At the beginning of Spring this year, I thought we were in for more snow, but now, I feel the real Spring is coming. I'm optimistic. In one year, the seasons come twice. I don't care what people from the Film Association say about my films. When we were in Winter, we all felt very cold, and dared not say or do anything. When Spring comes, we'll be very happy, and very active. I do what I must do: make films. The Party Secretary criticized AWAKENING and A CORNER IN THE CITY as "poisoned grass," but I'm still working. I don't care about that. I'm used to the seasons. When Summer comes, I take off my shoes. When Winter comes, I wear clothes. In the Summer I'll wear a pretty shirt. In Winter, I'll wear a leather coat. Right now, I'm wearing a light jacket. Things are loose, open. The film I'm working on now, NEW STAR, will be the first disco musical ever made in China.

(Note: Early in 1986, the Chinese government withheld AT THE BEACH and NEW STAR, but later releaed both films.)