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An Interview with Liao Jiekai

Jimbocho, Tokyo, August 24, 2021
Chris Fujiwara

Liao Jiekai

CF: Let’s talk about the two short films that will be showing at the Japanese Film Festival in Singapore. Both these films were made in 2019. Which was made first?

JL: The film program at Geidai [Tokyo University of the Arts] is seasonal. They have a summer film, a winter film, then in your last year you work on your graduation film. “Watermelon Baby” was the summer film. The context of their production was very different. For the summer films, they have the scriptwriting students each write a screenplay for a 15-minute film. The directors will then fight among ourselves about who will get which script. For the winter film, the director gets to propose a concept, and then the scriptwriting students will choose which director’s script they want to write.

(Watermelon Baby, 2020)

Once you had the script for “Watermelon Baby”, could you make changes to it?

I could, but I had to work with the writer, IINUMA Hiroko, to do it. Honestly, I didn’t think I was very successful in translating her concept for “Watermelon Baby”. In the original screenplay, the girl who was supposed to be pregnant with the watermelon was running in the park and fell, and the watermelon rolled out of her body. That was, for the writer, a cathartic moment for the protagonist. I was having a hard time figuring out how to shoot it, and I chose a more abstract way. I actually shot a POV of the watermelon rolling, but it didn’t work when we were editing. Because the most important moment, the climax of the film, didn’t work, I had to restructure the film. The writer tried to help, but she wasn’t very happy with these changes that in the end I made to the film.


(Watermelon Baby, 2020)

The film is quite different in a number of ways from your other work, and yet there are similarities as well.

I had just come to Japan. I decided to quit my teaching job in Singapore and come to Japan because I felt that when I was teaching, I didn’t really have time to make films, and I wanted to focus on doing that. Geidai had a program that allowed me to keep making films. I wanted to experiment with something I’m not familiar with, which is the reason why I chose this script – because it’s very not me. As you said, my other films are very different. Originally, the other directing students were expecting me to pick one of the other screenplays, and when I said I wanted this one, they were all shocked.

It was my first time directing a Japanese screenplay. Trying to access it, there was some kind of cultural barrier. I think there were still some nuances in the text that I did not fully get, even when I was making it. So there was a distance in spite of the similarities.

(Watermelon Baby, 2020)

Girl with a Parasol” was the winter project. How did you work with the writer, Mayu Konishi, on that?

Actually, I had that concept for many years. It was inspired by “The Unknown Masterpiece” by Balzac. Many years before I came to Japan, I wanted to adapt that story to a Southeast Asian context, but it didn’t happen. So when I had to pitch a project for the winter film, I thought, why don’t I do this? I proposed to do it in the Taisho era, so that we have this blend of Western and Japanese elements. I gave the writer some ideas from my interests, and she created the first version of the story, without me stepping in.

(Girl with a Parasol, 2020)

When I was making it, I watched Jacques Rivette’s “La Belle Noiseuse”, which is a version of “The Unknown Masterpiece”. I really like that film, although I wasn’t really referencing it. And also another book, “A Giacometti Portrait”, by James Lord. Giacometti got his good English friend to model for him; it was supposed to be a one- or two-day thing, but it became months, because Giacometti was always dissatisfied and could not finish the drawing. The book was written by Giacometti’s model, and it’s almost a diary about their relationship, how he forced Giacometti to finish the drawing in the end. The model could identify the highs and lows of the artist’s process. He knew when the artist was satisfied, but he knew that the next moment he’s going to tear it all down again. So he picked that one moment to ask Giacometti for a break. And then when he returned he said, “Don’t you think that it’s done?” And then it was finished. I was trying to do something similar with the film, but it didn’t quite materialize.


(Girl with a Parasol, 2020)

We shot the film in Zushi, in an old house that we rented for a week. I found out that to frame a tatami room properly, you have to be outside the room. It’s very different from shooting in Singapore, where the camera is always in the same room with the actor. If Ozu were shooting in a real house, the way he frames, the camera would have to be outside the room. Then I understood why he shot on sets. Because you can’t always be outside the door when you are using a real house, because sometimes the environment doesn’t allow for that. But when you build a tatami set, you can take down any wall to put a camera there. That made complete sense to me when I started filming tatami rooms.


(Girl with a Parasol, 2020)

For both the summer and winter films, the school sets very specific limits. The summer film cannot exceed 15 minutes, not even one second over. They were very strict about it. And the winter film cannot exceed 30 minutes. But I think “Girl with a Parasol” should have been a much longer film, because we had a lot of trouble getting everything into that time frame. The first cut was almost an hour.

 

How closely did you work with your teachers, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Nobuhiro Suwa?

Kurosawa-san, we would maybe see him a few times a year only, because he had many projects going. We worked more closely with Suwa-san at every stage of the projects. But Geidai is quite hands-off in the sense that maybe we’d meet with Suwa-san once a week or once every two weeks and we’d talk about the status of our projects, but they don’t usually interfere. Sometimes when we were editing, he would ask us to screen our films and give each other feedback. But aside from that, we pretty much took charge of the projects. It was more independent in a sense.

After I made “Light of a Burning Moth”, Kurosawa-san asked me a question during the critique. He said, “Can you make films about ordinary people?” He said I’m always making films about these artist types, like a painter, a dancer.

 

There’s an explicit element of nostalgia, or of relation to the past, in your films. What are your thoughts about the word “nostalgia”? For a lot of people the word means something sentimental, but other people think nostalgia can be used to criticise the present.

That word is particularly sensitive to me. It really started after I made “Red Dragonflies”, because many people described this nostalgic quality of the film. I think Singapore cinema in the nineties and the early millennium, for example Royston Tan’s short films, people tend to use the word nostalgia to describe them, because Singapore is changing so quickly that even every decade the landscape is completely transformed, so there’s always this longing for the past. Royston had this series called “Old Places” that was so popular among Singapore audiences; he went out to film places like old coffeeshops. It was really a hit, the DVDs were selling out. Singaporeans have this attachment to the past because our environment is always changing. I didn’t want to be sentimental about the change, but to use a more critical lens, to examine why we are looking back.

 

How does this theme relate to the Japanese context? The films you’ve made in Japan tend to be set in rural, remote areas, or in a traditional house; even if it’s in a city, we don’t get a city atmosphere, it’s more of a small, local atmosphere. Is this a deliberate choice that relates to things that you’re interested in about Japan?

Maybe it was an unconscious decision. Besides the word “nostalgia”, I’m also very sensitive to the word “beautiful”, because people tend to say, “Oh, your film is really beautiful.” Before I made films, I was a visual artist; I paint, so aesthetics was always a big concern for me. When I scout for locations, it’s not that I look for pretty places, but, even just in thinking about where to put the camera, I’m somehow quite particular about the aesthetic. I just veer toward something that satisfies my aesthetic approach. I’m actually very consciously trying to break out from that. Like when discussing with my Director of Photography, in the last few shoots, I said we should try not to make it too beautiful. I’m trying to make the image more ordinary.

Before I came to Japan, among the films that I really liked from Japan were Naomi Kawase’s early films, which are set in rural Nara, and “Maborosi”, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first film, which was set in a small town. I think I’m attracted to these places, which is why when I made “Light of a Burning Moth”, I went scouting for locations in places like Chiba, Ibaraki, Miura.

 

Are you conscious of how your relationship to Japan has changed while you’ve been living here?
It’s certainly changing, although I still very much feel like a foreigner, for sure. Especially when I look at some of the films that my peers make. They’ll be set in very ordinary streets in Yokohama, or a conbini, and I think all these elements have a lot of meaning for them, but they just seem very ordinary to me. I look at their films, and I feel that they understand this place, how it works, who comes here, who are the people who will be here at this time of day. These are things I never truly connect with.

 

Do you intend to continue making films in Japan?
Yes, definitely. But I certainly will continue also making films in Singapore. I like to see myself as being based in both. I met a Japanese producer, who actually worked on my film as a driver, and we started this company together. When she saw my films, she said that if she was going to produce for me, she would have a lot to say about the script. After seeing “Light of a Burning Moth”, she said, “I want to produce for you, because I feel that there were a lot of missed opportunities.” She felt very strongly about it. She’s coming aboard a documentary I’m making about the writer Yeng Pway Ngon, who was one of the most important figures in the Chinese literary scene in Singapore. Although it’s a Singapore film, I think she can look at it with a fresh pair of eyes.

Come chat with Liao Jiekai on 23 Oct. RSVP here: Conversation with Liao Jiekai


About Chris Fujiwara

Chris FUJIWARA has written and edited several books on cinema, including “Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall”, “The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger”, and “Jerry Lewis”. He was the editor of “Undercurrent”, the film-criticism magazine of International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) and a film critic for the Boston Phoenix, and he has contributed to numerous magazines, journals, and newspapers. He has lectured on film history and film aesthetics at various universities. Formerly artistic director of Edinburgh International Film Festival, he has also developed and advised on film programmes for other institutions and has organized and served as a mentor for many workshops on film criticism and film programming.

 

 

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