Interview: Diao Yinan

"Style is the best weapon against mediocrity and decay"

After winning the Golden Bear at Berlin for Black Coal, Thin Ice in 2014, Diao Yinan shifts from northeastern to southern China for The Wild Goose Lake, which received its world premiere at Cannes. Its spectacularly realized story of an ostracized gangster and a woman on the run draws on actual events (such as the “congress of the thieves,” a summit of criminals that took place in Wuhan in 2012) and will screen in the 57th New York Film Festival.

After the film’s screening at Cannes, Film Comment’s Wang Muyan sat down with Yinan to discuss the meaning and appeal of crime stories, the director’s early exposure to cinema, the theme of illusory love in his films, and much more.

The following is an extended version of what appears in our September-October 2019 issue.

You started in the industry as a scriptwriter, and became a director in 2003 with Uniform.

Yes. As a matter of fact, I made Uniform at that time because I had met the group [of filmmakers including] Jia Zhangke, Yu Lik-wai, and others. Every day we would drink, talk, and eat late-night meals, all the while talking about film. We influenced each other.  

The Wild Goose Lake follows the same creative path as Black Coal, Thin Ice (focused on a disillusioned detective who drifts into the margins of life), where your personal style evolved within the framework of film noir. There is usually a gap of about four to five years between your films. How would you describe the transition from Black Coal, Thin Ice to The Wild Goose Lake?

The idea for the story of The Wild Goose Lake came before Black Coal, Thin Ice. But I did not feel it was fully developed, and so we made Black Coal, Thin Ice first. After we made Black Coal, Thin Ice, the story I had imagined actually happened in reality. I read about it in the news media and I thought maybe there is something to it. I rearranged the plotline, made it more open, and then I started writing the script. That was about six months after Black Coal, Thin Ice. I tried working on the script several times. Sometimes I was not satisfied with what I had written. So the process seemed long. The film had to be shot in the summer. Adjusting to the availability of the actors was another factor. Different factors contributed to the seemingly long interval between those two films. Of course, my own working rhythm is slow. I focus on the script, on the coherence of the story. I don’t just want to portray society in a sentimental prose style or as slices of life. 

Black Coal, Thin Ice gave me confidence in the genre film. Genre films can be made well, can be made seriously. Another way of saying it is that genre films can also express an attitude towards society, towards reality. This is the short answer. I want to keep on making good, meaningful films, genre films that are interesting, but with their own style.

So The Wild Goose Lake was conceived before Black Coal, Thin Ice. The distinct transition from your first two films to these latter two films is quite striking, even shocking. This reminds me of your decision to make your own films instead of writing scripts for other people. 

After Night Train, I had wanted to make detective films. Various literary forms have influenced me; detective fiction, hard-boiled fiction, like European or North American literature of the 1940s and ’50s. I believe it is not enough for my films to be knowledgeable, they have to be intelligent. I had written these kinds of scripts before, but it was hard to get financial backing. Maybe they were too literary, too artsy. Even your average reader could find Raymond Chandler’s novels a challenge to read. You can get lost in them. My earlier scripts were written with that same feel to them. But it was very difficult to find the market for them. I didn’t want to give up on them because I love detective stories. So with the cumulative experience of my reading and watching, I naturally turned to the film noir genre. It is also expressive of an ideal. However, contemporary Chinese directors like myself may be more inclined to use it as a vehicle for personal opinions on humanity, on society, especially on some of the events happening in current Chinese society. 

From writing scripts for others to writing scripts for yourself, did the creative process of script writing change for you, even if only technically?

There was no change fundamentally. My approach to writing did not change either. 

I wondered, if your early years growing up had any influence on your creative process? For example, your father was the editor-in-chief of an arts and literary magazine in Xi’an, and your mother was a stage performer.

My mother acted in the theater. When I was young, I used to go and sit in the rehearsals. Of course, there was propaganda theater, the sanctioned theater, but occasionally there would be Chekhov. I seem to remember they put on a Shakespeare play once. An appreciation for the stage has stayed with me since I was a child: the relationships in the theater company; the creative process which I also knew a thing or two about; the general running of a theater production, and so on. The more significant awakening of consciousness took place when I was in high school. My father was an editor of the Xi’an Film Studio magazine “West Film.” At the beginning of the ’80s, under the leadership of Wu Tianming, the Xi’an Film Studio recruited a group of the 5th generation directors. At that time, almost all the important 5th generation directors were at the Xi’an Film Studio, and they were given opportunities to make films straight away, without having to work as a script supervisor first. I had the strong impression of a very energetic creative atmosphere, the place was bubbling with energy. Thinking back, that had a big effect on me. I was close to graduating from high school, and this was the time to form my own world view, and to absorb what was good for me. The Xi’an Film Studio became a space for my personal growth since we could watch the previews of films by 5th generation directors, and hear their discussions on certain matters.

The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan, 2019). Courtesy of Film Movement.

You were born in 1968. The films you saw in your high school years were …?

For example, the Yellow Earth and One and Eight. I remember my father brought the script of the Yellow Earth home before they started shooting. At that time, the film had a different title, Echo in Deep Valley if I remember correctly. Later, the script was also published in the studio magazine. After the film came out, it was so different from the original script. That left a deep impression on me. A film could be completely different from the script! Never mind the different title. Because I had previously thought that the script was the most important element of a film; written stroke by stroke, word by word, that was the real skill. Later I discovered that this was not the case, and I couldn’t quite understand. What is a director? What does a director do? Someone well-trained, cultured and imaginative had written the script word by word. Why can’t the director make the film according to the script? But in fact, films seemed to have the freedom to take their shape from the material world, and the script is just a backdrop. How to present the world you feel about is the main thing; the written word and the drama are not always the most important elements. 

I like to look at this film through the lens of your creative development. The dividing line came, as mentioned earlier, with Black Coal, Thin Ice. From social realism to genre; from a more or less single story line to multiple story lines. I wonder if this was an inspiration from your study of film noir or a natural development of your own creative process.

Simply put, I have always liked “the good guy catches the bad guy” story. Our attitude is reflected in the film, maybe not clearly though, because it is an instinctive reaction when writing. This cannot be achieved simply by lining up the different elements of the genre films. It is instinctive. In fact, the genre film is often the creator’s specific way of looking at life. It may be a touch cynical, but deep down it is very pure and serious. In other words, it expresses the most vulnerable part of you under the armor of the “tough guy.” In the end, this is how some intellectuals see society, life, and [it serves as] a channel for their self-expression. The emergence of a genre, or a creative collective, is because this particular form speaks to the humanity of this [larger] collective.

Maybe it’s a form of protection as well?

Maybe. The cynicism on the surface may hide the deep despair. Cynicism is a form of expression. It is the expression of a personal style when one is deeply disappointed with the society, the politics. The style becomes the best weapon against mediocrity and decay.

How long did it take you to write the script of The Wild Goose Lake

It took me about two years. It didn’t feel like a long process to me, though I was slow in writing. But there wasn’t much revising once it was written. It wasn’t a quick process, but every step was definite. 

The previous three films were all set in northern China and possessed a northern character. This is a southern story and location. Is the film affected by the geography and climate?   

The geography and climate definitely have an effect. Visually, the south is different from the bleak cold of the north; it has a different feel, a different quality. But when it comes to details, I had to rely on my instinct to make the choices. I would not object if you characterized the relationship between the characters as being more ambiguous, more southern in quality. 

We discussed the deeper emotions earlier, and now the ambiguous human relationships. It all reminds me of a common trait or theme in all of your work. It may seem sentimental, but love seems forever an illusion in your work, it is essentially impossible. Love exists because of loneliness. In Uniform, in The Night Train, continuing with Black Coal, Thin Ice, and now in this film. I could go on…

Maybe life is an illusion, not to mention love… Love is an illusion, which is not to say that love is not real. In fact, the period of time two people are truly in love is quite short in relation to the length of their lives. The rest of the time, they are just together, albeit through all the various possible scenarios.  Sometimes, true love is impossible, unattainable. Maybe the love of two people apart is the most real, the most significant. Maybe I understand things differently. Maybe two people not together, who cannot be together, who are separated absolutely and forever, in such a case, is there true love?

I understand. A muted romance? This is also a constant in your work. There is a sense of fate, or the sense that “we cannot change fate,” which connects your work to film noir.

It is romance. I always thought that the saying “drop the knife, and become Buddha” should be “pick up the knife, to become Buddha.” What has Buddha to do with average people who have never picked up the knife in their lives? Nothing. But those people who picked up the “knife” in the dark, they really need the light of Buddha to guide them, and they are closest to the Buddha. Love is the same. I am not sure if I have expressed myself clearly. There is a sense of fate, including the scene with the lighter at the end. She wants to smoke the cigarette in the car. That is an expression of fate as a circle, which is how I feel when I watch film noir. 

Those who can’t get what they want, who are not satisfied with the way things are, make the change themselves. The way to escape their fate is to find a “double.” That is also a distinctive feature of your films: the police uniform in Uniform; the double lives in Night Train; and the simple “double” in Black Coal, Thin Ice and in The Wild Goose Lake

There is also “acting” in life. Sometimes what is expressed outwardly of the inner self is a form of acting. I like this method. Because it reflects the desire to break the chains of daily life, to break the rules, the limits. It’s a kind of release. Everyone needs release. It could be painting for the artist, starting a war for a politician. But the average person without any talent or power will have to find another way to achieve release. They may do things that are outlandish, shocking even. In so doing, they provide material for novels, theater and film. The violence in the films is also a form of release sometimes. Films could be seen as dreams; they can provide the release for us.  

The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan, 2019). Courtesy of Film Movement.

This brings me to another difference between your first two and your more recent two films. Your view of reality has also evolved: You present reality not through its immediate, obvious experience but use an imagined reality to create a “higher” one. It is still realism, but not a conventional one focusing on details.

Not only “higher.” It could even achieve a more genuine reality. With the filter of the imagination, you cut out the reality absorbed through the eyes and the brain. The choice has always existed whether to imitate reality or to reveal reality. That is the tradition of genre. Of course, I am not satisfied just imitating reality, I also want to represent and reveal. I make certain changes, using my imagination to transform, making it more real. In my opinion, modernism fundamentally rejects a linear narrative of life, in total opposition to social realism. Our lives are a mess, shattered into thousands of pieces, not to mention our sources of information. Naturally, the way to present life has to change.

The director uses his own perception of reality to create the reality on the screen.

Yes. The film is a vehicle for my views on a number of things. But the events I used in the film all had their sources in real life, even the “Congress of the Thieves.” The congress actually took place in Wuhan, around 2012. It was a national congress even. All the representatives from important sites in each province were gathered in Wuhan to exchange their experiences and divide territories. Maybe that was their intention as well. They even coordinated travel arrangements and organized thieving competitions. They were exposed and the whole deal fell apart. They were in the middle of dividing up the territory in front of a map of Wuhan when they were captured. The news item made me laugh for a whole minute. I immediately thought that was great material for drama, could even be a play. The irony. Imagine, a national congress of thieves! Maybe all the congresses will be like the ones in “1984.”

I want to pick up on the topic of realism … At the same time, I agree that life itself is the most interesting expression of the absurd.  Something that is true can better create the sense of film as a dream?

But it requires making choices and piecing the elements together to create a new meaning. The appearance will be different from the way things are shown in the films of realism. Abstraction, the absurd, surrealism… all emerged at a similar time. Kafka’s plot material, wasn’t that realistic? But when those events were filtered through his own imagination and his literary structure, they created a particular style. It’s true that reality is absurd and interesting enough, especially the reality in China. It sometimes surpasses one’s imagination. Sometimes the creator has to tone down the facts, otherwise the result will appear too outlandish and too unreal. The creator himself will feel himself too pretentious and exaggerated, out of touch with the sensibility and reading habits of the audience. 

There is another feature of The Wild Goose Lake worth mentioning. That is the use of both professional and non-professional actors. How did you direct them differently? 

Generally, I didn’t give non-professional actors the whole script. I only gave them an introduction to what was to be done the next day. They didn’t know how the film was going to end. I did not want them anticipating things ahead of the shooting. I wanted them to stick with their instincts and experience a sense of unfamiliarity. At the same time, I wanted the professional actors to share experiences with them. They affected each other, and this created a special quality during the performance.

The two acting methods collided and made sparks?

 Indeed. As a matter of fact, the non-professional actors had more of an effect on the professional actors. All the professional actors, including Hu Ge, felt pressure after being in a scene with the others. This kind of pressure prompted the professionals to make friends with the non-professional actors, gradually adapting their performance to blend with them. Not vice versa. 

Did you do many takes while shooting the film? Or if not, what directing methods did you use?

It varied according to the requirements at the time. I usually do many takes at the beginning. Because we wouldn’t have had time to adapt and reach an understanding yet. Everyone needs time to adjust. Besides, I wanted to set a serious, diligent tone for the crew right at the beginning of the shoot. I wanted to impress upon them that we wouldn’t stop till we were satisfied; to set a high bar for the work coming later. 

Were the scenes of The Wild Goose Lake shot in the order they appear in the script?

My films have generally been shot according to the “natural flow”, which means mostly shot according to the sequence developed in the script. There are films which shoot the last scene at the beginning, a few days into their shoot. This would be hard for me. I think it is very unfair for the actors as well. Changes were made in certain sequences. That wasn’t difficult to manage, and they didn’t affect the overall production. The end of this film, the last scene when Wu Ge pushed the umbrella into the body of Cat’s Ear, was shot ten days before we wrapped. Coming back to the number of takes, decisions were also made according to the situation. Sometimes making a few more takes was a way to buy myself time to find different solutions to a problem. All this is to say that I don’t have set rules in this regard. One enduring impression I had from the experience was that I would prefer a slower start.

The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan, 2019). Courtesy of Film Movement.

How many months did it take to shoot the movie?

Five months. Because 85% of the scenes took place at night, and with the long days and short nights of summer, we only had an average of seven hours to work with. There were many action sequences which required long periods to prepare. Thinking back, it was quite a long shoot. 

What was the editing process like? Did it stay close to the script?

The editing started with the scripted sequence, but it reached an impasse at a certain point. Imagination got bogged down; there were no new ideas or methods. This is because editing is a time-consuming process. My usual approach is to leave it for a couple of months, then suddenly I can see the blind spot. I did the same when I was editing Black Coal, Thin Ice. I didn’t give myself a deadline. I took my time, working two days a week. The rest of the time I did some thinking, sometimes not thinking at all. I reached an impasse after four months or so into editing The Wild Goose Lake, feeling tired. But a new editor joined us at that time. He brought with him fresh ideas, and more to the point, they were idea I liked. The film made a big leap from where we had reached, and this made up for the two to three months we had lost. This was a stroke of luck. It was lucky for the film as well. This was the process followed in this film.

The frequent use of flashbacks must have provided many possibilities for editing details. At the same time, it could bring problems. What prompted you to use flashbacks? Like the many encounters in the southern railway station. 

I have always wanted use flashbacks, but never had the opportunity. Coincidentally, the opening of this film I had imagined as a rainy night at a railway station and the encounter between a man and a woman. I like this particular kind of atmosphere. I didn’t hesitate much before writing it down as the beginning for the film. Then, for a while, I did not know how to continue, so I had to start over again to think of other scenes. Then the use of flashbacks came naturally. Later on, I thought of the One Thousand and One Nights. I have always liked this kind of structure. It is a very old method, but can be very modern at the same time. 

I have just thought of a telling point. As the director/creator, you never changed your position on one thing in any of your four films. You have always been on the “losing side” (du côté des perdants), favouring the ‘loser’, the ordinary person, the despicable individual or, to put it another way, you saw the humanity in the despised. 

This may speak to my personality and some of my deepest thoughts. I think there is dignity, nobility in the most despised people which is not recognized, not understood by other people. The kind of nobility which is beyond mainstream morality. Those people may not conform to the conventions of daily life, may not want to exist within mainstream moral standards. They are easily cast aside, but they actually need more understanding and sympathy. I like to let the losers prove themselves, transcend convention. It may still seem dark, not bright enough, but deep down in their heart, maybe there is ecstasy; they achieve the power only they themselves can appreciate. 

This is not a condescending sympathy coming from above. This is exposure: maybe there is something far more noble.

Because there are often flaws in our values. In the creative process, sometimes one has to go against the value system, to show people that even the most despicable individuals, even the darkest events, can possess something they cannot have imagined. Maybe this is akin to chivalry and loyalty, on a spiritual level. 

Or you could compare it to “justice”? Considering all of your films, there is a gradual change of the theme: the first two films were leaning towards legal justice (the crime of the con artist in Uniform and the death sentence in The Night Train), and the latter two films were about a more humane justice, a justice of humanity. 

The story originated from the fear and desires deep inside me. You mentioned the execution in The Night Train. In fact, I am scared of death. I often dream of being executed. For some unknown reason, I was very motivated to write that script. It was finished in two months. There wasn’t much revision before the shooting of the film. As for The Wild Goose Lake, I was thinking of the chivalrous characters, their lives in the bottom levels of society. They are being hunted. This kind of existence fits the picture of modern chivalry.  Chivalry in the 21st century, chivalry in the perspective of the law or of the criminal wanted by the police. In the Tang Dynasty, they might all have been knights. Liu Aiai might have been a courtesan then. At the end of the day, this is a story about chivalry and loyalty.