Largely because of the advent of digital cinema, the number of indie film productions in China has grown annually, but indie film festivals have been forced to go underground. Indie music festivals once encountered similar challenges, gaining success as part of the local tourist economy but with the understanding that politically sensitive content would be removed. The same situation holds in indie film production today, with compromises necessary in order to have a commercial theatrical release.

Vivian Qu, one of the few producers of independent film in China, has produced films such as Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice—winner of the Golden Bear for Best Film at this year’s Berlinale. Trap Street, her directorial debut, is a critical look at the role of technology in contemporary life that follows a digital-mapping engineer who becomes fascinated with a beautiful woman he spots in the street. The woman works at a mysterious place called Forest Lane that can’t be registered into the digital map system, and as the engineer’s curiosity about the woman intertwines with his concern about the system, the trap of the title reveals new dimensions.

FILM COMMENT spoke with Qu about her early years in New York, the idea of spying and being spied upon, and life as an independent producer and filmmaker in China today. Trap Street screens on March 28 and 29 in New Directors / New Films. 

Trap Street

Where are you based now? I understand you spent quite a few years in New York.

In 2003 I returned to Beijing where I grew up after having spent some years abroad. I was in New York to pursue my interest in the visual arts, but I discovered cinema. I felt really fortunate because it ended my anxiety of having to choose one thing over another for a career, because all my interests—writing, photography, music, etc.—can come together in one art form. The Film Society at Lincoln Center and MoMA were among my favorite places for films.

How did the story come about? It starts as a story about a man tracking a woman, then slowly becomes a psychodrama.

What I wanted to portray in the first place was this feeling of watching and being watched, which has obviously become one of the most significant characteristics of modern life. Since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, this feeling has been reinforced, distorted, and multiplied in many different ways. What propelled such a phenomenon? Can we even find out? The paradox is, today’s technology should enable us to discover truth, but it’s never been this difficult to tell the real from the unreal. I didn’t want my film to be a simple record of a particular event; I want it to be a synthesis of my thoughts and observations. Even if I cannot find the answer, at least I can raise the question: does 90 percent freedom amount to true freedom?

The discovery of the term “trap street”—a fake street inserted on a map as a trap for potential copyright violators—was key to constructing the story. It plays right into the idea of real and unreal.

Guan Lifen (He Wenchao), the woman whom the engineer follows, feels like she comes from a French film from the Sixties—mature, pretty, and always sad.

Are you sure French, not Italian? Actually, when I was in the casting process I told my team that I was looking for a Monica Vitti. It was a bit puzzling to them and someone actually recommended a Eurasian girl. I wanted a woman who possesses not only innocence, but also maturity and complexity. She may not always be sad, but she certainly should do a lot with few words.

Trap Street

The digital cinematography by Matthieu Laclau and Tian Li gives the images a hyperreality, and the lighting is meticulously designed, especially in the dance scene. 

I want the film to be a realistic portrayal of contemporary life. So I treat each scene as a faithful slice-of-life vignette. Although many North American viewers have commented on the film’s noirish tone, I refrained from using lighting as a tool to interfere or heighten the dramatic effect. One thing that my lighting designer and I agreed ever since our first discussion is that we will not use any colored lights. If I strive for anything, it is clarity. I want the audience to see everything yet still not know if what they see is the truth.

Nobody in the film wears uniforms, even those who take the engineer, Li Qiuming, into custody.

I have to be true to reality when it comes to details like this. At the same time I prefer to keep this unintentional vagueness, like many other aspects in the story, because who they are, what they represent, we can never know.

Could you elaborate on your understanding of technology in contemporary life, especially the notion of privacy in relation to technology? 

Is there a fine line between protection and intrusion? No, there is not. It’s a dilemma with which we have to live in our hyper-technological society. I just hope we are not creating a monster that will come back to haunt us in the future. Or have we done it already?

Trap Street

Did you have any expectation that this film could be shown commercially in China before you started the project? Because it seems that political censorship is still going to be there for quite some time, both for domestic and the growing number of foreign films imported from Hollywood and elsewhere.

This is my first film, so I wanted total creative freedom. This is something I discussed with my producer Sean Chen even at the script stage. He was the executive producer of Night Train [2007; directed by Diao Yinan], and did not want these concerns to interfere with my creative process. So he let me do what I wanted and assured me that “we’ll figure out a way somehow.” Otherwise it would be a very different film.

I find one scene quite intriguing, when Li Qiuming's father, editor-in-chief at Woman’s Living magazine, lectures about recruiting women onto the staff, which is all men. Yang Lina's Longing for the Rain, another film you produced, is sort of a feminist psychodrama. Perhaps you could talk a bit about the role of woman in the film business, as well as in the Chinese society.

That’s another paradox in the modern Chinese society. Women have assumed important roles both socially and economically, but in the national psyche, the absence of women’s identity or consciousness is still very much the case. The Woman’s Living magazine scene doesn’t need to be taken literally; it is a joke about this absence. Yang Lina’s film still makes many men uncomfortable. As for my own film, since it hasn’t been shown in China yet, many thought it was just a love story—a “natural” conclusion since I’m a woman.

You've produced several critically acclaimed Chinese independent films, including Diao Yinan's two films, Night Train and Black Coal Thin Ice. How did that experience help with the production of Trap Street?

In all my producing work, I have been very much involved in the creative process, especially with the two works you mentioned. In the process I was able to observe other directors’ strengths and weaknesses and learn from their mistakes. Also I’ve learned how to work under constraints in low-budget films so I can make conscious choices to protect my vision.

Trap Street Vivian Qu

Could you describe a little what it’s like being a producer of independent film in China? Where does all the money come from, and how do you make the film sustainable if it is not going shown in the place where it is produced?

Indie productions have their money coming from almost exclusively private sources. Ten years ago foreign funds were an important source, but many of them have been stopped over the last few years. This is why the majority of indie films today are microbudget films. They travel through the festival circuit and perhaps make some sales internationally. The Internet is another possibility but this is rather recent.

Jia Zhangke has talked about the lack of an independent film industry or structure in China. Do you feel the same way?

Yes, absolutely. In addition to lacking the proper outlet for indie films—there is only one art-house theater in Beijing and it only shows films approved by the Film Bureau—independent film festivals are not encouraged either. So showing indie films has almost become a private affair. The difficulties in financing these films have made many directors move into the commercial area, willingly or unwillingly.

Which role do you prefer? Filmmaker or producer?

Certainly filmmaker. The filmmaker makes demands. The producer satisfies those demands. That’s why my hat’s off to indie producers: they really make the impossible happen.