Peng Fei (1982, Peking) was born into a family of opera performers in Beijing. Under his family’s influence, he developed a strong passion for the arts. After graduating from high school he went to Paris to study film at L’Institut International de l’Image et du Son, where he majored in directing. After seven years of immersion in European culture, he returned to China and became Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s assistant. His debut feature, “Underground Flagrance”, was selected at Venice Days and has been released in France in 2016.
On the occasion of his latest film, “Taste of Rice Flower” at Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian cinema, we speak with him about his life and career, the film, China and the issue with people living their villages and their children behind, and many other topics.
How important for your career was the fact that you were born into a family of opera performers? How did you end up studying in Paris?
Yes, growing up in a family of Beijing Opera performers has influenced me a lot. I have learnt to appreciate arts, stories and films. I didn’t learn to play Beijing Opera, but my parents liked to watch films. I used to watch movies with them in my childhood.
I wanted to study in England or in the United States. Since film schools were cheaper in Paris, I decided to study in Paris.
Could you tell us about your experience working with Tsai Ming Liang?
I had to find an internship for my last year at the film school in Paris. Mr. Tsai was shooting “Visage” in Paris, so I worked for his film as an intern. Then I continued working with him.
I have worked with him for five or six years since 2008 or 2009. I have learnt a lot from him. I used to like commercial movies or films from Hong Kong. Tsai brought me to another world of cinema, it’s quite artistic and so innocent/pure. I learned to be serious with filmmaking and a different way to watch and understand films.
The issue regarding millions of Chinese workers moving into urban areas to exploit the work opportunities and leaving their children behind has been a recurring one recently. Why did you decide to deal with it and why did you choose this “lighter” approach, in comparison with Wang Bing’s “Three Sisters” for example? What is your opinion of the children that are left behind, particularly regarding their future?
I talked about countryside people working in big cities in my first film, then I would like to show their life going home. So I began to investigate about the issue. I found, by chance, a village in Yunnan province. It’s just next to Burma.
I thought the people in the village led a miserable life, but I was wrong. The roads leading to the village were well built with solar lighting. The lights were even beautifully decorated. Each of them costs about 10,000 euros. Our government helped local people a lot and the village people can live well.
Even so, some people of the village prefer working in big cities, because they could have more possibilities to earn more money. Our government has special policies for the remote areas, and the local tourism could create benefits for them.
China is getting rich, so are other areas of the country. The village was totally different from what I imagined. The people had their own problems, but they seemed so dynamic, they smiled all the time and enjoyed their life. So I chose a “lighter” approach to tell the story. Most of the stories in the film are real, they come from my experiences as I stayed in the village.
The children left behind in countryside is a difficult issue. Their parents are far from home as they grow up, they cannot really grow up with the love of their parents. Maybe they wouldn’t know how to love others as they become adults. They’ll see the world in a different way.
Children educated by grandparents could be also a problem. The modern society is developing quickly, the old people couldn’t really understand the needs of their grandchildren during puberty. They could afford food and clothing for them, but they don’t really know how to cope with some psychological and physical problems of the teenagers. We wonder how these children could become as they grow up and become part of the society. I think most people could live a normal life, the government also tries to solve these problems. The most important factor is the parents being with their children as they grow up.
Regarding their future, I am not totally optimist, but I am not totally pessimist neither.
Why did you choose your characters to be of the Dai minority? What research did you do regarding their ways?
I met the Dai people just by chance, I didn’t mean to work with the minority population.
I stayed in the village for one year, I tried to live like them. I lived at local people’s house, doing things with them and thinking over the daily problems with them.
Nan Hang does a lot of blunders, but you seem to put the blame for her behaviour to her parents. Can you elaborate on that? Also, do you think that the parents staying in those poor remote areas is actually beneficial, both for their children and them, particularly considering the financial situation of those remote areas?
The grandfather didn’t really try to educate Nan Hang. If she didn’t get sick or wounded, that’s fine. However, she’s in junior high school. During puberty, no one could educate her. Her mother didn’t live with them in the village.
As her mother found her blunders (stealing money from the temple to pay for the cyber cafe), she didn’t get mad with her daughter. She realized her absence led to that problem.
It’s difficult for me to explain these social problems in China. Those who chose to stay in their home town could have other problems. Middle-scaled cities are developing well in China, more and more people choose not to work in big cities now. There are already too many people there. The people from the countryside could work in cities near their home town, it would be much easier for them to go back to their village.
Now Chinese government invests a lot in the development of middle-scaled cities, they also encourage young people to go home. There are more cases like that nowadays.
Liao Penjung highlights the rural beauties of the area, as the film functions as a tour guide of the area, on a secondary level. Can you tell us a bit about your collaboration with him, particularly regarding the last scene?
Mr. Liao is about 70 years old, he still works as traditional director of photography, he is very professional. He doesn’t just sit next to the director to give orders by talkie-walkie like some young cinematographers. He’s always next to the camera.
We usually prepare detailed storyboards, but we could change things during shooting. We could modify a lot of things. For the last scene, I just told Mr. Liao how I felt for the scene. Sometimes I was so busy that we didn’t have time to communicate more. However, we understood each other quite well, he knew what kind of images I would like, he would try to suggest me some scenes.
As the actresses began dancing in the cave, he started to find places to shoot. I am sure he found the best images for my film.
Both Ying Ze and Ye Bule give wonderful performances. How did you guide them for their roles, and how was the casting process like for the film?
Ying Ze played in my first film, she makes a lot efforts, she’s a talented actress. We understand each other quite well during our collaboration.
She also went to the small village in Yunnan to learn more about the life of local people. It’s difficult to find actors like her nowadays who could spend five or six months staying in a remote area. Living there is not quite convenient.
I met Ye Bule as I stayed in the village. I didn’t show her and other children the script. We have rehearsed for several times, so that they got more familiar with the camera. When we really started shooting; it’s just like a game for the kids.
What is your opinion of Chinese cinema at the moment?
I am not so pessimist about the future of Chinese cinema. Without the permission of the Chinese censorship bureau, our film could not be shown in China neither participate in international film festivals. I don’t want to challenge the censorship, and it’s useless to fight with the system. After all, I live in China.
The movie market in China is going quite well now. Even the commercial films are more successful in box offices, the “film d’auteur” could also get more popular. This kind of films achieved the sale of 20,000 euros before, they could gross 2,000,000 euros or even more than 10,000,000 euros nowadays.
Some Chinese companies don’t need to earn money with the ”films d’auteur”, they invest in the production of this kind of films and send them to international film festivals.
Which are your favorite filmmakers/movies?
Roy Andersson, Elia Suleiman, Kurozawa, Ozu and Kitano. So I decided to work with the Japanese musician who worked with Kitano for this film.
Japanese movies influence me a lot, but it is Mr.Tsai Ming Liang who has the most significant effect on me.
What are your plans for the future?
I am preparing a comedy located in Yunnan (ps: the same province as the Taste of Rice flower).It talks about a filmmaker who stays in a village to prepare a film. In fact, it’s inspired by my staying in Yunnan.