'Using the Camera Like a Paintbrush': Wang Xiaoshuai on 'Chinese Portrait'

"Clearly this movie is totally different from a fictional story, as I’m working in more of a documentary style."

The images in Wang Xiaoshuai’s new film Chinese Portrait are as varied as they are absorbing: vast farmlands, mountain ranges, dilapidated buildings on city outskirts, public transportation, classrooms, swaying grass, individual portraits, group portraits, crowds—the list goes on, but the vision remains the same: a still camera captures a land and its people, the passing time revealing a state of flux. The footage moves freely between film and digital with thankfully little regard to chronology. In this way, the portraits feel as if they are both suspended in time and documenting its passing.

There is also a great warmth in the film’s core idea: to traverse a country and depict its diverse inhabitants and their ways of life with dignity via portraiture, and to patiently record still frames of city and landscapes that often pass us by too quickly through car windows. Some subjects look directly into the camera, some stare as they go by, some ignore it altogether, and others don’t even know it’s there. In one particularly striking portrait, a group of men and women in the countryside stand in front of a ramshackle structure; off in the distance at the top of a frame is a man standing still. Does he know the camera is there? Is he watching? Still ant-sized in the distance, he walks across the top of the frame while those in the foreground continue to look at the camera. The film is full of such layered images.

As a formalist exercise, this is a bit of a departure for Xiaoshuai, who is known mostly for fiction films like Beijing Bicycle and Shanghai Dreams. After a screening at the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Mo., I sat down with Xiaoshuai for a short conversation about the film, which has been acquired by Cinema Guild for U.S. distribution.

Thanks to University of Missouri Professor Michael Volz for translating.

No Film School: It took you eight years to make the film. I’m curious if your ideas or goals for the project changed over time. One way it feels the film was shot over many years is this change from film to digital.

Wang Xiaoshuai: It began with an artist friend of mine who asked me to film him painting. And then, as I was filming that, I realized, “this isn’t that interesting.” And so, I decided, over time, “well maybe what I can do is use the camera like a paintbrush and take these portraits,” and through that experiment was a new way of using the film camera. In the past, when we first started making these, the film that we used came in a canister and we could only shoot four minutes a reel, and so that was part of the idea: that each portrait would be four minutes long. When we started using digital, we didn’t have that length limitation.

At that point, we could shoot a lot more, and that’s when I had the idea of turning it into a movie. When we first did it, it was in an exhibition hall with little four-minute pictures all over the place. The first time we showed it to an audience was as an exhibit with the projectors shining on walls, and they were life-sized with the sound coming from all different directions.

"When you’re making a fiction film, you really do need to control everything. If there’s just one person who’s not looking where they’re supposed to, you have to start all over again.​"

NFS: I think one of the most interesting things about the film is that in any given shot there are so many layers of observation going on. There’s the people who are looking at the camera and in a way are giving a performance; and then there are the people who know the camera is there, but they’re trying to not acknowledge it; and then there are people who don’t know the camera is there at all. And there all these other layers just existing at the same time. How does that potential for spontaneity compare to fiction work?

WXS: So when you’re making a fiction film, you really do need to control everything. If there’s just one person who’s not looking where they’re supposed to, you have to start all over again. In a way, [documentary] is not as anxious; it’s more relaxing. I asked some of them to look at the camera, but if they don’t, there’s nothing you can really do about it. I just hit the record button and let it go and see what happens. For example: That one scene where they’re standing on the dry ground with the water buckets, there’s a little child there who you can’t control. They’re going to do what they’re going to do, and the audience found that to be kind of funny. I feel this, in a way, breaks through a barrier. Is it a movie? Is it a picture? What is it?

NFS: In the past, like with Beijing Bicycle for example, you’ve explored some of the troubles faced by ethnic minorities in China. This film also has a wide range of Chinese cultures represented. But where [Beijing Bicycle] was a morality tale, this is a much more delicate approach. I’m wondering about the changes in your formal approach when considering these social and political issues in film.

WXS: Clearly this movie is totally different from a fictional story, as I’m working in more of a documentary style. But, with this film, part of it is looking at all of the changes in China that have happened over time, and I wanted to very deliberately capture that—with a photograph, with a video camera. In filmmaking circles, looking at these aspects of reality is happening less and less. More and more, the films are about entertainment, and that’s a concern—where the purpose of making a movie is to make money. There are so many things that are happening in reality, and if we don’t take advantage of the opportunity to record these things, then they will be lost. When I’m not busy in between the fiction films that I’m making, it was very easy [to shoot this]. I can just go out and hit record and continue this process of documenting.

NFS: When you were actually making the film—I’m sure you at least had a loose structure in mind—but were you just stopping at the side of the road at anything interesting or did you have a strict itinerary? How much spontaneity was there?

WXS: We had a broad idea of what we wanted to go see sometimes. We’re from Beijing and we knew we wanted to go to places outside of Beijing. What we would find when we got there, of course we didn’t know, so that’s where it became more spontaneous. In China, if you want to film something that’s a particularly sensitive place, it’s very difficult. But in this case, I was not going out to film anything especially political, but rather to film things that are every day, standard. And it’s in this, in the everyday, that there really is a significance.

NFS: As far as editing goes, what was the process for parsing out a structure after you spent eight years shooting?

WXS: From the beginning, there was no idea of necessarily making it into a movie. It was more like taking a bunch of postcards and throwing them down on the bed to take a look at them. The thing with this movie is it isn’t necessarily the best, most complete movie. It could change.

NFS: Yeah, I was wondering if you wanted it in a super specific structure, or if you think the parts could be interchangeable?

WXS: I want to break through the idea of structure. We could have put all of the people in the countryside together, all of the minorities together. But we deliberately wanted to avoid having that kind of a structure. We wanted it to be much more random. So after 10 minutes of watching the film, you can figure it out: “I don’t need to figure out what the story is.” You can just look at it frame by frame.

"When we used the exhibit format, when it’s showing on the wall, then the viewer could have more freedom. You could look at it for 10 seconds and go, if you want."

NFS: What drew you to the idea of leaving the frame up there for a while and letting the viewers see all the different layers and giving them time to explore one particular image?

WXS: If every regular old Chinese person just has a camera and takes a picture, you don’t have to go out of your way to find some kind of meaning in it. Rather, over time, the meaning will become evident. I’m thinking about the film I saw earlier today, Apollo 11—it had footage from 1969, where it was a whole bunch of different kinds of footage that was brought together to make this film today. But at the time that people were filming it, they weren’t aware of the significance [of how the images would be used]. And yet, now it’s a very meaningful film. So, this is the real significance of meaning of this kind of documentary film.

NFS: The picture analogy is interesting. But also, a person with a picture in their hand can choose when to put down the picture or how long to look at it. In this, you sectioned off a specific time for it, so because I have to look at this image for four minutes it’s a different experience.

WXS: You still have a little bit of choice here. You can look away or look at something else. There’s a limit. I had to decide where I was going to cut, how much to let you see. When we used the exhibit format, when it’s showing on the wall, then the viewer could have more freedom. You could look at it for 10 seconds and go, if you want.

NFS: Do you prefer the film format or exhibit format?

WXS: I really was expecting to do more of the exhibit format. I like that because of the way people can look at it as long as they want, but it’s complicated to find a space like that where you can exhibit it. With the film format, I can get it out to more people more easily.

NFS: Could you talk about your decision to put yourself on camera and include yourself in this portraiture project?

WXS: This was also according to opportunity. I joked earlier that I couldn’t find somebody who was willing to stand there, so I’d just go ahead and put myself in. My decision to put myself into the film is also to let the audience know that these are all places that I’ve visited. I’m here, I’m the one pressing play. The title in Chinese in My Lens.     

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