Interview with Li Ruijun about River Road (2015)

It was announced today that Li Ruijun’s Walking Past the Future was selected by Cannes film festival’s Un Certain Regard. I like his previous films, including River Road in Berlinale 2015’s Generation and was very impressed with his wise words: “For me, life is good as long as there is enough food and a roof over my head. Life is simple.” Here I dug out the interview, hoping that it would be some inspiration to people.


Interview with Li Ruijun: For Chinese film maker Li Ruijun, running after the money is a sure way to extinguish originality. He explains what motivates him to continue making independent films. 

What are the origins of “River Road“?

I had wanted to shoot this film since 2009. Even in Gansu Province, a lot of people are unaware of the autonomous county in which 14,000 Yugur people live. I came from a town near the Yugur region, and there has always been a lot of interaction and understanding between us. Immediately after the script was written I had trouble finding funding. It so happened that the following project, Fly with the Crane, required less funding, so we shot it first. Fortunately the producers of River Road were very supportive and understanding. They felt that certain films should be made even if the costs might not be recovered. We finished shooting River Road around October 2013 and completed post-production in September 2014. I had decided that a Yugur story must be told in the Yugur language. I asked officials at the Cultural Bureau’s Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation to help me find a village that had done a good job of preserving the Yugur language. I found a school with 400 Yugur students, but only four boys could speak some Yugur. We thus had very limited choices in terms of casting. We spent a while working on the kids’ accents and acting. I recorded elderly Yugur people reading the dialog in order to help the kids to learn it by heart. Their accents were subsequently corrected according to the recording. It also took some time to train the camels, since nowadays people use tractors instead.

How did you decide to use the work of the Iranian composer Peyman Yazdanian on your soundtrack?

Originally, I wanted to ask the composer who wrote for Fly with the Crane to do another soundtrack for me, but then I decided that Peyman was more suitable. It is nice to add an international element and break away from our habit of looking for local composers. It works well because there are similarities between the Iranian and Yugur peoples, especially in terms of culture and music instruments. We worked on the music with Yugur music and culture in mind. For example, the main theme of the soundtrack is based on a traditional Yugur lullaby. There were only two lines in the lullaby, and its melody and pronunciation sound exactly like a traditional Hungarian lullaby. It conveys the feelings of a mother comforting her child, which are corresponding to the feelings of the two kids searching for their home and their mother in the film. We rearranged it and then recorded it with traditional Yugur music instruments. The result was very satisfactory.

Was it necessary to conduct a lot research on the culture and history of the Yugur people for making this film?

I already understood how Yugurs live today, but I did a lot of reading and research in order to understand how they lived in the past. The man who plays the grandfather in the film is a genuine Yugur. He used to work as an official in the Cultural Bureau when he was young. Now he is retired. Although he is more than 70 years old and suffers from some health problems, he has been very supportive of the film. I asked him to point out inaccuracies in our mise-en-scène so that we could correct them. He told me before shooting began that we were very courageous for expressing what he always wanted to say. A lot of people are afraid of displeasing people, so they prefer hypocrisy to truth. He felt that River Road was especially truthful.

The ending of the film is very powerful.

This is an ecological parable. Industrialization in China is going very fast. The film ends with the two kids’ disillusionment. This is the problem that their generation will face. Human beings have always thought that we are changing and forging the world. Now, however, air, water, and earth are seriously polluted; many species, cultures, and languages are on the verge of extinction. When the speed of disappearance is greater than that of creativity, or when the environment is so polluted that people cannot live in it, all creativity becomes meaningless. Since antiquity, China has been the country with the greatest environmental awareness. Our philosophical system is based on harmony between humans and nature. This means that human beings peaceably co-exist with nature. Yet now everything is driven by economic development and we are sacrificing our ecosystems to develop our economy. It is totally not worth it.

What kind of reactions did you get?

Apart from actors and festival audiences, nobody in China has seen the film. We are planning to release it in June. This film is too solemn and not dramatic enough for Chinese audiences. It is not a film people can watch while munching on pumpkin seeds and drinking coke. Nowadays a lot of people do not want to spend time thinking or switch off their mobile phones to read a book. Too few people are making this kind of film, so I feel a necessity for me to persevere. If 50-60% of filmmakers were making such films, I would immediately switch gears and start making commercial films. Since more than 90% of filmmakers are making purely entertaining and commercial films, I feel like doing something more artistic and cultural. I would like to let the small portion of audiences who want to watch such films know that someone is still doing it. These films still exist like a small torch which I do not want to see extinguished.

What is your view on Chinese mainstream films?

Lack of originality. Most of them are just following trends. When youth films are selling well, investors all go for youth films for a few years. In my view the charm of cinema lies in diversity and creativity. Herd behaviour is killing creativity. The producers refuse to spend time and energy on a creative script. They only want to finish films as fast as possible and start earning money. This is harming the film environment and industry.

Did you get more support for your future projects after participating in international film festivals?

Participation in prominent film festivals attests to the work’s quality and the filmmaker’s ability. It is also a basis for trust. Yet for films such as River Road, it actually does not help that much. Film festivals are mainly places where audiences can watch the film and we can interact with them. It is also an opportunity to see what other people are doing and attempt to sell the film to countries in the region where the festival is hosted, so that investors won’t lose too much money and will want to invest again.

How do you strike a balance between idealism in filmmaking and daily necessity?

I think this is very easy. Since I decided to make this kind of film, I do not plan to make much money or lead a luxurious life. No one is forced to do this kind of film, and we have to take full responsibility for the consequences of our decisions. For me, life is good as long as there is enough food and a roof over my head. Life is simple.

River Road director Li Ruijun was born in Gansu Province. Since graduating from Communication University of Shanxi in 2003, he has directed four feature films, which have been featured and awarded at several international film festivals. In 2010, The Old Donkey was screened at the Deauville Asian Film Festival and the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Fly with the Crane was shown at the Venice International Film Festival and won Best Director at the Brasilia International Film Festival in 2012. In addition to appearing at Berlinale 2015, River Road was also shown at the Tokyo International Film Festival.


(Originally published on Goethe Institut Online Magazine)


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