An interview with filmmaker Qiu Yang

He recently won the Leitz Cine Discovery Prize during Critic’s Week at Cannes. Meet the Changzhou-based filmmaker and VCA Master of Film and Television graduate Qiu Yang.

A woman gently presses her head against a bus window. The shifting neon lights from the street outside wash over her face, and somewhere in the city beyond, living or dead, is her daughter. Somewhere else in China, a young man is accused by the children of an elderly woman of pushing her on the street after taking her to a hospital, with devastating social implications for both families. On the other side of the world, a young woman leaves her stifling family life to go for a walk through a Melbourne street at night, but will never return.

These are the screen worlds of Changzhou-based filmmaker and Victorian College of the Arts Master of Film and Television graduate Qiu Yang. Recognisable for their striking visual beauty and contemplative pacing, Qiu’s films have received remarkable critical recognition internationally:  his graduating film, Under the Sun (2015) premiered at the Festival de Cannes, before screening at more than 60 film festivals around the world;   his next short film, A Gentle Night (2017), was awarded the Short Film Palme d’Or in 2017 and completed a victory lap at Telluride, Toronto, New York and Busan; his most recent film, She Runs (2019), won the Leitz Cine Discovery Prize during Critic’s Week at Cannes in May and is currently touring internationally.

Yet despite his successes, Qiu remains remarkably grounded. “I spend most of my time in my hometown,” he says. “When I write, or when I shoot my films, it’s always in my home town. Other times, I travel for work, because that’s sort of the nature of what I do. But I probably spend more time with my parents than most people, so I don’t get homesick, actually.”

This connection to place is evident in all of his Chinese films, which feel intimately grounded in the rhythms of life in Changzhou, and in the social paradoxes of contemporary China. As Qiu describes it, this comes from an intimate connection to the stories he tells.

“All the things in my films are things that have happened to me, or happened to my family, or the stories that happen around me. These films are more or less a way for me to try to understand them, to try and deconstruct them, because when you create a story, you have to have a logic behind those stories, to try and understand why this is happening, what is the logic.

“So, I guess it’s really an urge to understand myself and the world around me. That’s the core reason I make projects. I don’t want to deliver a message. I think the most important part of this project is serving myself.”

For Qiu, this commitment is not an intentional aspect of his storytelling, but a natural outworking of his filmmaking process. Although he feels uncomfortable drawing comparisons between his filmmaking and that of the great masters of historical art cinema, he draws inspiration from the filmmaking methodologies of his idols, particularly Robert Bresson, Michael Haneke and Bruno Dumont.

“The way they see filmmaking, they way they see how they make films, the belief system, the way they see actors and acting, those are the things I respond to most and I learn from them a lot.”

Despite comparisons with contemporary “slow” filmmakers such as Béla Tarr, Theo Angeolopoulos and Tsai Ming-liang, he sees little value in direct references to the work of others. “To me, I don’t really do references, and I especially don’t do film references. I believe when you study cinema enough, to a point you’ll realise what kind of film you like and what kind of film you don’t like. I tend not to watch films when I make a film, so all those influences come on naturally.”

But he also admits the challenge in his early films of making concessions and compromises with collaborators, which he admits was a struggle. “I didn’t know how to be a director, so I felt pushed around. I didn’t feel comfortable.”  But his attitude changed when he started at the VCA, and was challenged to create his work on his own terms.

“Well, to me the VCA is the single most important thing to happen to my filmmaking environment. It’s a very different film school. It’s set up to have a safe environment for filmmakers who want to become auteur filmmakers. You have to write, direct and edit your own film, and I don’t believe there’s any other film school like this in the world.”

“I think VCA is a very strange … ‘Sacred’ would be too much, but it’s a very important place because it’s safe… it’s safe for people to try different things. Not just me, but my classmates tried different things and they were very encouraging. They would say, ‘This is not how people usually do things, this is not the classic way, but try it.’ And then you understand if and why it works or why it doesn’t work.

“I think that’s the point of film school – try different things to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. I just think that it’s super safe, without all the noises once you come into the industry.”

In describing his own work, Qiu refers to a single key idea: cinema is an art form, and art is an act of self-expression. Rather than striving to be original, the key to good filmmaking is to be honest with yourself through your work. “There are so few people that are honest in terms of making art or films.” he says. “If you can be honest I believe that you’re original because there’s only one of you in the whole world.”

“But I think honesty is also not enough:  first you have to be honest, and then you have to make a good film. I mean, I see a lot of films that are honest and very bad. You have to be honest and you have to be good. And also, be healthy. That’s very important!”

Duncan Caillard