What kind of story did you want to tell when you start to write The Coffin Painter?
Film is like a mirror, it can reflect the reality of our life, and through this mirror we can see the phenomena that we have ignored. There is a consensus nowadays, the indifference of human feelings, which is there for all to see. People are realistic and everything is about the money. We don’t talk about the human kindness anymore. At first, I wanted to tell a story about neighbors. What kind of relationship between them? I wanted to have this contrast, and I came up with the story of a young girl and an old man. The young girl in the film is constantly being bullied, and bullying has been social issue in recent years. Our story is about a young girl who is being bullied and her mother who is under constant pressure from life (loan sharks), and the old man stands up to protect them both. The reality is a lead and that is how this story came out.
Initially, It’s a story about neighbors, about human interaction.
Yes, I wanted to show a warm emotion, and this warmth comes from human interactions. We all have neighbors, whether we live in the countryside or in the city, but we don’t know them, not even if they are male or female, and there is a sense of mistrust towards them. With our neighbors, we build a mental wall and keep our distances from them. Nowadays, the relationship with the neighbors is much different with what you felt during our childhood.
There are two pairs of parental relationships in the film, a father and son and a mother and daughter, but the parents are both examples of failing parents, why?
I heard the saying that we all keep making mistakes throughout our lives, and throughout our lives we are looking for opportunities to forgive ourselves, and there is something always in one’s mind, that is the root of the pain. In this film, after his son is killed, Old Jia slowly realizes his own problems over the years, which is why he ends up drinking with the girl’s father after a big fight, saying “no one is born bad”, which is his revelation. But in reality, many people make mistakes at a cost that can never be repaired. The distance between them and their children will always remain. We live in an age of technology, it seems that we could easily telephone and have video calls with our parents, but the truth is that the distance is getting bigger.
Why does Old Jia paint coffins?
I saw people painting coffins when I was a child, there is no such job right now. Now coffins no longer need to be painted, they can be carved, and they are more delicate and bigger. In the old days, the deceased was the most important, and a good coffin honored the person. I spent a lot of time to search for someone who still paint the coffin in the real life to paint the coffins in my film. It was inevitable that the profession was now obsolete and that no young people would do this kind of work anymore.
This profession fits Old Jia’s state of mind, he was an art teacher in a school, firstly there are professional considerations, and secondly it fits his character – he is reluctant to interact with people, he is even a bit lonely, he only got married and had children in his 40s, the death of his wife and child was a trauma to him, there is no sunshine in his heart. Painting coffins is dealing with the dead, which is an escape in real life, and he also feels that every time he paints a coffin and buries it, it is also an emotional transmission to his wife and child who are resting in peace.
What was the reason for using the traditional Chinese solar terms as time indication in the film?
It’s the externalization of my concept of time. The essence of life is the time, without time life does not exist. How does Old Jia spend his life? He would regularly pay tribute to his wife and child. For example, during the Ancestor Worship Festival, he would mark various dates. It is a random day for us, as for him the most important date in his life.
Where are the main locations for this film? Why did you choose that place at that time?
In my hometown of Helan, Shanxi. The main reason is I knew the place well. When I was writing the script, I thinked of the landscape and the customs of my hometown. The story doesn’t have a strong regional obligation, it takes place in a small town in the north, but you could put it in the south as well.
How did you find Old Jia’s actor, Luosangqunpei?
I’ve seen his work in college, Xiu Xiu The Sent-Down Girl (1998), directed by Chen Chong, and I was very impressed by his performance. When I was preparing the film, it happened that a good friend of mine was his agent and posted stills of him, which immediately brought back my memories. I hadn’t seen his work for many years, the impression was so strong that I decide to work with hIm immediately.
You made a short film in 2006, and it took ten years before you made your first feature film, The Silent Winter, what have you been doing during the ten years?
It is difficult being a director. Before 2016, Chinese young directors do not have as many opportunities as they do now, and there weren’t as many festivals and platforms to encourage young talents, including FIRST and Pingyao. And I also felt that I wasn’t good enough. Of course, I have been working as assistant director, production manager, location manager, set design and etcetera all along.
How did you choose to make films?
It was by mistake, I grew up loving to write, do not love school, I went to junior high school for six years, because I always drop out of school. My father was afraid that I ended up a bad boy, he sent me to the vocational high school to learn accounting. I didn’t care about anything; I was just fooling around. It wasn’t until the time of the university entrance exam that I was thinking about what to apply for.
When I filled the application forms for university, my first option was Tsinghua or Peking University, another screw around. Then my last option was Shanxi Media University, I applied for the major of directing and scenarist. There was an option of “subordinated to distribution”, I didn’t know what that meant so I ticked the box. And I was accepted by performing major.
Tell us about your next project.
It will also be a film with social concern, I will focus on the youth suicide. I am now studying the data, which is powerful. There is a statistic showing that China ranks first in global youth suicide, and the first cause of youth death is also suicide, not any disease. At first, like most people, I wondered why children nowadays are so mentally fragile and have no mental capacity at all. Then I asked myself,
“What is the fault of the children?”
Chinese parents always think they give their children the best to send them to go to the best school and to the most expensive tuition classes, but they pay very little attention to their mental health. On the other hand, our society does not protect the children well. We need to do self-examination and could not assign all the responsibilities to the children. For my next film, I hope it could be more profound and realistic.