An Interview with Director ZHU Xin: At the Age of 20, Film the Hangzhou Memories and Childhood Imagination


The article was originally posted on DeepFocus in Chinese with 12,000 views.
Interviewer: Jiexiao Ying

Yesterday, 22-year-old director ZHU Xin had the world premiere of his debut feature Vanishing Days(2018) at the New Current section of Busan International Film Festival. During the Q&A after the screening, he asked the crew members scattered in the audience to stand up. The audience realized that the whole crew is composed of “kids” in their early twenties.

As director ZHU Xin said, “I hope to make a movie while I am a child.” This film made by “children” has a touch of vulnerability, like memories transmitted from a malfunctioned signal station and traveled far in time. Facing the childhood which always feels obscure and out of focus, ZHU Xin wants to “pick up the lens of camera, and look at children’s world with more clarity.”

Vanishing Days is the illusional reflection of ZHU Xin’s real life. It is full of memories and fantasies about his hometown, Hangzhou. What is it about? The logline might give you some idea: Set in the summer of 2009 in a riverside southern Chinese town, before the shower arrives. While Li Senlin lacks inspiration for her essay, Auntie Qiu, a long absent relative and boat-woman reappears in her house and narrates an adventure of an uninhabited island… However, we may not want to summarize a film, the same way you don’t want to hold a river in palm, or lift a wandering ghost. Vanishing Days is like a fog, through which you may return to your age of innocence and curiosity. You will re-experience your childhood, while exploring something new.

The following is an exclusive interview with director ZHU Xin before Busan IFF by DeepFocus. (Zumaca)

Q: YING Jiexiao, DeepFocus Film Critic

Q: Vanishing Days is your first feature film, why did you want to tell this story and set the story in Hangzhou, your hometown?

ZHU Xin: I am currently 22-years-old and have not lived anywhere else besides Hangzhou. The hospital that I was born in is merely a couple streets away from my home now. I didn’t explore a lot of places as a child growing up so it was quite a mundane experience. Hangzhou is a very densely-populated city and to me it always felt like a small park. I hope to use the film to return to my days of childhood. The film is also like a small park, it allows me to imagine, create, and take paths that lead me to the unknown future.

I worked with DAI Ying on the script together. It started with a story that she told me about an auntie that she was acquainted with. Somehow I had trouble falling asleep that night after listening to the story, as if suddenly recalling a memory. We then started writing a script with thirty scenes – it was incomplete but the shoot began nonetheless. We would revise and shoot at the same time, therefore it was quite different from an industry-standard production. Of course, there were also a number of reasons from an objective standpoint, which supported why we had to complete the shooting in Hangzhou. But speaking from the story’s standpoint, I don’t see there being any restrictions.

Q: Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues is a low-budget director-driven film that saw great success. Vanishing Days has a much smaller budget than Kaili Blues, you must have conquered many obstacles to complete this production.

ZHU Xin: It’s difficult to say, it wasn’t all that easy. The budget for the pre-production was very small. I borrowed 20,000RMB (3,000 USD) from my parents and spent a few thousand RMB doing re-shoots later. We spent no more than 30,000RMB (4,400 USD) in total. A limited budget also led to a string of issues afterwards, including very tight schedules.

When we started shooting, we spent several days dressing the set. The apartment that was our main shooting location was not far from where I lived, I would bike over and linger there to contemplate on the set design. In the beginning, there was barely anything in the apartment. The producer wasn’t a big fan of spending money on the props, so we’d sift through dumpsters downstairs or borrow items from other peoples’ homes, so to keep the costs at a minimum. For a few days, we hung out with garbage collectors in the apartment complex and picked out used bed frames and tables from the trash. I also consulted my friend, who was studying Stage Design in Italy, on a number of important decisions. Though we spent a lot of effort on the set dressing, we didn’t have to spend as much in money.

In August 2016, we were filming for one week and actually spent six shoot days. It was quite intense as we would shoot from morning to night, and do re-shoots for scenes a couple days afterwards. I then went on a hiatus for a year. During this year, I was not in touch with anyone besides the scriptwriter and went scouting for locations by myself. It was a pretty tough year for me. I had to face the whole project by myself and didn’t really have anyone to talk to. Those around me didn’t really know what I was up to either.

In the second year I got everything together and organized three days of shooting. The entire film took no more than two weeks to shoot in actuality. At the start of the summer I called over my producer, WANG Jingyuan, and did pick-up shots for three days. We spent a whole day at the Thousand Islands, lake from morning to night, and arrived back to Hangzhou by dawn the next day. The crew was completely exhausted. I would like to thank everyone for their dedication on that day.

I was a sophomore in college at that time, and haven’t received any formal training in film yet. I learned a little about commercial shooting from the advertising classes, but did not have enough experience otherwise. However I didn’t want to wait any longer, for a few more years to become more mature and seasoned and then to begin filming. I didn’t feel that the so-called professionalism was the most important element of the equation. If I adopted the industry-standard way of production, maybe the film would have been presented better. But for how the film stands right now, I hold no regrets for anything.

I have more stories that I’d like to shoot in the future, and they bear a broader context than Vanishing Days; it will no longer be a park, but a square. As the story changes, it will also affect the way that we work with it.

Q: You weren’t even 20-years-old when you first started filming, for a feature film, isn’t that a little too young?

ZHU Xin: As a child, I always enjoyed talking about things that felt unexplainable or ambiguous, and now that I talk about them again at an older age, I attach the same kind of childhood reverie.

What’s key is that with time, things will become obscure and perhaps forgotten. In the past, technology was restricted by many more factors, which would render it very difficult or almost impossible for someone my age – at twenty-years old – to create or produce something like this.

Why does the work of a child have to force in elements of adulthood? Throughout the development of the film industry, no child has had the opportunity to make their own film. I hope to have the chance to achieve this. I believe that everyone’s childhood is one of a kind. Like the view that we have, sitting on the steps outside of a classroom; it is unique and only belongs to us.

Vanishing Days is a very bold challenge. Regardless of how much it may achieve, I have my full trust and heart in this work. I may no longer be able to make such a film in this present day. In that sense, it’s also like an ode of farewell. From this point onwards, I will make a new film. To exaggerate this a little, it is something immortal, a merely transient existence.

Q: Hangzhou is also my hometown and I can feel a strong sense of it within the film. I like the scenes of LI Senlin lying on the floor, eating watermelon and enjoying the cool air of the fan, or learning to roller skate, or buying turtles at the market. This is like a story about summer.

ZHU Xin: I wanted to create a story about summer, as my summers were always spent in an unconventional way. When I was writing the script, I would stare at the

dilapidated furniture at home, which has not been touched for over twenty years and was still kept by my father. Some pieces were stringed into the script by me and became a prop. Those pieces may not be integral to the story, but they were introduced little by little.

Take the example of the jumping ropes. I used them while preparing for the Physical Education section of the high-school entrance examination. I have to complete 180 jumps per minute in order to pass, therefore I had to practice everyday. I remember practicing in the hallways of our apartment and a lot of aunties would walk by and chit chat with my mom. The circular motion of the jumping ropes helps to create this enclosure that only belongs to me. I start from a place that I’m familiar with, this way I can have it under control. I decided on the initial aura of the film and all the other elements came surfacing slowly.

Q: In the movie, the demarcation between life and death almost does not exist. We see LI Senlin (female) living her youth and enjoying a watermelon in the summer heat, and we also see aunties and uncles laying down wreaths, the supernatural moments of the dead people running, and the suddenly mystified body.

ZHU Xin: Three years ago, I was backpacking in Varanasi in India. On my last day there, I came across an unusual scene near the Ganges – it was the burning ghat. A male corpse, who died of a sudden mystery, was being carried to the riverbank. No one knew of his identity nor did anyone come forward to claim the corpse, therefore he couldn’t be covered in a white cloth – like everyone else – but instead had to be burnt as a naked dead body, and then to have his ashes thrown into the river. That was the first time that I confronted death so directly in the eye.

From my memory, his body felt like a dark vortex, sinking ever so slowly and heavily into the river until disappearance. I don’t dare to recall any other detail, for there was something so sharp from that experience that it pierced me through. The vanishing bodies, and as they travel in space, become a phantom that cannot be ignored.

And the reason that death is so important is because it makes me become, without reservation, a self that is vulnerable, sensitive, and frank.

Q: The film featured a number of familiar surroundings besides Hangzhou, such as the Thousand Islands Lake and Laohe Mountain. How did you select these locations?

ZHU Xin: What makes Hangzhou the most special for me is that its residential areas and attraction sights are in the same vicinity and at the same time it is a very

developed city. I mentioned previously that Vanishing Days is like a park, actually it’s like map of Hangzhou that I drew by myself. Before the filming started, I hand-drew a map of all the shooting locations. If we go over the mountain (the peak is the Laohe Mountain, with Yellow Dragon cave in the middle, and edited into a few other landscapes), then you see a small island (Thousand Islands Lake), they are all interconnected and forming freely.

Q: When I was watching Vanishing Days, I could feel the moist in the air. LI Senlin (female) says that her father carries an aroma of water vapors, and follows him into a hot spring where she fell and got soaking wet. Auntie Qiu runs boats on the Great Canal. The murderer jumps into the Great Canal at the end. Everything seems to have a connection with water.

ZHU Xin: I grew up in the south of China, which is known for its waters. A lot of my childhood memories possess moisture. I used to play near the Great Canal and my grandma would order that I make one full circle around the river everyday from morning to noon, or else I wouldn’t be allowed to go home. I also had an incident where I almost drowned in a park. I fell into a big puddle of water and couldn’t catch my breath or make any sound and became so dumbfounded. Only after a couple minutes did someone arrive on the scene and saved me. There is a collection of memories about water and they emerge in accordance to the weather.

I really like Tsai Ming Liang’s The River, as it is truly a masterpiece. It’s the most touching film I’ve seen which involves an escalator and a father. I really hope to make a film that feels full of water vapors. Water is such a painterly element and I think it ought to exist in the film.

Q: The cast in Vanishing Days was all non-actors, right? How did you select them, and how did you portray them so exactly in the film?

ZHU Xin: My mom was my history teacher in middle school. When I was preparing for the film, she spent a lot of time helping with the casting, including from her circle of friends, students, colleagues, and parents. It was a very interesting selection process.

Senlin (JIANG Li) is a student of my mother’s. It was my mom’s first recommendation as she said that Jiang had a very strong desire to perform. I went to the little girl’s home and talked with her parents. Her parents asked what the direction of the film was and along the way also gave me some life advice. I let them know that I would try my best to make the film and it alleviated their worries. During the whole shoot her mother would accompany her. My mother would also sometimes help out on set, and the girl would still refer to her as “teacher”. There was something that felt slightly out of place and magical about it.

Xiao Bo is a science teacher who taught me during middle school, so we are well acquainted with each other. We rehearsed for one whole night in a lab room and we started filming. Auntie Qiu is my producer’s mother. The mother in the film is the former classmate to my mother.

I communicated often with them and it was overall quite smooth. But I wasn’t trying to make them understand the whole film, as they didn’t have a clue what the story was about from the beginning to end, but rather I tried to figure out what they were thinking and feeling. What’s important for me is that after we interact, I gain a better understanding of them and during their performance I can cater more to their personalities, therefore to help conform to the feel of the film. For example, Auntie Qiu was very nervous with Senlin on the first day of the shoot but they developed a closer relationship as the shoot progressed.

Q: Was the aerospace story [that was inserted into the subtitles] actually the essay written by Hongqi?

ZHU Xin: Yes. The scriptwriter liked playing Command & Conquer: Red Alert when she was young, the “Kirov” airship within Hongqi’s essay share the same name as the one in the video game.

At the end, the little girl should be looking at the whole tale from high above; just like drawing the map of Hangzhou, she could only see the whole map if she takes off into the skies. It was also hinted during the film that she very much hoped to be on the airship, even if it meant fighting with her brother. She finally gets her wish fulfilled through the essay.

I hope that when the audience watches the film, even if there are no flying scenes, they could still feel so in their hearts. Her wish to fly was realized through her essay and I hope I could make it possible to fly through my film as well.







采访⼈ | 应婕晓

编辑 | 冬生

































祝新:三年前,我在印度的⽡拉纳西背包旅⾏,离开的那天我在恒河边的Burning Ghat(焚⼫岸)突然看到了罕见的⼀幕,⼀个⽆名的男⼈的⾝体被抬到岸⼜,听说在街头离奇死去,没有⼈知道他的⾝份,也没有⼈来认领,于是他没有办法跟别的⼫体⼀样被⽩布包裹⽽是裸露在外直接被焚烧,随即抛洒⼊河中。这是我第⼀次这样直⾯死亡,我的记忆⾥,他的⾝体就像⼀⽚⿊⾊的漩涡,不停地低沉下去,缓缓消逝。















深焦:李森林(男)为何钟爱写下自己的名字? 森林,红旗,彩琴,秋秋,小波,名字在电影中都有什么意味?















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