Unlike most writer-directors working on their debut feature, Quan Ling is no stranger to success. An accomplished short story writer and novelist, her work features in high-calibre literary magazines. She is at ease among China’s elite artistic types. So after a semi-formal encounter with director-producer Jia Zhangke, who promised her funding, Quan set about writing her first script with the industrious air in which she churns out fiction.
The creative process, she found, was more wearying. ‘You need a basic outline of the story first, then you write the script,’ Quan says. ‘Later the plot might be changed, based on the reaction of [early] viewers, or on input from the actors and producers. Also, some of my peers and other scriptwriters in my circle voiced their opinions.’ After numerous revisions, Quan’s ‘essaystyle’ script was stripped down to a version she found terse. ‘Certainly, it’s not an ideal product,’ she sighs. ‘But I’m satisfied.’
When Quan’s budget domestic drama Forgetting to Know You premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last year, it was received warmly, with The Hollywood Reporter calling it an ‘intriguing’ debut. Set in the suffocating summer heat of suburban Chongqing, the vast metropolis in which Quan was born in 1975, the film follows a couple whose loving, if frayed, marriage unravels.
Xuesong (Tao Hong) spends her days running a shabby convenience store with only the affections of her daughter and attentions of a lustful cabbie cutting the monotony. Husband Cai Weihang (Guo Xiaodong) is a carpenter at a near-bankrupt furniture firm. The fissures in their marriage are apparent in an opening scene involving Xuesong’s meddling mother-in-law. They become wider amid the couples’ muddling communication and mutual distrust (both rifle through the others’ pockets). Cai’s creeping suspicions about his wife’s infidelities grow as Xuesong’s ex – a thriving property man – encroaches on the scene and Cai’s own financial footing becomes less secure. Xuesong, a feisty and at times brittle spouse, pricks rather than placates until tensions climax in a perhaps unforgivable act of marital brutality. It’s an unconventional approach to a conventional story. The Hollywood Reporter calls it ‘a real movie from a new filmmaker with a point of view.’
‘I love portraying ordinary people’s lives,’ says Quan. ‘Traditional family values are wavering. What I want to do is to catch a fragment of a couple’s life and leave an open ending. The end of all relationships depend on things like how well [a couple] understand each other, how well they communicate and how they handle obstacles.’ Before Berlin, a concern for Quan had been that a film so ‘Chinese’ would not travel – if you visit Baisha near Chongqing, where the film is based, she says, it should feel exactly like the film. At the festival, Quan found she had in fact struck on the universal. ‘Audience members came up and shared their impressions,’ she says. ‘They said they felt the same way and could identify with the characters in my film.’
That Forgetting to Know You was so well received owes much to Quan’s talent as a writer but also to the infrastructure provided by Jia Zhangke. Jia, a long-time favourite at foreign film festivals, has a scheme aimed at fostering young local talent, the Add Wings project. (Jia’s A Touch of Sin ran into trouble with censors in China but won best screenplay at Cannes in 2013.) He served as executive producer on Forgetting to Know You, the third feature to benefit from Add Wings. Besides funding, Jia lent directing guidance on set and advice about which scenes should be cut during editing. Quan’s respect for the director is clear. ‘I feel he is a person who can bear hardships,’ she says. ‘The times I was stood beside him he was at work. You know, lots of people I know in my circle are kind of free and at leisure. Jia hardly ever rests.’
Two regular Jia contributors, cinematographer Nelson Yu Likwai and composer Lim Giong, add a dense visual texture and a languorous score, which help the film avoid the trappings of sentimentalism that a story of a marriage in crisis can encourage. Ultimately, though, this is a study of character, which is perhaps where Quan’s talent as a writer comes to the fore.
Chongqing women inspired the resourceful Xuesong, Quan says. ‘She has her own opinions and ideas about life, but often her mind is blurry. Not every woman is born with an ability to analyse rationally. That requires conditions such as extensive reading or higher education. Most women, like Xuesong, are going about their lives unthinkingly and time passes in a haze.’ Xuesong might be plucky, but she is also traditional. ‘She doesn’t seek a divorce after she’s domestically abused. She sticks by her husband.’ That husband, Cai, also stands as a sort of everyman. ‘In modern Chinese society a person’s economic status really matters,’ Quan says. ‘Men are being overtaxed by lots of requirements. I think Cai Weihang’s insecurity comes from a consciousness of his poor economic status. As a carpenter, Cai is a very, very common person in other peoples’ eyes.’
Quan laments the loss of some scenes in early script drafts that fleshed out her characters. Alas, a film works best at 90 minutes, she says. The most important characteristic of a director, she learned, is knowing how to choose – from picking the right actors to knowing what to abandon in the editing process. ‘I felt a more androgynous part of myself came out during the making of this film,’ she says. ‘I feel more feminine writing novels. Now I am hardheaded. The core of this film is bleak. But that is the real world.’
Forgetting to Know You is in cinemas around town from Friday 29 August.