Remembering Writer-director Peng Xiaolian
Film director and writer Peng Xiaolian 彭小莲 passed away on June 19, 2019. Below I share some memories about her.
In May 2003, Shanghai film director Peng Xiaolian called me and asked if I was interested in working on a documentary about the “Hu Feng Counterrevolutionary Clique” case (the PRC’s first large-scale literary persecution). By that point, I had only met her once at the Hong Kong International Film Festival of 2002, but we had been writing to each other for about two years. What’s more important is that I had already read her book about her parents: Their Times (他们的岁月). I agreed to work with her on the documentary almost right away and told her I would start to look for funding. I called her back after just a few hours, because I found that we could apply to the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam’s script development grant, but we only had one week before the deadline. Xiaolian sent me a story in Chinese the next day, and a day later I came up with a proposal and a working title for the film: Storm under the Sun (红日风暴). I couriered the proposal four days later. At the end of June, we were notified that we were one of the 17 recipients of funding out of 180 applicants, though it was only 4000 euros. In July, we started filming in Shanghai. We got a fast start indeed. The path of my life as an assistant professor suddenly changed.
Over the next three years, we took over 20 trips together to interview members of the “Hu Feng Clique.” We were warmly welcomed by everyone and engaged almost immediately in frank conversations. Xiaolian introduced me as a “young professor from Hong Kong” and invited people to tell their stories to me, because I could standd in for the majority of the audience who would know almost nothing about this part of history. Xiaolian was often emotional during the interviews, and I willingly played the role of the cool-headed camerawoman. I shot most of the interviews except for two. Our interviewees were mostly poets and writers—some of them prolific—so I had to read over three hundred books to prepare for these interviews. While taking these trips, Xiaolian and I had numerous conversations, mostly about her feature films, Shanghai culture, and her life stories.
I had already begun research on female directors of Chinese language cinema, and if my approach was different from others, I have to thank Xiaolian for her sharing creative skills and frustrations about working in the industry. Some people had once asked her to summarize the theme of Shanghai Women (假装没感觉, 2002), so she asked me: “what is the film about to you?” I replied, “this is a film about three generations of women searching for their living and spiritual spaces.” She liked my response. In order to prove myself useful, I used this tag line and introduced the film to the Turin International Women’s Film Festival. Turin paid for both Xiaolian and me to fly to Turin, so we went on a trip together to Italy. I later introduced her films to the Women’s International Film Festival in Seoul in 2008, where she was invited as Director in Focus along with five of her films. Tickets for all of her films sold out. The festival also invited me to be a judge, so we met once again in Seoul. She always liked my idea of writing a book on women directors, so she introduced me to several other Shanghai women directors like Huang Shuqin 黄蜀芹 and Shi Shujun 史蜀君. I also translated the English subtitles for some of Xiaolian’s films, such as Shanghai Story (美丽上海, 2004) and Shanghai Rumba (上海伦巴, 2006). After making Shanghai Kids (我坚强的小船, 2008), she began to have trouble locating funding for her next film.
Beginning in 2002, she came to Hong Kong several times and did lots of transcriptions from the tapes we shot for Storm under the Sun (2009). She worked 10 hours a day. I also worked day and night. When she arrived in Hong Kong in June or July of 2007, she was in shock that I was eight months pregnant and still trying to make the IDFA deadline in August. But we had no time to lose. I gave her a script I put together. She revised it and recorded the voice over. I gave her an edited version in the morning; she responded with a list of 150 revisions to be done. Storm under the Sun’s early version went to Amsterdam in December 2007, but she did not go. The final version premiered in Hong Kong in 2009. She did not come either. I was a little disappointed at the time; if she had showed up and participated in the sharing sessions with the audience, it would have been a much more unforgettable experience. I understood her reason though: “what do I do if they ban me from making film?” Storm under the Sun is still showing its influence. After being exhibited at NYC’s Guggenheim Museum curated by Ai Weiwei last year, it is now available on Kanopy.
Xiaolian was never banned for political reasons from filmmaking, but she was not so accommodating when it came to investors. Ten years had passed before she could make another feature film: Please Remember Me (请你记住我, 2018). I find in this film, the “me” combines actress Huang Zongying 黄宗英, Shanghai film culture, and film—the plastic medium that records light and sound. The film’s title sounded like a cry of despair to me, even though the film was beautifully done, and ironically, in digital format. All her other feature films were shot on celluloid.
Between 2007 and 2017, she published four non-fiction books based on real people and real lives, as well as three collections of film journals. She wrote tirelessly. I read all her books with amazement. When she could not make feature films, she felt a deep sense of failure. I started to write an essay in English in an attempt to show that she was a unique writer with a distinct female subjectivity that seamlessly combines history and emotion, words and images. She was often called a member of China’s “Fifth Generation” of filmmakers, but she never liked the designation. Whereas her Beijing Film Academy classmates all went “mainstream,” she stayed with the humanistic and realist films she believed in.
In the past two years, the WeChat platform suddenly began to help her claim a lot of readers. Excerpts of her old and new books, her reviews and short stories, and interviews about her new film have been circulated on the platform. She was surprised to see the power of this new platform. I can foresee that her works will continue to be discovered by more readers.
My last chat with her was three days ago, when she told me she had a new book coming out from Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, titled Editor Zhong Shuhe: A Documentary on Paper. I knew she had been working on the book for a while and was eager to read it. She told me to bring some copies for her to Shanghai when the book comes out next month. Yesterday came the shocking news of her sudden passing. In retrospect, I find the title of this last book really meaningful. When she could no longer make films, she would write. Did she already know that this last “documentary” would stay on paper only?
June 20, 2019 Hong Kong