By Fiona Sze Lorrain
Copyright MCLC Resource Center (January 2008)
The City of Marseille had designated 2003 Gao Xingjian Year, and it was in the context of three events scheduled to celebrate his work that the film Silhouette sinon l’ombre (Silhouette / Shadow) was conceived. A large-scale exhibition of his Chinese ink paintings titled “L’Errance de l’oiseau” was held at Musée de la Vieille Charité (July 30-September 30) and his play Le quêteur de la mort (The Man Who Questions Death) was performed at Théâtre du Gymnase, September 23-26. During rehearsals for the play, he collapsed and was hospitalized, but with the assistance of Romain Bonnin went on to direct the performances. However, his health continued to deteriorate to such an extent that the third major event, his grand opera Bayue xue (Snow in August), was postponed until further notice.
Gao Xingjian had been flirting with death. After being crowned 2000 Nobel Laureate for Literature (fig. 1), he continued to work on large projects while at the same time also dealing with an endless stream of interviews and social commitments. He had for a long time suffered from high blood pressure and associated problems, and while in Taipei directing rehearsals for Snow in August he was hospitalized, although he recovered to direct the world premiere of the opera in December 2002 at the National Theater in Taipei. He then rushed back to Paris to direct the performance of his play Quatre quatuors pour un week-end (Weekend Quartet) at Comédie Française before undergoing major surgery (carotid endaterectomy) in February and March of 2003. After a few months of rest, now already well into Gao Xingjian Year, he was in Marseille completing works for his exhibition and then directing rehearsals for his play The Man Who Questions Death.
One might conjecture that because of the extraordinary honor bestowed upon him by the City of Marseille, Gao Xingjian was anxious to make the scheduled events happen regardless of his fragile health. But Gao also has an obsessive drive to share his creations, and he no doubt pushed himself too far. In any case, it was his subsequent declining health that would force him to curb his creative activities, and to rethink his life. His creative drive did not diminish, but he was forced to channel this drive into activities that would not send his blood pressure soaring out of control. He returned to living the life of a recluse, and, only able to work for a couple of hours each day for almost a year, he devoted his creative energies almost exclusively to painting, continuing to exhibit his works, but without making an appearance for the launch.
In January of 2005 he finally directed performances of Snow in August at Opéra Marseille (fig. 2). He also resumed work on Silhouette / Shadow, completing the final version in early 2006. Since then his health has continued to improve steadily, and he is now accepting a limited number of invitations overseas. In 2007 he was present for his exhibitions: “La Fin du Monde” at the Ludwig Museum in Koblenz (Germany) and “Between Figurative and Abstract” at the Snite Museum of Art at Notre Dame University in the United States.
Crucial to the production of Silhouette / Shadow was Gao Xingjian’s encounter with the two filmmakers Alain Melka and Jean-Louis Darmyn who had been tracking the Gao Xingjian events in Marseille for a short documentary. Intrigued by the kind of film Gao was proposing, they agreed to help produce it. Gao Xingjian wrote his first screenplay Hua dou in July 1982, but when the film production failed to materialize, he published it as a short story in 1984. Prior to that, he had already established the basic principles for the sort of film he wanted to make.
In April 2007, Gao wrote both Chinese and French versions of an essay called “Concerning Silhouette / Shadow.” The following is a summary of key points of that work, as well as a few of my own comments. He states that his screenplay Hua dou is a multi-camera script for parallel filming, written in three blocs: for picture, sounds or music, and language. He had separated the language from sounds or music to allow language to form an independent and autonomous component, making his notion of film substantively different from the two-component audiovisual standard generally used in filmmaking. His rationale is that sounds or music–as is the case with picture–are directly perceived, and hence provoke immediate reactions and associations. Language, on the other hand, can only be used to communicate with those who know the language. Moreover, words and phrases are constructed from concepts that have undergone a thought process and are therefore abstractions, and sentences convey meaning according to grammatical rules of a specific language. In other words, the intellect and thought processes are involved in transmitting and receiving speech meaning.
In what he calls “tripartite film,” the three components–picture, sounds or music, and language–each has independence and autonomy, while complementing, combining, and contrasting with the others to produce new meanings. Sounds or music and language are not regarded as subsidiary components subordinate to the image, and each of the three can predominate to form an independent theme while the other two serve to complement or contrast. In this way film becomes a composite art form: the film is no longer simply a work in which the image always prevails and determines everything.
The general practice in popular narrative films is to develop the story with images, which are then matched with dialogues between characters, with music or sounds added to arouse emotions or to highlight scenery. Documentaries are constructed in a similar way: pictures of real places are matched up with explanations or commentary. But Gao Xingjian is not interested in making such films. Instead, by fully exploiting the potential of each of the three components technologically available in film, his stated aim is to create films that possess greater inherent freedom.
Following discussions with a German filmmaker, Gao wrote a second screenplay. Again, it was never filmed, and he published it in 1986 as the short story “Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather.” This work incorporates real scenes, dreams, memories, recollections, imaginings, associations and even parts of an actual television broadcast–that of the World Cup in Mexico City. He also worked on a third screenplay for a French film company after relocating from Beijing to Paris at the end of 1987. It too came to nothing because it turned out that they had wanted a film about China that would stimulate a sense of the exotic for Western audiences. The screenplay was subsequently published in 1991 as the short story “In an Instant,” although Gao Xingjian himself refers to it as a “cinematic poem.”
A distinctive feature of Gao Xingjian’s literary creations is that they have a strong audiovisual quality. This unique quality is manifest in “In an Instant.” Gao Xingjian is at once writer, artist, dramatist, photographer, and filmmaker, and it is for this reason that his creations often defy conventional generic classifications. In any case, the generic classification of “In an Instant” is less important than the fact that it is a literary text that evokes a prolonged series of powerful visual images that succeed in triggering a wide range of sensations, as is Gao Xingjian’s intention in this “cinematic poem.”
Gao’s creative explorations are highly experimental. He finds it impossible to replicate a completed painting, and with each new literary work he sets out to investigate something new that has captured his imagination. Obsessively curious, Gao is relentless in his desire to expand the expressive potential of whichever media he works in. The intellectual and aesthetic challenge he sets for himself is that all his works must satisfy his own critical and creative demands as he relocates himself in the position of reader or member of an audience. He had experienced life under a repressive regime during which he was acutely aware of his self being progressively annihilated, as he and an entire population were coerced into thinking and behaving as prescribed by their political masters. His affirmation and reclaiming of the self has resulted in a strong autobiographical impulse that is aesthetically reflected in most of his works, but perhaps most clearly in his novels Soul Mountain and One Man’s Bible.
In the late 1990s, Gao Xingjian began to ponder the prospect of death in his writings. He had been taking high blood pressure medication for some years, and toward the end of his novel One Man’s Bible, he writes about getting short of breath when walking uphill and not having the “inexhaustible energy” he once had. He also notes that writing is not his “goal in life” but that he writes in order to “experience more fully this instant of time.” For him, life is like the shadows that are illuminated for an instant by the headlights of a car driving past at night. While writing One Man’s Bible from 1996 to 1998, he was already preparing the groundwork for his next two projects: The Man Who Questions Death and Snow in August, both of which discuss death.
Silhouette / Shadow is the first film Gao Xingjian has produced (fig. 3). Aware that it will not fit into any existing film classification, he suggests that it could be thought of as either a cinematic poem or as a modern fable. The film has a factual basis in the Gao Xingjian Year events that have been described above. There is footage of Gao Xingjian the artist absorbing himself in music, entering a Zen-like state, and then pouring ink onto the paper for a large-size painting (fig. 4), and there is footage of the actual exhibition. He is also shown directing rehearsals for The Man Who Questions Death and Snow in August, and there is footage of the actual stage productions of these two works. These scenes are interwoven with his psychological activities during the inception and production of his works. He explains that the film has three levels. Reality, imagination, and the emergence of the works form the “first level” of the film, and real scenes are presented in color. The “second level” shows him at work, and the original colors fade as they transform into cold or warm hues according to his psychological state. The film also crosses to a “third level,” as the picture turns black-and-white to enter the world of the imagination, the inner mind. The film oscillates between these three levels, and it does not follow any conventional narrative structure. But by using meanings inherent in the picture, the music or sounds, or the language, the film evokes viewers’ reactions and associations that transcend any factual background.
In creating the film Silhouette / Shadow, the camera acts like the artist’s eye in observing the subject, and Gao Xingjian fully exploits his artist’s eye to modulate color contrasts and tones according to emotional changes, or crosses from black-and-white to different gradations of color, even to the point of color saturation, as well as varying degrees of light and dark, including overexposure. He also makes use of techniques available in filmmaking such as zooming and panning within scenes. In this way, each frame can be appreciated for its aesthetic beauty as plastic art or as precision photography. His claim is that
this form of observation and process of observation have a much greater propensity for evoking psychological reactions and associations. This concentrated gaze can constitute a film language rich with connotations, and, by changing the line of vision the activated associations are able to transcend the picture. All these techniques increase the capacity of the picture to expand, making it richer in meaning as well as more independent and autonomous, so that it ceases to be subordinate to situations and events of the narrative that are extraneous to the picture. The dialogues of the characters and the explanations extraneous to the picture are also expendable.
At times in the film, sounds or music become the theme, and the picture is subsidiary, so the same picture, or a similar picture may appear. The sounds or music engage in a dialogue with viewers, and a frame can even be blank, frozen, or hazy. Stillness and moments of silence, too, are employed as language in the film. In the shots of the sky, it is the sound of the wind, and the sea gulls that predominate and engage viewers. In the art of film, he recognizes that language is invested with powers that are superior to the written word because it becomes audio-language, human sounds that can be directly perceived. His expertise and talents in writing, performance, painting, and photography are all manifested in the film, which by his own definition is “total art.”
Music plays an essential role in focusing and directing Gao Xingjian’s creative energies. After selecting appropriate pieces, he follows their musical phrases and movements as he creates. The sense of sound and movement can be detected clearly in his fiction, and his Chinese ink wash paintings are also infused with various rhythms. He is highly sensitive to music, but he recognizes that composing music is beyond his abilities. The music for his opera Snow in August is the work of the composer Xu Shuya, who had moved from China to Paris in 1988. It is mainly Xu Shuya’s music that narrates in the film Silhouette / Shadow. When the picture is that of desolate lanes and graves, Xu Shuya’s haunting music provokes thoughts and associations for those whose childhood memories are filled with such scenes. And for those who have not experienced the reality of such scenes, his music has the power to unlock the imagination and conjure up associations that are linked to one’s own experiences. In the film, the montage in scenes and reflections in the mixture of ink-and-water that Gao Xingjian pours onto the rice paper laid onto the ground are created by following the rhythms and phrases of Xu Shuya’s music.
The film also features an extract from the modern symphony Requiem for a Young Poet by the German composer Bernd Alois Zimmerman. It is a cacophony of noisy chatter in different languages that Gao Xingjian notes are “the inflammatory speeches of mad leaders or politicians.” Accompanying this extract are pictures of tall buildings with windows shut tight, houses and shops overgrown with weeds and barbed wires hung with rags and necklaces. These contrasts evoke powerful associations, as is Gao Xingjian’s intention. Bach’s Mass in B Minor is presented in its entirety to accompany footage of his exhibition at the Musée de la Vieille Charité that had in Bach’s time been a church (fig. 5). He notes that the music no longer provokes thoughts of Christ dying for humankind because the church has been transformed into a different sort of space. Thus, in one of his paintings that hangs in the church, it is hard to tell if it is a person or a bird on the cross.
Gao Xingjian notes that the film presents death in three modes. The first is an image of the inner mind (fig. 6). Clearly, it is linked to his brush with death while directing rehearsals of The Man Who Questions Death. The second are the deliberations on death in the soliloquy presented by the actor in dialogue with his shadow in a museum of contemporary art. The third is the death of Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of the Zen School of Buddhism in his opera Snow in August.
Interspersed in the film are flashbacks that Gao Xingjain must have experienced as he faced what he thought was impending death as he was rushed in an ambulance to hospital. He states that in the film are his recollections of childhood, war and disaster, love, sex, death, life and art, existence and non-existence, and between the scenes there is much space for viewers to insert their own interpretations depending on their personal experiences.
In conclusion, I would like to add a few more of my observations and thoughts on the film. Gao Xingjian’s fascination with the limitless textures created by the interaction of light and shadows that is evident in his Chinese ink paintings is also reflected in the film. In fact there is an intimate relationship between his painting and film, both of which are also linked with his keen interest in photography. Although he now paints exclusively with Chinese ink and creates black-and-white images, this had not always been the case. He had undertaken formal instruction in Western oil painting from the age of thirteen, and had entertained a serious ambition to paint like the great European masters. Two trips to Europe in 1979 and 1980 where he visited museums and galleries in Paris, Florence, Venice and Rome convinced him that he would never be able to achieve that ambition. He therefore abandoned oil painting, and instead devoted his efforts to expanding the expressive potential of Chinese ink painting. The rich textures of European oil painting was what he set out to recreate in his black-and-white Chinese ink paintings that are images of his inner mind. In describing his painting he writes:
Whereas modern and contemporary painting uses colors and materials on the flat surface, I prefer to use black and white for the re-appropriation of light in my search for a spiritual realm. In my painting the light does not come from an external source. When a person looks inwards, wherever he gazes into the darkness will radiate with light. The fusion of the water and the ink allows the light of this inner vision to reveal itself in the painting.
In the film Silhouette / Shadow colors and textures are brilliantly manifested but natural sunlight is used as the camera focuses on old building façades, crumbling ruins and rubble, zooming and panning to capture scenes that are artworks in motion to be appreciated, both separately and as a part of the film (fig. 7). Old buildings with faded paint and graffiti provide rich contrasts of stone, brick and mortar, wooden doors and window frames, and iron balustrades. The buildings and ruins once housed numerous generations of anonymous people all with their own stories, and are a focus of a film that ignites recollections and associations in viewers, or else invites viewers to allow their imagination to wander. But essentially they are for the aesthetic gratification of the filmmaker Gao Xingjian.
There is the recurring motif of a gull soaring or cruising in untrammeled flight in the film. The freedom embodied in the bird’s flight is emblematic of Gao Xingjian’s attitude to his work as a creative writer or artist, and as an individual. Indeed, “L’Errance de l’oiseau,” the untrammeled flight of a bird, the title of his exhibition in Marseille, articulates and reiterates the sense of freedom he firmly believes he has fought for and won as a creative artist and writer.
Real images of the female body in the film bear striking resemblance to those that appear in his paintings (fig. 8). The sensuousness of the female form is filmed in fixed frames or in motion, and zooming is used to present a concentrated observation. These real female forms are identifiably captured in his paintings that, although created with a few brush strokes, are infused with a rich sensuousness and concentrated energy.
Céline Yang, Gao Xingjian’s partner of more than two decades, figures prominently in the film. Her appearance especially at the beginning and the end of the film suggests that the film is a dedication to her. At the same time, it is a statement of her importance to his creative life. There are a number of frozen frames of her slim figure and her face. In most cases, the footage is in various monochromes, indicating that she is located in his thoughts or imagination. When he is driven away in the ambulance, the flashed image of her face filled with abject horror alerts the viewer that Gao Xingjian has collapsed and is in a critical state. But it is the piercing scream of the boy that makes it clear that he himself believed death was imminent. This confrontation with death projects him into the past, and this is manifested visually though the person of the boy who is Gao Xingjian.
 Silhouette sinon l’ombre (Digital Média Production and Théâtre du Gymnase, 2006) was produced by Gao Xingjian, Alain Melka, and Jean-Louis Darmyn, in conjunction with Triangle Méditerranée (Marseille). It was featured at the Berlin International Festival of Literature (2006), and also at venues such as the Modern Art Museum in Bern (Switzerland) and at the University of Pisa (Italy).
 Catalogue: Gao Xingjian, L’Errance de l’oiseau (Paris: Seuil, 2003). In Silhouette / Shadow a poster bearing the first words of his poem “L’Errance de l’oiseau” is shown at the entrance of the Museum. To coincide with the Marseille events, another Gao Xingjian exhibition was held at Musée des Tapisseries in the neighboring City of Aix-en-Provence (July 12 to September 22, 2003). Catalogue: Gao Xingjian, Ni Mots ni signes: Encres de Chine sur papier 1964-2000 (Vieille d’Aix-en-Provence: Musée des Tapisseries, 2003).
 See Gilbert C. F. Fong’s translation in Gao Xingjian, Escape & The Man Who Questions Death (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2007).
 See Gilbert C. F. Fong’s translation in Gao Xingjian, Snow in August (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2003).
 See Fong’s “Introduction: Marginality, Zen and Omnipotent Theatre” in Gao Xingjian, Snow in August (2003).
 Gao Xingjian, Quatre quatuors pour un week-end (Canière-Morlanwelz (Belgium): Lansman, 1998). See Fong’s translation in The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1999).
 March 28 to May 27, 2007. Catalogue: Gao Xingjian, La Fin du Monde (Koblenz: Kerber Verlag, 2007).
 September 2007. Catalogue: Gao Xingjian, Between Figurative and Abstract (Notre Dame, Indiana: Snite Museum of Art, 2007).
 Titled Un Oiseau dans la ville produced by Digital Media Production, 2003.
 Dated 14 July 1982, and published in Renmin wexue, 9 (1984). First collected in Gao Xingjian, Gei wo laoye mai yugan (Taipei: Lianhe wenxue, 1989).
 “Guanyu Ceying huo yingzi” and “A propos de La Silhouette sinon l’ombre” were both completed 17 April 2007. My translation from the Chinese as “Concerning Silhouette / Shadow” is included in Fiona Sze-Lorrain, ed., Silhouette / Shadow: The Cinematic Art of Gao Xingjian (Paris: Contours, 2007).
 Gao Xingjian, “Concerning Silhouette / Shadow.”
 First published as “Gei wo laoye mai yugan” in Renmin wenxue, 9 (Beijing, 1986). I have translated this as “Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather” in Gao Xingjian, Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather (New York, Sydney, London: HarperCollins, 2004).
 First published as “Shunjian” in Jintian, 1 (Stockholm, 1991), and collected in Gao Xingjian, Zhoumo sichongzou (Hong Kong: New Century Publishing House, 1996). I have translated this as “In an Instant” in Gao Xingjian, Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather (2004).
 Gao, “Concerning Silhouette / Shadow.”
 Lingshan (Taipei: Lianjing Publishing House,1990) was published as Soul Mountain (Sydney, New York, London: HarperCollins, 2000), and Yige ren de shengjing (Taipei: Lianjing, 1999) was published as One Man’s Bible (New York, Sydney, London, 2002). Both are my translations.
 “Concerning Silhouette / Shadow.”
 Cf. Ibid.
 Born 1961 in Changchun, China. He taught composition at the Shanghai Conservatory (1978-83), then winning a French scholarship traveled to Paris for further studies in 1988 at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique. His major creations include the symphonies Nirvana and Les Larmes de Marco Polo, and the vocal concerto L’Ame de Lamu. He is the recipient of major awards for his compositions, and his works have been performed internationally. See Gao Xingjian, Bayue xue (Taipei: Xingzheng yuan wenhua jianshe weiyuanhui, 2002).
 Cf. “Concerning Silhouette / Shadow.”
 Cf. Ibid.
 Cf. Ibid.
 See Gao Xingjian, “Juxiang yu chouxiang zhi jian” (15 February 2007) that I have translated as “Between Figurative and Abstract” in Gao Xingjian, Between Figurative and Abstract (Notre Dame, Indiana: Snite Museum of Art, 2007).