‘Cinema, Too, Is Literature’:
Conversing with Gao Xingjian

By Fiona Sze Lorrain

Copyright MCLC Resource Center (March 2008)

Fig. 1: Gao Xingjian (left) and Fiona Lorrain (right) during a public dialogue in November 2007.

Fig. 1: Gao Xingjian (left) and Fiona Lorrain (right) during a public dialogue in November 2007.

This dialogue montage assembles extracts of conversations between Gao Xingjian and Fiona Sze Lorrain, held on various occasions–both private and public–between October 2006 and December 2007. Centering on Silhouette/Shadow (originally titled as La Silhouette sinon l’ombre in French), Gao’s first film feature completed in 2006, the dialogue explores the multi-disciplinary French-Chinese writer’s interests in cinema as a form of aesthetics and artistic expression. It also serves as a preliminary discussion concerning his approaches toward filmmaking as an art and craft. Arranged, compiled, edited, and translated into English by the author, the conversations were originally conducted in both French and Chinese.

FSL: Gao Xingjian, what inspired you, as a novelist, playwright, poet, stage director and painter, to explore cinema as an
artistic medium now?

GXJ: I have always been interested in making films, even when I was in China during the early 1980s. At that time, I had published my first screenplay-cum-short story, Huadou (1984), but since I was already a banned writer, I could never have a chance to bring Huadou to screen with a film director or crew. Huadou was my first attempt to create a multi-camera script; I divided the page into three blocs: picture, sounds, and music, as well as language. Each of the three elements can communicate with one another in different combinations. This already deviates from the usual two-part score of picture and sound in most movies today. The short story “Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather” (1986) was in fact planned initially as a screenplay when some years later, an independent German filmmaker had approached me for a film project. It became a short story only because this film project never happened! Again, a few years later, I had a series of meetings with a Parisian film producer who promised to give me everything I needed for making a film. But once more, this plan backfired because I did not wish to make an Oriental Chinese film as they wanted. So the series of images and texts that I had prepared for this third film project developed into my next short story, In an Instant (1991). As you can see, these three literary texts that I had written earned their genesis from cinema.

FSL: You introduced Silhouette/Shadow as a film that defies classification. You also stated that it is not fictional, neither was it documentary nor biographical. So, what is Silhouette/Shadow about ?  

GXJ: Silhouette/Shadow is a film that lasts approximately one and a half hours. It begins with a man driving and walking all by  himself in a deserted city. Between his memories and surroundings, he seeks to understand emptiness, life, death, love, and humanity. The entire film is in French, though parts of the dialogue at the end, specifically the scenes from the opera Snow in August (Neige en août) are in Chinese. The film also includes footage of rehearsals that I had with the actors when we were preparing for the play, Le Quêteur de la mort (The Man Who Questions Death).

FSL: Silhouette/Shadow has a very strong and evident poetic bent. One third of its script is based on your poem, Way of the Wandering Bird (L’Errance de l’oiseau) : “If you are a bird/ No more than a bird/ With the wind’s first breath/ You fly away . . .”[1] The recurring motif of a gull soaring high in the sky is also an overarching theme in the entire film.

GXJ: Well, the filming phase began when I completed the poem, L’Errance de l’oiseau. This was my first free verse poem written in French. . . . Liberty is very valuable to me . . . and to anyone else too, of course. I had suffered a lot of hardship in my earlier years, and I believe my entire life is a statement about searching and obtaining individual freedom. Another principal theme in the film is death: fearing it, confrontating it, walking away from it. . . . Yes, Silhouette/Shadow is in itself a poem! That is why I prefer to call this film “a cinematic poem.” To me, cinema, like painting or photography, is poetry . . . Cinema, too, is literature.

FSL: And is that why you insist on a literary approach in making a film?

GXJ: Exactly. Of course, film is primarily about images, but how images move, flow, and transit is another subject. I separate words from images and sounds in my film because words are neither visual nor audio. Instead, they are conceptual, they are abstract.[2] When I say words, I imply phrases, sentences, texts; I do not include music, sounds, or even silence, because each of these four components are independent elements in the text itself, let alone in the entire film. But when I say that cinema is literature, I do not imply that cinema is definitely a language. It can be, of course, but I personally find it more useful and interesting to think of it not as a language, but as a means to illuminate any sort  of “intelligibility,” a condition through which language constructs its subjects and objects.

FSL: In that case, purely optical or sound images that cannot extend into action will become a way in which aesthetics breaks free out from the determining systems and structures of linguistics. In doing so, it enables us to perceive the world differently, or imagine it otherwise.

GXJ: Yes . . . and that is what I find quite lamentable about the majority of films that we are exposed to in today’s modern world. Most of the commercial films are mainly about actions, but not necessarily about perception or movement. By saying so, it does not mean that I condemn such action films; they are not always and necessarily bad. But I do find it lamentable, because there are so many other unlimited possibilities that a camera can evoke, but the spectators, once caught up in the excitement of highly charged emotional scenes or fast-paced action, do not get to see them.

FSL: You have a rather complex relationship with colours in general. As a painter, you engaged in colours for your oil paintings, until the late 1970s, when you visited Paris for the first time and saw the originals of Van Gogh’s and Monet’s in the museums. After returning to China, you abandoned oil completely and devoted yourself to ink instead. Through ink, you explore the nuances of hue induced by the passage from black to white and vice-versa, experimenting with gradated shades, light contrasts and depths in paintings. In a manner, your paintings become a kind of plastic art. Throughout the film Silhouette/Shadow, you also seem to engage in a similar plastic language by using a specially arranged colorimetry. Can you share more about this aspect?

GXJ: My first “relevation” about colours took place during my “odyssey” in 1983-84 when I fled Peking for the mountains and the Yangtze River.[3] For ten months, I experienced complete solitude. There were days when I walked without seeing one person, or having any kinds of human contact. I remember walking and witnessing through the dense foliage above me how the dusk set in from the far corners of the sky. It was an unforgetable phenomenon. I saw sunlight penetrate through clouds, diffusing over a spectrum of colours so subtle and detailed that it was no longer a kind of visibility, but sensuality. Light has depth and perspective. Although I paint in ink, I actually think a lot about colours. For example, I always wonder how we remember or dream of colours. In Silhouette/Shadow, colours are time-sensitive. This is because this film deals with three “realities”: real, psychological, and  maginative. Colours transform gradually as one reality transmutes into another. In this way, colours are not just aesthetics; they embrace a meaning.

FSL: How about your actors? How did you work with them?

GXJ: Other than Thierry Bose and Damien Rémy, two French actors who played the protagonists of The Man Who Questions Death, and the troupe of Taiwanese actors who performed in the opera Snow in August, there were actually only three or four other actors involved in the film: me, my wife, a young lady, an old woman, and a young boy, . . . and that is all.[4] I worked with the actors just as I did previously when rehearsing for plays. I did not change my directing style deliberately. I used stage acting to break free from realistic or naturalistic performances.

FSL: As music, you chose J. S. Bach’s Mass in B minor and the contemporary German composer Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s Requiem for a Young Poet. In addition, you commissionned Xu Shuya to compose for the scenes in which you walk across black ink with your bare feet. His music also punctuates consecutive close eye-shots of your paintings that reveal the emotional details of the ink. Can you elaborate on your choice of music?

GXJ: I believe that film music does not simply intensify emotions, nor does it just create an ambiance that corresponds to the picture. As I said, it is an independent element and sometimes can be more important than the picture. Bach is one of my all-time favourite composers. I often listen to Bach when I paint. I chose extracts of Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s Requieum for a Young Poet for the scenes of war-torn buildings and childhood memories of war times. This is a modern symphony that experiments with human voices and instrumental tonalities. The extracts I had chosen contained inflammatory speeches of fanatic leaders and politicians as well as simultaneous gibberish of various languages that evoke strong associations of voices embedded in one’s war memories. Xu Shuya, on the other hand, is a good friend of mine. A few years back, he composed for me the opera music for Snow in August. For Silhouette/Shadow, I filmed fragments of the opera when it was being performed in January 2005 at Marseille Opera House. The separate set of film music that Xu Shuya composed is rather haunting and evocative, especially in the montages of isolated lanes and graves. His music prompts the pictures but has its own rhythmical architecture.

FSL: In Silhouette/Shadow, you created a sharp minialist touch in which silence dominated for the large part of the film. There were also several long panning shots of an individual situated within a vast natural  landscape. Take for instance the ending of the film: you appear with a camera in your hands, walking towards your wife in the strong wind, against the backdrop of lapping sea waves. There were other “naked” moments of the sky, mountains, pasture lands . . . would you agree that your love for nature plays a vital role in this film?

GXJ: Well, I think the fact that I am still existing is by the grace of nature. A human life is so fragile in comparison to the omnipresent nature. I have a great affinity and respect for nature; it has a force that attracts me unceasingly. My novel Soul Mountain (1990) is a testimony of my survival after having lived next to nature and nothing else for five months. Today, I exist physically and internally, between nature and civilisation. But I do realise that I communicate more smoothly with the former than the latter.

FSL: Other than you being the director and screenwriter of Silhouette/Shadow, Alain Melka and Jean-Louis
Darmyn from the Triangle Méditarranée Studio in Marseille were also credited as the film’s co-directors. What exactly was the collaboration process like, both artistically and technically? Can you elaborate about the  collaborative spirits that the trio of you shared?

GXJ: First of all, the entire filmmaking journey was long and difficult. It required a tremendous amount of patience, perseverance, and tenaciousness. Logistically, I encountered a lot of obstacles. For example, looking for the sites that corresponded to what I had imagined took me a lot of time. Eventually when I found them, I still needed to go through lots of red tape from various authorities to obtain filming permission. It was unbelievable. The film took three years to be completed officially. This was unanticipated due to my frail health at that time. The film was shot mostly in Marseille, but also in Paris. Some of its fragments were reproduced from previous video-recordings of my rehearsals with the Taiwanese actors during the opera production, Snow in August in December 2006 in Taipei. We began filming it in 2003, when I was in Marseille. At that time, the city of Marseille was hosting the “Year of Gao Xingjian” (L’Année de Gao Xingjian), where it held a series of activities concerning my artistic work. There were a large-scale
painting exhibition L’Errance de l’oiseau, the play The Man Who Questions Death and the opera Snow in August. In-between all these activities of directing, painting, and writing, I embarked upon filming Silhouette/Shadow. The city of Marseilles funded the film, too, amongst other projects. Besides directing the film, I conceived and wrote the script. I also prepared the montage, which is yet another time-consuming process. Both Alain Melka [5] and Jean-Louis Darmyn[6] are excellent technicians, in terms of  operating wtih the cameras. In reality, Alain and Jean-Louis are video and radio journalists who make independant documentary films as well. I met them when they were following me for a while, preparing to make a short documentary called Un Oiseau dans la ville (A Bird in the City)[7] that is based on my creative activities in Marseille. Gradually, we became friends, and out of good will, they offered to help me make this film. I agreed. Actually, in strict terms, there were only three of us who worked full-time on the film. Alain and Jean-Louis worked very hard on this project; there was so much to be done and so little manpower. On top of that, I kept making changes till the last moment of filming, because it was crucial to me that the film, despite its entire layered structure of narrative, time, place, space, image, psychology, language, etc. . . , must be visually coherent and stark. The editing process was an incredibly long and exhausting process; we invested a lot of time, energy, and money into details, however minute they were. We could not afford to hire more full-time staff because of budget constraints. In truth, this entire film would not be possible, if not for all the warmth and ardent support from friends. As you can see, the list of credits and acknowledgments that appear at the end of the film is very long.

FSL: In general, what films attract you? Is there a particular genre of cinema that influences your present art?

GXJ: Ingmar Bergman, Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Andreï Tarkovsky . . . I tend to have a nostalgia for black and white films from the silent film era. In my younger days, I had watched a lot of French New Wave (Nouvelle vague) films as well as Italian films from the 1960s and the 1970s. There is no particular school of cinema that influences me, however. In general, I enjoy watching films tremendously and am quite open to a wide array of choices.

FSL: How do you define cinema?

GXL: Cinema is a form of total art. It encompasses all.

FSL: Silhouette/Shadow is not yet easily visible in public. Why? Where has it been released so far?

GXJ: This is because it has not yet found a commercial distributor. So far, Silhouette/Shadow received an avant-première at the University of Aix-en-Provence before we sent it as an entry for the Cannes Film Festival in 2006. It had participated in the 6th International Berlin Literaturfestival in 2006. Last September, when I was invited to the University of Notre Dame for the literary and arts event, “Between Homeland and Heartland,” I brought the film along together with a collection of my new paintings, introducing it to the American audience. In November, it was featured during the Initiation International Festival held in Singapore, at the Picturehouse, a commercial cinema venue catering to independent films. That was its first Asian première. It will also be released to a wider public in Italy and Hong Kong this year. Reception towards the film had always been an intrigued enthusiasm. That is why I think that it is not because audiences do not wish to see certain independent experimental author films; rather, it is the market mechanism that dominates and blocks distribution channels for the so-called art films. Progress in film technology today does not guarantee freedom in film creation. In the face of globalisation and the demand for massive cultural consumption, it is quite the contrary. Undeniably, films are for entertainment, but I strongly believe that films constitute a social voice and a channel for us to reflect upon important issues and events in our lives and histories. Films are active, not passive.

FSL: What kind of public do you hope to attract for Silhouette/Shadow?

GXJ: Everyone . . . and anyone! In fact, I would like to emphasize that I do not wish this film to be just an elite film, one that is meant only for so-called “elitists.” Nor do I intend to make films exclusively for the enjoyment of intellectuals and artists. It should not be categorised as an art film. This film is a free and open artistic expression, and should be made accessible to a wide mass public.

FSL: Will this film be your one and only project in the realm of cinema? What are your plans?

GXJ: No, Silhouette/Shadow is the first, hopefully. I intend to continue making films, and I am indeed planning to do so . . . I believe I will still continue to pursue cinema in this particular artistic direction and vision, just as I did in Silhouette/Shadow. In fact, I am looking forward in 2008 to making a series of short-feature (court-métrage) films with versatile Italian actors. This  will be my first time working with theatre actors on a film set. I am thrilled about this new project. At the moment, I am still contemplating all the new possibilities that I can explore with the Italian actors.

Fiona Lorrain

Paris, March 2008


Fiona Lorrain is an interdisciplinary artist whose works range from fiction and poetry to music and theatre directing. She writes frequently on contemporary and avant-garde art, from performance, cinema to architecture and painting. Currently a Ph.D research associate, she earned her B.A. from Columbia University, M.A. from New York University and M.Phil (French) from Paris IV-Sorbonne. She recently completed a collection of poetry and edited Silhouette/Shadow: The Cinematic Art of Gao Xingjian (Paris, 2007).

[1] L’Errance de l’oiseau was published as a box-set of black and white prints by Éditions du Seuil (Paris) in 2003. An unbridged and definitive English version of the poem co-translated by Ned Burgess and Fiona Lorrain can be found in Silhouette/Shadow: The Cinematic Art of Gao Xingjian (Paris, Contours, 2007), 47-70. Gao Xingjian himself is working on a Chinese translation based on the original French version, under the title Xiaoyao niao.

[2] Gao Xingjian wrote an article, “Concerning Silhouette/Shadow” that extrapolates in a theoretical framework what he calls a “tripatite film.” Translated from the Chinese by Mabel Lee, the English version of this article appears in Silhouette/Shadow: The Cinematic Art of Gao Xingjian (Paris, Contours, 2007), 37-46. For more on Gao’s motivation for producing this film, see Mabel Lee, “Contextualizing Gao Xingjian’s Film Silhouette / Shadow.” MCLC Resource Center (January 2008).

[3] After being persecuted as a victim during the “Oppose Spiritual Pollution Campaign” in 1983, Gao Xingjian was alerted by rumours that he might be sent to the notorious labour camps in Qinghai. After obtaining an advance payment of a few hundred yuan from his publisher in Peking, he went into hiding rapidly, voyaging on foot for close to ten months in the forests and mountains of the Sichuan basin. He later traced this journey in his novel, Soul Mountain .

[4] Credited actors include Céline Yang, Vanessa Fouquet, Lucienne Darmyn and Arthur Huy-Tai Lloret.

[5] Alain Melka is a senior journalist, writer and documentary maker based in Marseille, France. His writings include Mains de sang, parole de sable (1999), Les morts vivent à Auschwitz (2003), Les Larmes d’Abraham (2006), and Mystique et politique (2006). He also directed the documentary Regard d’Afghanistan. His article “The Cinema of Gao Xingjian” reflects on his collaboration experience with Gao Xingjian during the filming of Silhouette/Shadow. Originally written in French as “Le cinéma de Gao Xingjian,” its English translation can also be found in Silhouette/Shadow: The Cinematic Art of Gao Xingjian (Paris, Contours, 2007), 37-47.

[6] Jean-Louis Darmyn is an independent film producer who worked formerly as a radio journalist at Radio Gazelle. Based in Marseille, France, he co-founded with Alain Melka an independent film production house, Triangle Méditerranée.

[7] This short documentary was produced by Digital Média Productions (Marseille) in 2003.