Schmidt & Paetzel Fernsehfilme
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Qiu Xiaolong on shooting "Was Chinesen lesen"

 

“At the beginning of May, 2009, I flew to China for a documentary project with Schmidt & Paetzel Fernsehfilme about contemporary Chinese literature as well as about Chief Inspector Chen, the protagonist in my novels, and about Red Dust Lane, the setting of linked-stories entitled Years of Red Dust. I felt a little nervous as it was my first movie adventure, thinking of some Tang lines, “The flowers making a blaze of March colors / against a single, solitary sail / moving in the Yangtze of the blue, distant skies...”

But no, surely not a lone sail there.  Awaiting me was a wonderful team: Cordula, not only a brilliant film maker, but also a sinologist, Michael, an experienced cameraman, and Zhu Yi, a capable coordinator.

With the route designed and investigated beforehand, we immediately threw ourselves into the work, following Inspector Chen’s footsteps to the Bund, where he takes his walk during the investigation, standing under the Peace Hotel, in which he meets his lovely American counterpart, Inspector Catherine Rohn, and visiting the shikumen house on Jinling Road, which serves as the background for the murder case in When Red Is Black. It’s a bizarre yet intriguing experience, with Cordula directing, with the camera rolling, as if mixing the past and the present; I could not help paraphrasing the lines in The Dream of the Red Chamber, “When the real is the fictional, / The world is a book.”

Then to my old home not too far away, where we had lunch served up by a lane-entrance eatery, the owner of which I put into the novel (slightly modified, of course) without his knowledge. Again, the camera zoomed in on my measuring out the lapsed time in a large bowl of fish head soup…

The next day saw us moving into the lane on the corner of Jinling Road and Fujian Road. Years of Red Dust is based on what has happened in the lane. To our pleasant surprise, the blackboard newsletter (which heralds each short story in the collection) is still there, along with so many half-forgotten details. There, a former colleague of mine in the neighborhood production group recognized me. Grasping each other’s hand, we talked on and on, oblivious of the camera following us around.

The shooting was carefully scheduled. Every day, we had something new and different. The visit to Lu Xun Park, for instance, was especially meaningful to me.  Not only an opportunity for me to pay my tribute to Lu Xun, the great pioneer of modern Chinese literature, but also a moment for me to think seriously about writing in today’s China.

And our work could also present fun and surprise. One encounter at night particularly struck all of us as absurd, hilarious. In a novel, Inspector Chen steps into a nightclub on Henshan Road, where Cordula wanted me to walk past without being noticed or banned by the security, but to our astonishment, a bevy of scantily-clad girls came out, flashing their bare arms and soliciting, even more dramatically than in fiction.

After a week’s shooting in Shanghai, we flew to Beijing, where I studied for three years for my first MA at Chinese Academy of Social Science, and in my latest Inspector Chen installment, the protagonist also goes to Beijing for a political case. In Beijing, I had the opportunity to meet with several Chinese writers—with Yu Hua in the scenic Houhai, with Yan Lianke in All Saints Bookstore, and with Tie Ning at the Chinese Writers’ Association, which had moved into an impressive new building, supposedly appropriate as the center of contemporary Chinese literature in the “harmonious society.”

Outside the association, I took leave of the team and headed back to the States, but surely not with the image of a solitary sail in mind, the May documentary project held too many commemorative moments in memory, and in the film I was already seeing in imagination.”

Qiu Xiaolong