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MWFF: Sunset, Sunrise

The director, the main actress as well as some of the crew members for Sunset, Sunrise (Ri Chu Ri Luo) made it to Montreal where the film was presented as a world premiere. The film is set to be released in China in October. Here are excerpts from a press conference accompanying the premiere of the film at the festival.

—―In Majiagou, a small village in Shaanxi province—a very poor province in northwest China—an exploration team drilling for oil blasts Ma Qing’s sunflower fields. Ma Qing, who had been quietly gathering sunflowers in the morning is killed in the explosion. Her fiancé is devastated. In his grief and anger, he burns down the oil prospectors’ work shed and flees with his brother-in-law Ma Ming. On their way they meet folk entertainer Gu Yu and his partner Kui Hua. Pretty Kui Hua sings, dances and tells stories while Gu Yu accompanies her on a stringed instrument called the xuanzi. Xia Zhi is enthralled. He and Ma Ming undertake to learn the storytelling art from Gu Yu, and before long, Xia Zhi has become a popular entertainer himself. However, as the oil is exploited by the entrepreneurs, the poor villagers get richer as well. As a consequence, the traditional culture and the sincere atmosphere started to disappear in the village. The group struggles to survive and is faced with new challenges.

Teng Wenji, Director/Co-Writer (L); Sun Yingfei, Actress; Zhi Le, Cinematographer; Tian Xin, Sound Engineer (R).

Could you tell us more about the history of such performances?

Director : Those performances started about one hundred years ago and they were made exclusively by blind people at the time, hence the sunglasses the characters wear in the film. It was passed from generation to generation since then. Now this art is no longer reserved for blind people; in fact there are very few blind people still performing today. The sunglasses have become a trademark of this art and every performer wears them today as one of the characters says in the film when the young boy inquires about it. These musicians also played in private events. In the film, some of the songs are poems about sex. It wasn’t how it was primarily done at the time. However, if the price was right everything was possible …

Are there still such performances going on today ?

Director : Yes, there are still similar performances in China. However, the beginning of the film is set 5 years ago. Since then, those performances have unfortunately became much less frequent due to the new economy and new popular forms of entertainment such as karaoke. To give you a good indication of this, Sun Yinfei who’s playing the main actress comes from a big city and she’s had never heard of such signers before doing the film. She spent 2 months in preparation and to this day she’s still very interested in this music. I brought CDs of the songs in the film. I hope that if the music disappears in China, it will become popular in Montreal [laugh].

The traditional opera in Beijing is suffering too of this new economy. Do you think the events depicted in the film and the loss of a certain culture in China is a step back, or is it a necessary social progress.

Director : Well, this so-called new economy has had many positive aspects too. However, as the film shows, the progress comes with a price. We lost some traditional aspects of our society. It’s good in part because a certain naivety was emanating from this culture. Perhaps people were too naïve. However, I’m afraid that this culture will disappear altogether. I wanted to trigger a reaction in people so that they realize it might disappear if nothing is done. When the local government heard we were making this film, it became very interested in supporting us and helping us find traditional signers. Hopefully it’s a sign that they are interested in preserving this art and that they will support it more in the future.

Since you had never heard of such performances before making the film, why were you interested in making it ?

Actress : I accepted to do the film even though I wasn’t familiar with this traditional art because as soon as I read the script I got very interested in the underlying love story and the complex relationships between the characters It’s a film about people and their relationships before everything else. As the shooting started, its style really appealed to me. Then, as the shooting went along and by meeting the villagers on a daily basis, I started to understand their culture better and I discovered I liked that music very much.

Was it hard to get into the role given that you weren’t familiar with the settings?

Actress : Yes! At the very beginning of the film I found it very difficult because I was young and I wasn’t from the region. I didn’t really fell I was belonging there. I got better by practicing a lot. By the point half of the shooting was done, I felt totally integrated in the role. Also, being in the village made me understand the gentle naivety of the villagers, which helped me a lot.

Are there any solutions to save this art ?

Director : There are solutions to this problem. First, as it’s shown near the end of the film, such performers don’t really have places where they can perform anymore. In the film they have to perform by the side of a boulevard with heavy traffic. The government should also get involved in promoting this genre. Also, one of the last shot of the film is the main actress singing a traditional song with a rock band in a club. This is another solution I think; that is to mix traditional songs with more contemporary elements. If more and more people would pay attention to these traditional artists, I’m sure the government would be more interested in supporting this art. This is the purpose I had in mind for doing this film. I really hope it will have a great impact on society.

Pictures courtesy of Pierre-Alexandre Despatis. (c) 2005.

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