Interview on 11th September in the extremely loud not-café-like-surroundings of Moka Bros in Sanlitun finding shelter from the rain.
JF: Niu Han, you grew up in New Zealand, but your parents are Chinese, where do you think you belong?
Niu Han: I think it did bother me some time ago, when I faced this cliché cultural identity question, but then from my own perspective it's always been out of the question: I am Chinese. My reading, the way I perceive the world, my history, in the end I think it has much more to do with China than it has to do with NZ. I have always maintained a deep interest in studying Chinese history, especially from late 1800s up till now, how things came about etcetera. I personally do not share quite the same fascination over the Colonial history of New Zealand. Of course, I really cherish the time I spent there, New Zealand is a beautiful country.
JF: Wasn't it the most of your life?
NH: I was born in Xian, but I moved to NZ at the age of ten. I also lived in the US for a bit, so I lived out of China some 10 or 12 years only.
JF: Do you feel at home now?
NH: Yeah, I think so. This is my homeland.
JF: The films you made - I've seen one feature film, the Land of Nobody, and a short, Melancholia I, were all made in NZ.
NH: So far, I've made one feature-length film, one medium-length and several short films, none of which have been released, which I've been making since I started attending art school. I was trained in painting. I was good at it, I was winning prizes in high school, then when I went to art school – the pursuit for good painting suddenly became irrelevant – post-modernism or avant-garde, the whole system was encouraging this kind of art. Which I didn't really find liberating, quite on the contrary: I found it quite limiting at times, because it's not art, it shatters my whole thinking of what art is. Of course thinking in retrospect, I think it was quite fresh and world-changing, but at that time I was confused, because I used to train to paint properly. In retrospect I think it was the abrupt transition for me personally to move from a pre-modernist painter to post-modernism that confused me.
JF: You were a little bit lost in this freedom?
NH: Yeah, lost, people would make art with cardboard or with trash, and conceptual stuff, like running around naked, and I felt 'oh god', I tried to struggle, and then I started experimenting with video in that. I lost interest in video art very quickly, I just thought it was random dots and blurry stuff, but then my interest in narrative film grew. I wanted to construct something solid, meaningful, and which at the same time has the aesthetics of a classical painting.
JF: You made it: the frames in the films you created, are quite painting-like.
NH: Thank you, I take it as a compliment. Land of Nobody was originally a story of a kid, who's running away from school in NZ. But at the time I had suddenly lost the interest in making the film to only illustrate the story – I felt that a film can be more than that. So during the shooting, I pretty much discarded the story line, I started with nothing, rebuilt it from the ground up.
JF: Is that why there is a parallel story of the two guys who seem to come from a different era and lost in time wandering around the melancholic plateaus? It could be a parallel reality, it could be a dream.
NH: Yeah, it's supposed to be a dream. You saw the first preview version we screened at Penghao Theatre [and just a few months later] the China Film Archive version screened was totally different and better. But the film is never officially finished, I'm re-cutting the film again and making changes and enhancements to the sound track.
JF: I think you're a perfectionist.
NH: I just want to reach the solid structure that's kind of perfect. But anyway, I've moved onto new projects and I have three films I've been pushing forward, all Chinese this time. One of them will soon be presented at the Venice biennale, so we are going to Venice for pitching. Wang You (王悠) was also involved in the creative process. Shen Wei (沈巍), my friend [the director of first Chinese staging of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi], he's helping me to produce, so we've formed a team. We hope to get this funding next month [this month, actually] in Venice and then shoot next year. It's about a man turning into a cube.
JF: That is going to be something quite abstract then...? Is it a feature film or an animation?
NH: It's a feature film with live effects, too.
JF: What's your motivation behind it?
NH: I wanted to make a film about a self-made monster, an outsider who fails to conform - he becomes the crazy one who deforms. You see we are made of an unlimited number of shapes and are made of endless amount of cells and sides, which break naturally into crazy organic shapes, whereas, computer games, for instance, they're a construction made of a limited number of polygons, I was wandering whether somebody can turn from the infinite human being and number of shapes into a limited one. But that's not the core of the film, I guess it's about being outside and coming to accept inferiority or superiority, I don't know which one exactly.
JF: I guess if you are able to sum up the whole idea of the film in one sentence, that's already it, you've got it. Often times, artists cannot really say what is it what they're doing.
NH: Well, I think this is probably the charm of contemporary art. I'm now doing a PhD under Professor Xu Bing (徐冰) at CAFA [Central Academy of Arts in Beijing] , and I'm trying to figure out what contemporary art actually means. And I'm thinking that for me now the whole art system is somewhat based upon celebrating the boredom of the bourgeoisie, we/they need boredom. Boredom is a noble thing.
JF: Exactly. Child psychologists say that boredom is considered crucial for children to develop creativity or interest in the world.
NH: Could be a cool name for a bar. Boredom.无聊. I think the whole art is probably based on this notion and a play on that. Bourgeois boredom to me is that people think they're so cool that everything else is boring. If something is exciting, that's probably not art.
JF: Reflection (more likely to be associated with art) is slow.
NH: So yeah, boredom. I hate boredom.
JF: I don't think you're ever bored, I would say you're quite hyperactive .You're always doing things! What were the two plays you prepared for Nanluoguxiang Theatre Festival this year?
NH: I had co-written and directed three plays , together with Shen Wei, but one of them was canned by the censors. That play was meant to be the last scene of Romeo and Juliet, the last scene of their departing, the suicide scene. The dialogue was to be taken from a random document. So we replaced the lines but kept the emotions. That was the idea. But the document we chose was some non-related government document about football, so the censors didn't accept it. It's actually quite hard to put it together, our actors tried, it's not too easy, to perform the roles of Romeo and Juliet and talk about random stuff.
JF: It's as if you tried to input text to a computer and expected it came up with emotions.
NH: Yeah, something like that. We want to play more with this juxtaposition. The other two plays, one was called Mania and the other one was West. We showed the latter one already last year at Wuzhen Festival . It got into top three in the competition.
JF: Who are your actors?
NH: Those who are wiling to play and able to perform are my actors. I like to work with talented actors from any background as well as non-professionals. Good actors – no matter whether or not they are trained, can bring so much to a film or theatre play.
JF: How much one can do with your time... Do you ever sleep?
NH: I do sleep a lot.
JF: In the meantime you're also doing PhD, do you have to deliver lectures?
NH: Not yet, I am still relatively new to CAFA – I’ve been asked to design a moving image course syllabus for undergraduates and am still working on it.
JF: You're engaged in so many different types of media: film, theatre, painting, which one of them do you fancy most?
NH: I would like to start painting again, it's fundamental for me, straight from the heart. What do I feel at most at ease with... I think it's film. Cinema is my medium. I don't really like video, I'm still trying to figure out what it is. I dug out an old camera and tried to make a video film, just to see what video really is. Film, a good and well-constructed moving image, that's something I feel good with.
JF: You said you were bored with story-telling though. Would you like to go into something more abstract then?
NH: I was bored with story-telling, but that was some dead-end. Now I'm back on that perch. There are certain modes of story-telling I don't believe in. I want to do some human-stories that build deeper experiences, as opposed to tactical story-telling in trying to get people hooked, where you set up a protagonist, you get all these events that obstruct the character - I want to rise above the gimmicks – when you can see the whole "game", it gets boring. Storytelling has been there for thousands of years and I guess being told stories is a part of being human, abstraction is not necessarily anti-story.
JF: Yes and now. We are looking for ways to free ourselves.
NH: But I realize that even dreams are not abstract, they're stories. We're not abstract. It's more sophisticated to be a realist than to be an abstractionist.
JF: To be loyal to the reality? I come across this obstacle when I think something and then want to transfer it into a written or spoken word. It usually doesn't come out the way I am thinking it. Do you like writing?
NH: I like writing but I realize that I'm so limited in it, it's so bad, you don't want to read it.
JF: You write scripts.
NH: I know, but scripts are just blue-prints of what I mean, what I want to do. I change them all the time. I do believe in shooting it though. The next film I want to do I want to shoot on celluloid film. It's much harder to get and it's much more limited as a medium. You can't shoot so much and you can't see what you've shot. It's kind of scary, but I want to work with this limitation.
JF: Do you know where your creative force [creative juice, says NH, laughing] comes from? Your parents, your upbringing?
NH: I think humans can't really create out of nothing, we're only re-interpreting our own experiences, I don't know about creating. Some things come from dreams.
JF: Motivation then?
NH: Just the fact that I want to do something, I want to get it made.
Niu Han (牛涵), is a born-in-the-eighties filmmaker (Melancholia, Freedom Hills, Land of Nobody), playwright (West, Mania) and a restless perfectionist. While contemplating what is the meaning of contemporary art at his PhD course at CAFA, he's actively seeking the ways of expression through the means of painting, participation in theatre festivals and also (mostly) independent film undertakings.
More info: niufilm.com
Watch the play West (西), please click the sixth video clip from the top