Director-screenwriter-actor Song Haolin made his directing debut in 2015 with the feature film Mr. Zhu’s Summer, which will be released in theatres in China in May this year. His second film, Fatal Love, also shot in 2015, was made for internet distribution, which in China means the potential to reach hundreds of millions of film enthusiasts. So far, the movie has been seen by 7.7 million viewers. Two stories, two films, two genres, and two totally different productions, introduce a young talent from China who has many more tales brewing, each to be told in their own way. His favourite films – the ones that have moved him the most – include Cinema Paradiso by Giuseppe Tornatore and Yi Yi by Edward Yang. FEFF interviewed him in Beijing in January 2017.

When did you begin your journey into the world of film?

Initially, I didn’t work in the world of art and cinema. I was never exactly a model student. I didn’t like studying, I found it boring. After middle school, I didn’t go to high school, I went to a technical college. I began working in the world of design and architectural planning when I was very young. In China, you often don’t know how to turn your dreams, your ideals, or your hobbies, into a proper career. In fact, you tend to make a clear distinction between the two worlds: a dream is a dream, and a career is a career. But suddenly, I decided to change track. Going back to school is not always easy, at least not in China. I thought I wanted to be an actor. I knew that certain stars that I was a fan of, like Jiang Wen and Li Baotian, had graduated from the Central Academy of Drama, so I enrolled in the acting faculty there.

How was your experience of the Academy?

Once I was in Beijing and had begun my studies at the Academy, I realised that I had never been happier in the entire 20 years of my young life. I would go to acting classes every day, I barely slept, I would spend hours in the library studying books, or debating our work with my classmates. It was a crazy time. My time at the Academy passed quickly, and once I graduated, I began to look for openings. But at the time, there were far more TV productions than films being made, and I soon got tired of acting in TV series.
I kept watching quality films on the big screen, but it seemed like a pipe dream to be able to be a part of that world, given my past experience. That was when I again asked myself what I really wanted to do in life. The thought of being a director seemed to be foremost in my mind. By sheer coincidence, the chance to co-direct a film came along. This caused me a great deal of anxiety, because everything in the Academy seemed so easy, and I always got lots of compliments for the work I presented. Making the leap to actually directing a film was a challenge.

What were your first steps?

I cut my teeth by working as a screenwriter for 10 years. A lot of our lecturers had never actually made a film, and I think that someone who hasn’t got that experience shouldn’t be teaching us filmmaking. So I kept studying myself. The young people of my generation developed a taste for films by watching mountains of DVDs. I would spend entire days indoors just watching films, sometimes eight in a row. I could watch my favourites dozens of times to study the script. I would take a two-day break and then study the film through its script. My study method was quite banal really.
In 2013, I put my directing skills to the test with a short film. It was a low-budget production needing just a few days’ work. I had experience acting, I knew how a set worked, and my lucky break came thanks to my skill at gathering together “fans” – people who are always willing to work with me, and to lend me a hand. It doesn’t matter if they have experience or not. I began work on the short without knowing where to start, plus I had the extra burden of having to act in it, as my main actor dropped out a few days before we began shooting. I told myself that I had to give it my all – if I couldn’t even make a short film, then it was pointless giving everything up to pursue my dream, because at a certain age you need to be able to make money off your dreams, you can’t have others footing the bill. But the short was an all-round success, and it won an award at an international film festival.

Mr. Zhu’s Summer is your first feature length film as a director…

After shooting the short film, the obvious next step was to make a feature film. I had so many ideas and stories in my head that I couldn’t decide which to do. I still have many stories as works-in-progress on the go today. I couldn’t choose which one to work on first, because you find yourself facing a series of dilemmas, like the cost of production to make each story, the choice of the cast which can influence the budget, the resources and the capacity to fund it. In 2014, I wrote a screenplay for a commercial film which I never managed to make because it required an investment of 50 million yuan (€6.8 million). After about a year, I ended up going to a professional consultant. I prepared a subject to present to potential investors. Investors are notoriously hard to convince. When I did end up meeting the person who eventually invested in my film, he didn’t seem like an investor at first. I thought it was just a joke, a set up!

How did you select the cast for the main actors? Sun Bo’s performance as Mr Zhu brings the comedy capers of Xu Zheng to mind.

I wrote the part of Mr Zhu with the actor Xu Zheng in mind. I’ve known him for years, and I worked with him in TV series. But when I finished the Mr. Zhu’s Summer screenplay, Xu Zheng had already become a major star, and so I couldn’t ask him to be in my film. I’ve known the actor Sun Bo since I was at the Academy, and Mr. Zhu’s Summer was his first starring role. I went through an agency to cast the middle-school students. Our choice was limited, so we had to be satisfied with the results of those casting sessions. I needed to shoot in May, before the summer holidays. Before May, I wouldn’t have had the summer sun, and in June students would have been busy with their end-of-year exams, so the schools wouldn’t have given me permission to film.

What led to the decision to make the film?

There were two main reasons: I think that in my country, people don’t have a great deal of respect for the feelings of the people around them. Even parents take care of their kids’ needs by feeding and dressing them, they don’t really worry about their feelings, or their emotional well-being. Even with all the relative wealth of recent years, the emotional aspects of the individual have been overlooked. Psychological analysis is just not a consideration.
There have been numerous reports of a growing trend of depression among young people. I see this as a major problem in our culture and society. I didn’t have a friendly relationship with my parents. I never talked about my problems at school, or the difficulties I might have had outside of school with them. They never shared their joy or pain with me. Now, as an adult, I understand them, and have tried to establish a friendly relationship with them.
The second reason is that the plot of the film is my way of reflecting on what success really means. Does success mean having other people’s approval, and having your teachers praise you and reward you? Or in any competitive field, do you have to come first to consider yourself successful? What is the true definition of success? Only one person can come first, so does that mean that everyone else has failed? These reflections take into account the current situation in China. Success is not an objective fact, but rather how other people see you.

Your second film Fatal Love, which you shot shortly after making Mr. Zhu’s Summer, is totally different both in directing style and genre. How did the idea for this story come about?

I put a lot of thought into the story of Fatal Love. The difference in style and genre came about because my wife wrote the screenplay. We discussed the issue a great deal, because I liked the story and I wanted to try my hand at science-fiction. Once we had wrapped filming Mr. Zhu’s Summer, I found myself with a budget of two million yuan to make a second film. I decided to try and shoot Fatal Love by keeping the budget down. That was much harder to do than it was for Mr. Zhu’s Summer, due to the higher fees of the cast, and the fact that it was a more difficult shoot in general.
In China, there is no real channel for young directors to develop projects, to help them make that professional leap from the Academy to the world of work. Usually, TV channels are willing to back films with budgets of one to two million yuan. My producer was interested in the Web Big Film project, and one day he called me to make a film, because they were unable to find stories or suitable directors to take the projects on. So we chose one of the stories I had been working on.
I dictated my conditions: one, that I would make a proper film, and not a product for web fans; two, that I would not make a commercial film – not because I am not capable of doing that, simply because I wasn’t interested in doing that; three, that they would provide me with in-depth budget details. The costs couldn’t go above two million yuan, so I, as director, my wife, as screenwriter, and the producer all worked for no pay to keep within the budget limitations.
The project also required that we complete shooting by the end of 2015, so there was no time to work on the film’s pre-production, something that added extra pressure. We managed to do all the takes in 20 days, but it was a very stressful set!

Out of the many films you could have chosen on such a restricted budget, why did you choose to make Fatal Love?

I’m a Buddhist. The central issue of Buddhism is human suffering and its causes, which are mainly linked to human desires. For me, this concept is very difficult to understand, as it seems to contradict the love I feel for my family. How can my family be a cause of suffering if they seem to me to be a source of happiness? In truth, everything you love is a cause of suffering, of worry, of malaise, due to the attachment you form with the people who are the very source of that happiness. If you didn’t love them, you’d feel nothing but indifference.
Machines and robots are happy, because they do not feel emotions, and they see the world in a simple way. This, for me, is the profound and most interesting aspect of the story of Fatal Love, although the issue is difficult to tackle in a small film like this one. On the other hand, this story gave me the chance to try out a different genre and style. Working on it was a different experience, as I studied each scene in minute detail to give it the effect I wanted. Pushed for time, I often found myself interacting with cast and crew without actually knowing the result I wanted, until it was actually on the screen.

What can you tell us about your next film?

I’m working on three projects. I have managed to secure big budgets from production companies that will allow me to work with other screenwriters on films in three different genres. I’m just waiting to understand which of the three will be ready to go into production first. I will keep working on all three of them simultaneously, because, unfortunately, you always risk running into obstacles or that the pre-production of one film requires more time than another.

As a screenwriter and director, can you tell us what you think of Chinese cinema in the last few years, and of the Chinese industry and market as whole?

I think that the situation of the Chinese industry and market can be summed up as an hour-glass, with the top part representing all the possible investments, and the lower part representing the market. The centre, where the space is reduced, is occupied by the industry workers like me. In truth, the potential to finance a film and to distribute it on the market is enormous, but we industry workers have to work in a very restricted space. The pressure for these investments to make money is huge, and that affects those trying to widen the market and reach a wider public.
For an artist, this system does not work as it requires you to bring a project to completion in just three months. The process for an artist is much slower. In 2004, I wanted to become a director, and up to 2016, I still felt like a student, even after 12 years of experience. Some of my friends who are younger than me are already on their third or fourth film, but it’s low-quality stuff, and they just make them because there is a market out there that laps-up this sort of inferior product. The market is full of popcorn films, and action movies, in which the most moving scenes are the ones where people beat each other up.
This reminds me of how my friends and I would evaluate a film when I was a kid: the more fights there were, the better the film was. There will always be an audience for poor quality films in China, as in the rest of the world, but Europe and the US also have a more mature public that demands quality films. In China, very soon, people will be demanding things that are not ‘primary needs’ products. Have you noticed how many ugly buildings there are in Beijing? It’s only in the last few years that more interesting buildings with design value have started to appear. Architecture and design in this city needed time to change for the better, and the same can be said for cinema.

Maria Ruggieri