In partnership with New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center, MUBI will be hosting four films recently shown at Art of the Real, the Film Society's annual showcase for boundary-pushing nonfiction films. Poet on a Business Trip will be showing April 24 - May 23, 2016 on MUBI in the United States.
“Poet on a Business Trip”: I do not know how this title reads in Chinese, but in English its matter-of-fact anomaly, a title suggestive of silent film actualities and Luc Moullet’s drollness, serves well this curiously blasé, marvelously unusual film by Ju Anqi.
Poet on a Business Trip looks and feels like the time capsule it in fact is: the director took Shu, a young Chinese poet, on a road trip to the barren western (and Uygur) province of Xinjiang back in 2002, during which Shu composed poems. For reasons discussed below in an interview with the filmmaker, the footage was not edited until recently, making Poet on a Business Trip a film made now, in a way, about a film made over a decade ago. This is not its only uneasiness. It imperceptibly blends impulses towards documentary filmmaking and fiction at a time before this was a de facto standard in the world of international art-house cinema. As Shu hitchhikes and buses through Xinjiang, talking to truck drivers, awkwardly sleeping with prostitutes, looking for hostels, and walking seemingly without particular inspiration through spectacularly arid, uncommunicative landscapes, it is clear Ju is staging scenes, possibly in collaboration with the introverted poet. And yet these scenes are so simple and brisk, and the drama, if one can call it that, so uneventful. The mise en scène is utterly unpretentious and downright shabby in its grubbed black and white palette, zero production design, and society of forgotten outback. Poet on a Business Trip feels unassumingly something special and direct, like unmediated fiction. Rossellini comes to mind, as does Ozualdo Ribeiro Candeias's brilliant roadside study of Brazil, A Opção.
In the film, we get to see and hear of a region of China so rarely exposed in cinema and certainly never revealed in such a manner, that of, at once, a tourist and a native: a perspective coming from someone, this poet, with a sensitive and forlorn internal life but such an inexpressive, nearly passive external life. (Each of Shu's often quite beautiful 16 poems is printed on the screen, somewhat structuring the film into chapters, but quietly and obliquely.) We read of a soul and then look, curious, at this slightly bent, very skinny young man in fishing cap and hosteler’s rucksack moving through a familiar yet foreign land, his own edge of the world, and can only project onto that figure and into that landscape our observant, unactionable inquiries.
Through email, I discussed the making of the film and its unusual production history with its director, Ju Anqi.
NOTEBOOK: How did you first meet the protagonist of your film, the poet Shu?
JU ANQI: In August 2002 I was looking for an actor for the movie. Before Shu, I had cast three actors, but none of them wanted to perform the sex scenes. I met Shu at an underground Poem Reading Club in a bar in Beijing. I felt he was the one I was looking for from the first sight. I told him about my idea. He was quite excited because he knew one of the films I shot before. He agreed to act in my film and was willing to perform anything that I asked for. So I brought my camera to find him the next day and asked him to try some of the scenes. On the third day, we were already on the road.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about the origins of the film? How did you first come up with the idea?
JU: I think my films all originate from my plight. They are all done in extremely difficult conditions. My first film, There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing, was shot on film that had been expired for 8 years. That one got into Berlin International Film Festival. But my production condition has not improved anyhow. Poet on a Business Trip was shot on a borrowed DV camera with one director and one actor. My initial idea of the film was seeing landscapes and prostitutes as desires, and one man travels through it non-stop. It was my production hardship as well as my psychological hardship, so I wanted to take it out as a film.
NOTEBOOK: What did you know of Xinjiang before you shot the film there?
JU: I was born in Xinjiang. My parents were sent there as educated urban youth during the Cultural Revolution from the southern side of China. This place is located at the furthest west side of China. The ancient Silk Road passed through there. There is desert, snowy mountains and lakes; many different ethnic minorities also live there. Whether it was the forced exile of my parents’ generation, or a poet’s self-exile to this place, Xinjiang is somehow different from anywhere else in China. It’s a bit melancholy, but also a bit wild.
NOTEBOOK: Your film was shot in 2002. Why the long gap before editing and releasing it?
JU: I was really exhausted when I returned to Beijing after shooting. For a long time, I would still feel like I was on the road shooting. I constantly had dreams about it. I decided to start editing it half a year later, but actually never reopened those tapes again. It was not such a strange thing to me. For example, I just recently finished a new film called Paris Party. It’s a fiction film I shot in three days six years ago. I think my delay also comes from my difficult living condition. I have to take all kinds of gigs in order to make a living. So I didn't have time to edit. It takes a long time until I have enough money to edit a film. For me, editing always costs more than shooting. I’m not very good at expressing myself verbally. That’s also why I’m not willing to go out and find investors. It’s because I can’t express myself through words that I have to express it in film language. My artistic enlightenment came from the Japanese writer Kōbō Abe and French writer Albert Camus. I think, more or less, my works are influenced by existentialism.
NOTEBOOK: Have you returned to Xinjiang since you shot the film? Has it changed since then?
JU: Of course I went back there, because my parents still live there. Today, the situation in Xinjiang has become more complicated. I think people already have some impression from the news. I don’t think it could still be possible to shoot this film today.
NOTEBOOK: The script seems quite loose and natural, what did this film look like on paper?
JU: I never thought about that. Probably it would look really bad.
NOTEBOOK: In many ways, this is a “road trip” film. How did you approach structuring the story and determining what locations to use?
JU: To me, this is a film about a poet who sends himself on a business trip to Xinjiang and experiences all kinds of landscapes and prostitutes. This was the frame of my story, as well as my script. All the rest I needed was to improvise, shoot and write the script while seeking prostitutes. To me, I was living inside the story every single minute. It’s those strangers who intruded into my story. I had been to all the shooting locations in the summer of 2001, so the next year I just followed the same route.
NOTEBOOK: How did you determine when to use Shu’s poems on screen?
JU: I was thinking about where to place these poems during the months when I was editing the film. The consideration includes when to read the poem, when to show it only as a subtitle, which poems are read in Mandarin, and which ones would be read in Shanghainese dialect. All these decisions will affect the mood and rhythm of the film. It’s hard to say what method I used to decide. I was relying on my intuition. I had to feel it again and again. In the end, they are placed where you see them now. However, to me each placement is unique.
NOTEBOOK: The film is not only in black and white, it is in the “old” 1.33 ratio. Why did you choose these shooting formats?
JU: The shooting ratio of my camera was 1.33. This would bring a sense of the past times. The film was originally shot in color, but when editing I decided to make it black and white because, to me, it was a memory.
NOTEBOOK: Despite being labeled a fiction, much of the film feels like a documentary. How do you view the film’s approach to reality?
JU: My working method and my shooting motivation fit together. I didn't have the resources to set complicated storylines. That would have been another film. The film you are seeing now was a film of me going on the road with the basic structure of a story and starting shooting. All those strangers, landscapes and prostitutes, they came into my film, not vice versa. This is quite interesting. The fictional part and realistic part that I wanted all came together.
NOTEBOOK: Due to the limited number of people involved in the film’s production, one gets the sense of the “crew” (you) shared much of the same experiences as Shu: perhaps staying in the same hostels, traveling in the same vehicles. How much of Shu’s experience in Xinjiang is also your experience?
JU: We spent more than 40 days together. Staying in the same hotel, being together all the time.We kept fighting and breaking up then getting back together again. It really felt like we were a couple. For a while, he thought what I was doing was impossible. The way he imagined filmmaking, it should not be done all by one person. He felt like I was joking. At the same time, he couldn’t be totally free in his acting. I needed to constantly interrupt him, which made him feel like he was manipulated. Anyway, this kind of shooting was really crazy. I was working all the time. Whenever we arrived at a place, I needed to prepare for the shooting. Finding prostitutes and other actors, or writing my script.
NOTEBOOK: How was Shu’s relationship to Xinjiang different than yours?
JU: I think his thoughts and feelings are all within his poems.
NOTEBOOK: How accepted was your and Shu’s presence, along with that of the camera, in the places you went and shot?
JU: Like I said earlier, I think during the whole shooting process, I was the only one who firmly knew that I was shooting a film. Even Shu was not quite sure if what I was doing was a joke. My equipment was really lame. Probably none of the strangers took me seriously. Plus, Shu and I looked like nice people. In a barren place like that, our appearance added some freshness to their lives. As well as to those prostitutes, they were quite lonely and bored over there.
NOTEBOOK: Have you remained in contact with Shu since the shoot? What is he doing now?
JU: I don’t have much contact with Shu. He was also exhausted after shooting this film. The change was he left the underground poet community in Beijing and went back to his hometown, Shanghai, alone. He worked in an ad agency for a while. Now he lives in a suburb of Shanghai. Besides writing poems, he makes woodcut printing for a living.
NOTEBOOK: Shu’s profession as a poet could be interpreted, simply, as a profession as an artist. As a filmmaker, did you, too, desire to “go on a business trip” to inspire your creativity?
JU: As Milan Kundera said, “Life is elsewhere.” Most of my films were finished on the road, about a journey. I shot films about people’s blankets. Blankets on the boat, on the long distance bus, on the grassland in Mongolia, even Chairman Mao’s blanket. I also shot the nights of China, from 6 in the evening till 6 in the morning. I went to many places. I also once shot a fiction about a man in exile on his 30th birthday. These films are all about journeys on the road. Besides shooting film, I also make artworks. My interdisciplinary creation is my business trip.
NOTEBOOK: How much of your inspiration comes from where you are living and where you are shooting?
JU: I live in Beijing. My first film was There Is a Strong Wind in Beijing. I think the place where I live will more or less give me inspirations. When I was traveling in Paris, I was inspired, so I wrote a script and shot it within 3 days. Whenever you are in a strange or unfamiliar place, they will bring you new perspectives.
NOTEBOOK: Shu’s poems are very important to the film. Is poetry important to you as well?
JU: I like these poems. I chose the current poems out of 30 of them. There were 28 poems after the first edit. It wasn’t until the end that I narrowed it down to 16. These poems constructed the trace of time along with the development of the storyline. They also gave a unique form to the film. In a time when we don’t read poems that much anymore, this film lets you read poems in the theater. This is quite absurd. Such absurdity is just as absurd as Shu sending himself on a business trip to Xinjiang. It’s quite direct, but also in the void.