YIDFF 2013 New Asian Currents
To Sing To Live
An Interview with Zhao Gang (Director)

Continuing to Sing, Continuing to Film

Q: I was deeply impressed by Dandan, who is both a sensitive young woman of 16 and a performer on the theatrical stage. How did she appear to you when you filmed her, and how did you try to portray her?

ZG: For a period of several months, I visited the theater troupe almost every day to film them, but I very seldom saw Dandan looking sad or showing strong emotion. I was impressed by her ability to always be so cheerful and positive. She joined the troupe at the age of six to learn the theater, and has lived with the other troupe members since then. You could say that she has been brought up in a traditional extended family of sorts. At the same time, she has a strong desire to be a good daughter to her real father, who lives apart from her. Chinese people consider filial duty to one’s parents to be the most important of the ancient teachings. In Dandan, there is both the “traditional” and the “modern,” and we can see how these elements clash within her. She has a traditional Chinese side, but she also has a modern side. As a member of the Sichuan Opera theater troupe, she is a star performer of one of the classic works of Chinese theater, and she tries to be a good filial daughter to her parents. But she also argues with her mother about going to internet cafes, she listens to pop music on her cell phone, and she has a modern side similar to that of the other young people of her generation. These traditional and modern elements clash inside her—which is actually quite an interesting concept. A portrait of Dandan is in fact a portrait of the modern age in China, and the collision that is taking place between traditional and contemporary China can be seen through her character.

Q: In the film, only elderly people came to watch the Sichuan Opera performances. If this does not change, will Dandan be able to continue singing, and will the Sichuan Opera be able to survive?

ZG: It is uncertain how long small theater troupes, such as the one that Dandan belongs to, will be able to survive. Today, there are few forms of traditional Chinese theater that have the power to attract young people. Society overflows with other forms of entertainment that are much more attractive to young people, such as television and the movies. In this information-saturated age, people are not being educated about traditional theater, and it is becoming difficult to find an audience for it. If the elderly viewers who make up the current audience gradually begin to die off, the Sichaun Opera may find its very existence imperilled if it cannot find a new audience. However, Dandan said the following to me: “Since I was very young, I have only known the theater. Even if it is not as part of this troupe, I will always perform and I will always sing. That is all there is for me.” And I believe that she will indeed continue to perform and sing. In my film, I wanted to show how modern society has driven tradition into a corner, and how modern society makes it difficult for traditional culture to survive. I am most interested in how tradition will continue to exist in modern society, how it will push back and carve out a path to survival. As a documentary filmmaker, I am a mere bystander, and one of the challenges of documentary filmmaking is that you cannot offer any solutions of your own. You cannot do anything more than record events as they happen. It is up to viewers to decide the fate of these traditional elements in our modernizing society. However, by making a documentary, it is possible to communicate a message to a large audience. If you use mass media to spread the word that many forms of traditional culture are in danger of dying out, perhaps someone who sees your film will do something to help this culture survive. It is the duty of the documentary filmmaker to get people to pay attention.

(Compiled by Kato Noriko)

Interviewers: Kato Noriko, Tanaka Minemasa / Interpreter: Higuchi Yuko / Translator: Kato Lisa Somers
Photography: Handa Masahito / Video: Handa Masahito / 2013-10-12