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China and Western Europe, film and literature – writer and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo works successfully in two cultures, two languages, and two art genres. The author and director born in 1973 grew up in a fishing village in southern China. Initially she studied at the film school in Peking, and later at the National Film and Television School in London. Since 2002 she divides her time between London and Peking.
Due to censorship practices in China, Xiaolu Guo was unable to produce her films here. Yet during her study period she was named best screenplay writer in 1998. Although she was denied permission by the authorities to film her screenplays, Xiaolu Guo was able to publish her stories in the form of novels. Six of her books have appeared in China. Her first novel was translated and praised internationally: “Village of Stone” (Stadt der Steine, Knaus Publishers in Germany). Since 2007 she writes in English, and her English-language publication “Dictionary for Lovers” (2007), nominated for the Orange Prize, became a bestseller and was translated from English into 23 other languages.
Xiaolu Guo’s novels often serve as source material for her films. Despite any cross-referencing, however, her books and films exist independent of one another without one serving as the other’s vehicle. Repeatedly, the expression “culture shock” is dropped as the supposed leitmotif of her work. And it is true that Guo focuses on her Chinese homeland and migrating from East to West. But the director and author no longer believes in clearly defined cultural identities and has no interest in showing an “exotic” China. Instead, she searches for “something larger, wilder” after having overcome cultural boundaries, and much of her material testifies to her own biography.
In Xiaolu Guo’s feature film “She, A Chinese” the stages of young Mei’s life are practically identical with those of the director. To begin with, Mei’s adventurous journey leads her from rural China to a large city, and later to London. Remaining practically speechless but with an unshakable will to survive, Mei endures one hopeless situation after the other. Told directly and at a fast pace, Guo relates a modern tale of sexual and economic exploitation. In the background, the rock-like soundtrack functions as a thrilling, contrapuntal dimension to the main character’s reticence. Time and again Guo ironically interrupts the narration, using, for example, comical subheadings. Nevertheless, her solidarity with her stricken characters remains unbroken. The film’s title references Godard’s film “The Chinese” (1967) and functions as a serious homage to Godard, his anti-narrative narrative style, and his ironic turning away from his glorification of Maoism at that time. Among other honours, Xiaolu Guo’s film won top prize at the 2009 Locarno International Film Festival, the Golden Leopard. It enjoyed movie theatre screenings in seven European countries and was shown worldwide at over fifty festivals.
Produced at the same time as this film, almost by coincidence, was the documentary “Once Upon a Time a Proletarian” (2009). In the glaring spotlights for the film production, Xiaolu Guo was overcome with the need to document the curious farmers who stood watching on the sidelines of the set. Ultimately, this evolved to a kind of cinematic archive focused on post-Marxist China. At the beginning of the film’s twelve chapters, children read unusual stories out loud or simply look at the camera. Their gazes connect the farmers’ stories of never-ending hard times, of a newly awakened greed to own property, and the desire for social equality. The film was premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It won first prize in Geneva, and was shown in movie theatres worldwide.
In “We Went to Wonderland” (2008) as well, Xiaolu Guo turns her attention to a journey from China to Europe. This time the travellers are her own parents, visiting London for the first time. Her father, suffering from cancer of the throat, has to communicate with the help of notes: “The flowers on Karl Marx’s grave died a long time ago.” The parents wander about this comical world strange to and estranged by Europe. At the Granada International Film Festival Cines del Sur the film won the jury’s Special Mention prize, and was later shown in the framework of the 2008 “New Directors/New Films” exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
“How Is Your Fish Today?” (2004) circulates under the genre description of docu-fiction. Yet the film is an even greater hybrid and difficult to classify. At once poetic and essayistic, it tells of the imaginary journey of a screenplay writer from Peking. It follows its protagonist through the entire country and finally leads to encountering a mythical location every Chinese citizen knows from their schoolbooks: Mo He, a village between China and Russia, where the Northern Lights are visible. “How Is Your Fish Today?” was awarded first prize at the Women’s Film Festival in Creteil/France. It was screened at the Sundance Festival as well, and honoured at festivals in Rotterdam, Pesaro, and Fribourg.
In the documentary film “Concrete Revolution” (2004), Xiaolu Guo presents the downside of social change in China. It shows not only Peking’s asphalt jungle, but human forsakenness as well. Despite massive restrictions enforced by the Chinese authorities, Guo conducted a unique series of interviews. Guo’s film was awarded top prize at the human rights festival in Paris, and the jury prize in Seoul.
Guo refers to the short film “Far and Near” (2003) as a poetic documentation. It tells the story of a young Chinese writer recalling her childhood in China while hiking through the mountains of Wales. The London Institute of Contemporary Art awarded “Far and Near” the Beck’s Future Prize.
Xiaolu Guo’s current film, “UFO in Her Eyes” (2011), was produced by Faith Akin and based on her novel of the same name. The book and film convey the sarcastic portrait of a Chinese village community which undergoes radical changes after having allegedly cited a UFO. The allegorical film not only refers to the transition in rural China, but also to social change around the world.

Text: Maike Wetzel / English translation: Karl Edward Johnson


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2011 UFO in Her Eyes (feature film, 35 mm/HD, 110‘) 2009 She, A Chinese (feature film, 35 mm, 99 ‘) 2009 Once upon a Time a Proletarian (docu-fiction, HD/video, 75’) 2008 We Went to Wonderland (documentary film, video, balck-and-white, 74‘) 2004 The Concrete Revolution (documentary film, DigiBeta, 62’) 2003 Far and Near (docu-fiction, DigiBeta, 22 ‘)

http://www.guoxiaolu.com/

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