Peng Fei Song is a Chinese screenwriter and film director. Ming-liang Tsai's Stray Dogs, which Peng Fei Song co-wrote, premiered in Competition at Venice, where it won the Grand Special Jury Prize, and went on to screen at Chicago, Dubai, Sarasota, Sevilla, Taipei and Tallinn Black Nights. Peng Fei Song's directorial debut Underground Fragrance premiered at Venice's Giornate degli Autori, where it won Best Film, and Chicago, where it won Best New Director.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Peng Fei Song discusses sectional views of Chinese society, offscreen sound as a spatial tool, the importance of persistence, and his next project.
FILMATIQUE: Underground Fragrance takes place in a subterranean labyrinth inhabited by economic migrants and others living on the fringes of society. You have stated previously that this world, this way of life, actually exists. How did you encounter this world, and what in particular inspired you to make a film about it?
PENG FEI SONG: I had been thinking about making a film that reflects the dramatic changes of Beijing since I studied in Paris, but I didn't know what story to tell at that time. After I finished my studies and I went back to Beijing, I got to know some migrant workers. I was surprised to realize that they lived in an underground space converted from bomb shelters that was very close to my grandmother's house.
It was shocking and overwhelming to see so many people living underground in an area that was so familiar to me. People speaking different dialects from all over China were living in cell-like rooms with local specialties from their hometown hanging on their doors. At the same time, a relative of mine was facing home demolition and relocation. Tempted by the potential financial compensations from the government, they lost their motivation to work hard, daydreaming about becoming millionaires. All these stories were very cinematic to me so I decided to make a film about these two types of people, aboveground and underground— like a sectional view.
FLMTQ: Chinese society's increasingly rapid stratification appears to be a major theme in the film: both Yong Le and Xiao Yun are drifters in search of a better life above ground. Yet their neighbor who lives above ground aspires to sell his apartment, to move higher in the sky to the top floor of a skyscraper. How did you come up with these characters, and how do you think they reflect contemporary Chinese society?
PFS: Migrant workers are crucial contributors to the development of Beijing. They live in poor conditions but they are determined to improve their lives and pursue their dreams. Yong Le and Xiao Yun are among them. Love and relationships can be so tentative and fleeting under a cruel reality.
Nothing is stopping Beijing from modernization. Mr. Jin falls victim to land acquisition but he also benefits from it. Getting rich overnight perhaps affects him in a negative way. The long wait and the overwhelming greed transform him. It almost seems like his life revolves only around potential compensations from the government. All three characters are just drops of water in the wave of Beijing's leaping forward.
FLMTQ: Physical and/or geographical space often comes to define a character's psychological or spiritual state, the possibility of achieving their dreams. What aesthetic inspirations or techniques did you draw upon to translate this surreal, heightened atmosphere of the underground to screen?
PFS: To help construct and depict the spatial environment of the film's underground portion, I chose to heavily feature offscreen sounds and voices which conformed with how people gather information and interact with each other. Underground residents guess and learn where others come from, what jobs they do through listening in on chit-chats and accents. I also chose to use fixed shots to express the sense of people moving in between and through the complex layouts of pipelines in the underground world.
For the parts that take place above ground, I mainly focused on creating symbols— the owl, the firework, the killing of poultry, and so on. It's quite romantic and absurd. Maybe people only notice these unrelated and random details when they are waiting in vain.
FLMTQ: Can you reflect on the particular challenges of shooting a film underground? What obstacles did you face, and how did you overcome them?
PFS: I think one big challenge for me was to be persistent about what I really wanted when I was a first time director. I was lucky to work with many experienced people on my team, who helped me enormously and gave me a lot of advice. On the other hand, how to make the 'right' choice was a challenge for me. To be honest, I later came to regret that I sometimes gave up on my original thoughts back then. This is a valuable lesson I learned.
FLMTQ: What was the process of getting your first film funded? Did you receive institutional support from China? What is it like for young filmmakers to get their films made in China?
PFS: This film was partially funded by Torino Film Lab, and CNC. I also received some sponsorships in China. The rest was funded by family and friends.
Although it's easier to find financial support for art-house film nowadays in China because of the increasing attention, it's still difficult.
FLMTQ: Any new projects in the works?
PFS: I'm currently doing post-production on my second film— Left Behind Buddha. It will be released this year and I hope people will like it.
Interview by Ursula Grisham
Head Curator, Filmatique