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Q&A with renowned Chinese screenwriter Li Qiang

On May 18, Li Qiang(李樯), shared his ideas on screenwriting and movies with the students in Peking University.

Born in Anyang city in Henan province in 1968, Li Qiang is one of China’s well-known screenwriters. His works have been made into movies including “Peacock” (孔雀, 2005), “The Postmodern Life of My Aunt” (姨妈的后现代生活, 2006), and “And the Spring Comes” (立春, 2007), each earning him screenplay nominations at various movie awards in and out of China. “Peacock” won a Silver Bear Jury Prize at the 55th Berlin Film Festival in 2005.

His new film “So Young” (致我们终将逝去的青春,2013), based on the novel “To Our Youth That Is Fading Away” by Xin Yiwu (辛夷坞) and directed by Zhao Wei (赵薇), has amassed 680 million yuan ($110 million) at the box office so far and has triggered a heated discussion over the novel, the screenplay, and the “fading youth”.

Q: What kind of characters do you like in your movies?

A: As long as a character is unique and enlightening, which can resonate with people’s feelings and let them get inspiration, I will like it. I believe there is no clear cut distinction of the good and evil.

Q: Do you like writing stories about marginalized nobodies? Are the characters in your work derived from books or from your experiences

A: I think the characters that I developed are precisely the mainstream people. They are not nobodies in life nor marginalized people.

Most of the characters in my movies come from my life experiences. No one can have the most primitive life experience out of pure imagination. The so-called “imagination” grows from the human body.

Q: What kind of pressure a professional screenwriter has to cope with?

I think the greatest pressure comes from one’s talent in writing.

There are no concrete standards to measure it, unlike in music where you can judge musicians from their voices, their sense of music and rhythm, or in dancing from the length of dancers’ legs, or in painting from people’s sense of colors.

As for the screenwriting, you linger in a mental state only with the knowledge that you have learned something about it or you like it, which is pretty much like a blind man crossing a river.

When you become a screenwriter, you will need a lot of life experiences. But the problem is they cannot be obtained deliberately, for example, you cannot plan in advance to encounter a particular kind of experience or emotional trauma. And, you need to know a lot of things but no one is like an encyclopedia knowing many things in the world. So you will always be like a tiny boat at the sea because the space of the unknown is too vast.

The third kind of pressure comes from the question that even when you have created a good story, does it have what it takes to be shot into a movie? Unlike novels, making a movie needs huge capital support. It is a combination of business and art, not pure literary work.

Q: How did you get through the difficult period in your career?

Li: I used to be very utilitarian.

You know I studied in a drama school, and have the professional knowledge. I thought people would come to me for my work one or two years after I graduated, and I would write my screenplay, and then the movie would be made, and then I would be successful. However, the reality turned out to be vastly different.

I think the reason why I could get through the difficult phase was because I went back to Anyang, my hometown.

As I could not see any opportunity to succeed, I concluded that, maybe, I was not cut out to be a screenwriter and I might not have the opportunity to realize my dream. You know being a screenwriter was too much for an ordinary life: it’s not normal. Since I could not succeed, I should go home, that was my thinking.

So I began to think that what if I become a person without a movie dream, just like others, find a job that I can do, make some money and, just live. I made such a proposition and applied it to my real life. The result was I couldn’t live in this way. I had no passion in life and I lost the sense of existence; my life became meaningless. That made me realize that the movie dream was important to my life. But what should I do as I may never succeed?

At that point I figured out that screenwriting was only a calling of my heart. I would accept whatever it would bring to me. And it would be enough for me if it gives me back fulfillment and peace. So it’s like putting yourself on death row and continuing to live. I would not expect anything from the future and I would definitely not go back to the past. As I approached my writing in this way, I just went through the hardest time. Because I didn’t make any demands on myself. I just have to like it.

Q: What do you think of the mainland China’s censorship over the movies?

A: I think we should look at it in a rational manner. There was censorship in the US movie industry which prohibited the sex scenes. In Iran the censorship is serious too. We have constraints of course, or we can say we have to obey the state ideology. Of course, working in the movie industry we should strive for more freedom of writing and making movies. But what I can do is to try to play freely within the limited space, because freedom is not easily achieved in one or two generations, just like the Americans had to fight for long time for their constitution.

I personally have lot of topics that I want to write about but I cannot now. My response to the current constraints and the limited time is that I just put them aside and write what I am allowed and to create something relatively freer.

Placing the issue in a larger view, I think there is no absolute freedom in the world. Indeed, the movie industry in the US is freer, but that is the view from the outside. For an artist as a human being, there are constraints within himself/herself, such as your talent, your personality. So the question about the freedom of the movie industry hinges on the relationship of the “large” freedom and the “small” freedom, both of which are freedom under constraints.

Dramas and the Beijing Opera tell stories through acts. The lyrics of songs and poems have to rhyme.

In the most stringent censorship in the former Soviet Union, the country produced outstanding movies such as “The Cranes Are Flying” (1957), “Ballad of a Soldier” (1960), “The Dawns Here Are Quiet” (1972).

Of course, it will be good if there is more liberal environment for movies.

Q: Does your experience in the Chinese army theater have any influence on your writing?

Li: Any army experience, whether you like it or not, will play its part in your life.

All of your life’s experiences are valuable as they can be useful in your life and work in a subtle way. So try not to look down upon the life that you have now. 

Q: How do you think a screenplay can contribute to the success of a movie?

A: I believe a good screenplay is quite important as it serves as the blueprint of a movie.

However, there is a kind of movie which is really special, such as “Casablanca”, for which they had to write the script while they were shooting the movie. They had changed several screenwriters and also the director. Ingrid Bergman, the leading actress, would always ask the director what is the act for the next day, but the director himself had not seen the script until shortly before it was time to start filming. However, the movie just produced a peculiar “chemical effect” that it turned out to be a masterpiece. It is a special example I should say.

Usually a good screenplay can guarantee that a movie is not bad. But a good movie is never made based on a bad screenplay. That is the logic.

From left to right, movie posters of “Peacock”(2005),  “The Postmodern Life of My Aunt”(2006),“And the Spring Comes”(2007)

Q: You said Beijing has good cultural environment for people doing arts. Can’t the people in small towns and cities have an art dream?

Li: Of course they can. And I think most of the artists and stars in Beijing actually come from small places. But art is a luxurious thing.

I don’t think art is a privilege for the people who work in this field. Art has something to do with everybody.

Art is what makes us human. But the love for art is often a double-edged sword for the people as it lets them taste both happiness and bitterness in life. And they are therefore more sensitive, brighter and nobler.

Q: Will you open a Weibo account

Li: I don’t really have time to do that. I’d prefer to keep a distance from it, because I don’t like to write something in broken pieces. I would write (a piece of complete work) on when I want to write. 


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