|by David Cornelius
The South by Southwest rundown on “Beijing Taxi”: “Beijing Taxi” is a feature length documentary that vividly portrays Beijing undergoing a profound transformational arch. Through a humanistic lens, the intimate lives of three taxi drivers connect a morphing city confronted with modern issues and changing values. With diverse imagery combined with a contemporary score rich in atmosphere, we experience a visceral sense of the common citizens’ persistent attempts to grasp the elusive. Candid and perceptive in its filming approach and highly cinematic in style, “Beijing Taxi” takes us on a lyrical journey into fragments of a society riding the bumpy roads to modernization. Though the destination is unknown, they continue to forge ahead.
Just what is “Beijing Taxi”?
“Beijing Taxi” is a film that takes you on a lyrical journey to experience the contradictions China faces today and the ordinary people’s persistent attempts to reconcile its Communist past with a new Capitalist economy. The world is changing faster than they can keep up with, but they will keep on going, and forge ahead. Taxi is a metaphor, a cinematic device and thread that unravels a city in transition.
What inspired you to make this film, and what led you to choosing these three cab drivers?
Three’s a good number! “Beijing Taxi” is in some ways an emigrant’s love poem to Beijing. I was born and raised in Beijing. I moved to the US in 1990 and returned to visit only three times in 15 years. The colors, textures, sounds, and characters of my childhood city always remained present in my memory. As the Olympic fever ushered in a new era of unprecedented transformations in Beijing, I understood that the timing was ripe for me to return. I wanted to capture the juxtapositions between the old and the new Beijing that exist side by side today, and, most importantly, to experience how the lives and mentalities of people on the ground have been affected. I have had countless raving conversations about the unique characters of Beijing taxi drivers, with their notoriously gregarious and quintessentially Beijinger personalities. I wanted to choose three drivers of different genders, from different generations, and with different aspirations.
Much as Walter Benjamin returned to Berlin’s parks and streets to write Berlin Childhood Around 1900, Suketu Mehta spoke of “updating my India, so that my work should not be just an endless evocation of childhood, of loss, of a remembered India” in his opening chapter in Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, and Abbas Kirostami talks about “the image of my homeland reflected in my movies and photography [as] the emotional connection I have to my beloved country,” I wanted to go on my own expedition to discover the present Beijing that has left me behind.
Your bio says you split your time between New York and Beijing. What’s your take on the rapid evolution of China in those twenty years? How does your “outsider” perspective compare with that of the everyday Beijinger?
I think most people who leave their birth country share a deep sense of nostalgia for their “motherland,” conflicting as your feelings might be. Standing from a distance, I can afford to have a broader perspective. I am sensitive to the Chinese mentality, the pride and its many intricate layers of culture, history, and customs. At the same time, I can see China from the Westerner’s point of view. In many ways, I think China’s rapid development in the last twenty years parallel the contradictions that most industrializing societies have faced. America faced much of the same rapid development during industrialization. Economies and societies have to advance; it’s necessary for China to move into the modern age. As often happens in quickly developing countries, there is not enough thought put into long term planning. China has been so quick to demolish the old to bring in the new. There is no time for reflection. There are people who get left behind. Existing social structures in society are cracking. China is moving towards a Capitalist economy, yet the Communist party maintains a tight stronghold in the political system. This creates a lot of contradictions. There are a lot of strains on the old values and people relationships. I think when you’re in the throes of all that’s morphing in front of your eyes, you become a bit immune to it, maybe even numb. You adapt to survive. Wei, the female cab driver in my film, once commented after I showed her some footage from the film that I am showing her some of the beauties of Beijing that she doesn’t see anymore. I want the film to be in some ways a small reminder of the quickly fading past. Look around, listen, and appreciate some of the beauties of the city before they disappear with modernization.
The film’s trailer calls the 2008 Olympics “China’s greatest publicity stunt.” What’s your take on China using the games to present themselves to the world?
I like to distinguish the Chinese government from the Chinese people. The Olympics was a big publicity stunt, in every way, of the Chinese government. It was propaganda at its most effective, and it was gloriously executed. This is understandable. The Olympics throughout history has been a coming-out party for many countries. China’s economic advancement in the last twenty years is indeed a monumental achievement. I know very well where China was more than twenty years ago when I left China, and where it is now. One cannot argue that China has come very far. The Chinese people are very proud, in that way, to show China’s new face. It’s sad to me though, that the Chinese government is sometimes so afraid of showing the faces of its people. During the Olympics, most of the large populations of migrant workers were sent home and out of sight. They are the same ones that slaved away day and night building the very foundation for China’s glittering presentation to the world. Very few local Beijingers got to see the Games. They were told to stay home and watch on TV. I found it so ironic that on the opening ceremony day, the grandiosity of Tiananmen Square was dwarfed by its silence and emptiness. There was not a soul in sight as you watched the TV coverage of the motorcade of dignities pulling into the Great Hall of the People. I wanted to make this film to show the other side of Beijing, the beautifully warm Beijingers on the ground that get left out of the Chinese government’s featured presentation.
What got you started making movies?
I was raised with scientist genes but my heart has always gravitated towards the arts. After studying economics in college I moved to NY and began exploring different creative fields of interest, from photography, design, to film. I’m also a big music lover. My MFA thesis at Parsons began the genesis of my first documentary “Yellow Ox Mountain.” I absorbed inspirations while working as an apprentice with the legendary Albert Maysles. I quickly realized that in filmmaking I have found the outlet to not only fully engage every aspect of my multidisciplinary interests and talents, but also a platform to observe and explore what truly touches my heart—the human spirit and the human condition. Filmmaking touches me deeply. It fulfills my endless curiosity to understand people and the functions of society. I aspire to make genre-bending poetic and cinematic films that inspire and build human connections.
This is your first feature, a step up from documentary shorts. What challenges did you find in moving to feature-length storytelling?
It takes exponentially greater amount of time, money, and dedication! It was a true test of endurance. In terms of storytelling, one of the main challenges throughout lies in my desire to make a film that stylistically crosses the boundary between an essay-ic tone poem and a verité character story. I wanted to balance the storytelling, intimate character portraits, and explorations of the social issues with an emphasis on employing very cinematic and moody sequences that give the film a visceral feeling. I would like to show the heart of the people through looking deeper into what at surface may seem to be the mundane.
What difficulties (if any) did you face while filming in Beijing?
We didn’t encounter any major difficulties filming in Beijing. I think unless you’re filming some highly sensitive political topics it’s surprisingly easy to film in Beijing. This is of course made easier since I know the language and I’m from there. People take me as a local, until we get into any deeper conversations about pop culture, then they think I lived in a cave because I don’t know anyone’s names at all. I had two different American cinematographers who came on different trips. Nobody would believe me that I was the “boss!” So after not very long I just started telling people I’m the translator helping this American guy. That’s what everyone wanted to believe anyway.
Any lessons learned while making this movie?
Too many to list!! I’ve learned first-hand from deep in the trenches the entire process of creating a feature-length film. It’s been a monumental journey. From a storytelling point of view, I’ve learned a lot about the importance of structure. I don’t wish to make films with a conventional structure, but I have learned, and am still learning how to set up a structure that works for the film I want to make.
Are you nervous about coming to South by Southwest?
I haven’t really had time to be nervous! It’s been such a race to get everything in order. We didn’t even have enough funding for color correction, sound mix, and upconverting to HD when we learned about our acceptance into SXSW. Thanks to an overwhelmingly successful Kickstarter campaign, we were able to move very quickly into post and work at inhuman speeds. I know I’ll get very nervous when I get on that plane.
What’s next for you?
I’m researching a couple of different projects. I’m also thinking about a narrative script. I’ve been extremely fascinated by a lot of stories I’ve been reading about the plasticity of the human brain. One of the projects I’m developing is about an indie musician and the “steamy” bathhouses of Beijing. Um… Sex and rock ‘n roll? I also want to start working on an ongoing Beijing Portrait project, kind of like David Lynch’s Interview Project. I would like to make short character portraits that accompany a website, a photo book, and possibly gallery exhibitions as well. The Portrait project can easily expand to other cities of course.
Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d probably be...
Why would I want to be anything else when I can be anything I want and learn about anything I want to learn as a filmmaker? This is what I have come to realize. Filmmaking encompasses all I want in life.
Beatles or Stones?
In ten words or less, convince the average moviegoer to watch your film.
You will fall in love and start packing your bags!
“Beijing Taxi” has its world premiere are part of the SXSW Documentary Features Competition. It screens 2:30 PM March 15, 11:15 AM March 16, and 11:00 AM March 19. For more information, visit www.beijingtaxithefilm.com.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2991
originally posted: 03/11/10 12:19:06