Jacob Kiernan interviews the filmmaker on his upcoming project in Hong Kong, dislodged cultural identity, and the evolution of wedding photography in China.
Photo courtesy of Bo Wang
Chris Marker once mentioned that the images in his films “came from an entirely different universe.” That is the feeling one has watching Bo Wang’s films about contemporary China. China Concerto focuses on a dramatic political power grab that rattled the country’s leadership and sent one of its most prominent members to prison. In that film, among other works, Bo uses innovative cinematic techniques to expose the political, social, and physical landscape of China. Born and raised in Chongqing, he went to Beijing for college before living in the United States for several years.
Bo’s photography project, “Heteroscapes,” displays reality beyond imagination. Abandoned world-landmark themed amusement parks, hyper-modern overpasses dwarfing derelict housing projects, mimetic European towns in the heart of China, and tremendous construction projects juxtaposed with verdant landscapes demonstrate the incredible transformation of his country.
—Jacob Kiernan for Guernica
Guernica: China Concerto was shown at the Beijing Independent Film Festival, China Independent Film Festival, and MoMA Doc Fortnight. What was your approach to making the film?
Bo Wang: Around 2009, the party secretary of my hometown Chongqing, Bo Xilai, initiated a tremendous political campaign to pursue top party leadership. A major component of the campaign focused on reviving Maoist ideology. It generated a prodigious amount of propaganda. China Concerto was a reflection and observation of this campaign, a campaign that ended dramatically, in 2012, when Bo Xilai’s chief police officer [Wang Lijun] fled to the American consulate for asylum.
Guernica: You organized a film series called We Land/ I Was Born/ Passing By about New York’s Chinatown.
Bo Wang: I put it together with the artist Lynne Sachs, and film curators Xin Zhou and Lesley Qin. We tried to raise questions about the history, fantasy, and representation of Chinatown, through artistic and vernacular images.
Guernica: And you’re headed to Hong Kong to start a new film?
Bo Wang: First I’m going to see family and friends in Beijing, then I’m going to Hong Kong to shoot. We still have to hire a location fixer. There is very tight regulation in all aspects of social life in Hong Kong. There are rules written everywhere. If you go to the park, the first thing you see is a list of things you can’t do: don’t walk your dog, don’t skateboard, and don’t lie on the benches.
For example, Hong Kong University is at the top of a hill. If you go down to the river, there is Sun Yat Sen Park. When you go to the bathroom, there is immediately a sign that says no photography. Do you really need to write that down? It’s provocative. A fixer will get us access to the places we wouldn’t otherwise be able to shoot.
Guernica: Tell me about your new film.
Bo Wang: Hong Kong is the archetype of a free market economy. Taxes are extremely low. The country advertises itself as a hub for international exchange. But accordingly the government makes very little money from taxes, while having to maintain the city’s infrastructure.
The general impression is that space is very limited in Hong Kong. People live in tiny apartments, packed tightly together. The government owns or leases out all of the land.
The starting point of our documentary is looking at the percentage of land in use in Hong Kong. It’s very surprising. Only 23 percent of the land is used. 77 percent is not in use or being held. The government makes money by creating an artificial shortage of land, and selling this land at extremely inflated prices. Accordingly, the whole society ends up relying on this very expensive housing cost to maintain the country’s infrastructure.
This artificial inflation of property value creates a huge gap between social classes. Housing prices in Hong Kong are probably four times what they are in Manhattan.
Guernica: What is Hong Kong like culturally?
Bo Wang: Lots of people say that Hong Kong is a very different culturally from [Mainland] China. For example, there are no startups in Hong Kong. The real estate industry in Hong Kong is so strong and predictable that whenever people have money they put it in real estate. No one would bother to invest money in IT where there’s risk involved.
The whole society is structured around the production of space: How much the government will sell the land for.
Real estate has hijacked everything. There is very little interest in putting money into cultural outlets. Money is for profit, and the art scene is relatively weak. There are big galleries from the UK and New York, but it has very little to do with the city itself. It’s about making connections with wealthy people throughout East Asia. The whole society is structured around the production of space: How much the government will sell the land for. Everything functions according to the logic of the market.
Guernica: You grew up in Chongqing and later moved to Beijing.
Bo Wang: I went to college in Beijing; I lived there for seven years. It was an interesting moment. Beijing had the Olympics in 2008, and they announced the location of the games seven years before. So when I moved to Beijing in 2001, the city had just won the nomination. Basically, my whole memory of Beijing is as one tremendous construction site. Practically every building was covered in these huge, blue-green walls, and you couldn’t see anything that was happening behind. It was a city in hiding.
Guernica: There are similar walls around construction sites in Moscow. There are building facades painted on the walls. The strange part is that it’s a totally different building from the one being built behind. You walk around a doubled city.
Bo Wang: In Mao’s hometown, Shaoshan, which is a huge city in central China, the buildings are covered in these landscape paintings. They sometimes even have these cheesy slogans. My favorite was a tremendous landscape scene covering a construction site, which read, in huge letters, “Nature is the most beautiful scene.”
Guernica: I remember reading about the construction for the Sochi Olympic village. It was prodigious. And, as soon as the games were over, it became a ghost town.
Bo Wang: In the ’90s, in China, theme parks with world-famous landmarks were built all over the country. Every city had one. You can go see a miniature Eiffel Tower, a dwarfed Statue of Liberty, all that sort of thing. Now, most of them are abandoned. There is a huge one in Beijing that’s deserted. People sneak into it. It’s like a futurist dream.
Guernica: You’ve also made a film about your hometown.
Bo Wang: Chongqing is an industrial city on the Jailing River, near where the Three Gorges Dam is located. The Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest dam, and Chongqing one of the largest upstream port cities. About thirty million people live there.
The headquarters of the different parties were all in Chongqing after the war—the communists and the republicans were located there simultaneously. It was like Berlin during the Cold War.
During World War II, the Japanese took over the whole east coast of China. Chongqing became the temporary capital because it was inland. After the Japanese left, Chongqing remained the capital during the civil war. The headquarters of the different parties, the communists and the republicans, were located there simultaneously. It was like Berlin during the Cold War.
In the ’50s, Mao had this fantasy of preparing for World War III, so he started building military factories and stockpiling weapons in the area. Countless engineers and scientist were relocated from Beijing and Shanghai to Chongqing. But during the Cultural Revolution, Chongqing became a target because of the stockpiles of weapons. Divergent factions got hold of tanks and there were huge massacres.
Guernica: In your project, Heterscopes, you photograph the city.
Bo Wang: My personal interest in Chongqing is in its changing landscape. I went to college in Beijing, and then spent three years here in the States. Every year I would return to my hometown, and realize how much had changed. It was amazing. I started to see the layers of history that I used to take for granted. Now I see the conflict and the contradiction of the process of modernization, especially in a place like Chongqing, where the influence of the West is much less direct than in Beijing. The vision of modernity is somehow second-hand, translated by geographical distance.
China is a very mono-cultural society. My theory is people who grew up in a mono-cultural background are not as conscious of their cultural identity, so it becomes much easier to adopt other cultural forms without considering potential identity issues.
One result, for example, of China’s mono-cultural vision is its wedding photography. Here in New York, wedding photographers take stylized photos on the day of the wedding as a sort of documentation. But in China, the wedding industry is much bigger. In the ’60s and ’70s, during the Cultural Revolution, wedding photos would always have Mao’s picture in the background, as if he was a witness at the wedding. In the ’80s, Mao was gone, and things became very minimal. In the ’90s, when the economy started to boom, the photographs became more elaborate, like in Western shoots. There were painted backgrounds of nature and gardens. By the 2000s, things became more complicated. You would dress up like European nobles in a Renaissance painting, an Arab king, the British royal family, or a Hawaiian Islander. There is no issue with cultural identity. Can you imagine some white dude, like James Franco, doing something like that? Well, actually Franco might dress up like an Arab king.
Guernica: What about new architecture?
Bo Wang: In terms of architecture, things are very similar. You see small towns in West China that are exact copies of small European towns. A local county major will decide to design a town in British style, find a small town, and replicate the whole thing perfectly. Architecture is very visible, but it takes lots of social resources to make things happen.
They’re not very accurate reproductions, but you might have statue of a Greek god in your living room and Doric columns lining your bedroom.
Interior design is another example that I think is interesting. Renovating a home or apartment can be done very cheaply in China. When a regular middle class family buys a new house, it is the tradition to redecorate the house. Very few families choose minimal decorations. Most opt to redecorate the whole house in a “European style,” or “Roman style.” They’re not very accurate reproductions, but you might have statue of a Greek god in your living room and Doric columns lining your bedroom.
Guernica: How are things different in Beijing and Shanghai?
Bo Wang: In Shanghai everything is driven by the market. In Beijing, everything is organized around power, so it’s somewhat unpredictable. The infrastructure of the city is not very good. The whole city plan started with preserving the Imperial Palace. The city was built around the palace in a series of concentric rings. In urban planning, rings are never a good choice. When there is traffic at one point in the ring, there’s traffic everywhere. There’s no way to disperse density.
And there are huge overpasses that are terribly designed. People get confused and stuck in them. My friend accidentally rode his bike onto an overpass, and couldn’t get out. He spent twenty minutes trying, and then he just got a taxi.
China is constantly in construction. There’s this joke in China: if you see a beautiful woman, look around, find a spare brick, and ask her if it’s hers. It’s not very funny, but it’s illustrative. Things are constantly accelerating and new situations emerging in China today. It’s interesting to observe, whether your framework is philosophical, historical, or political.
Bo Wang is a filmmaker and photographer from Chongqing. He is based in New York City.
Jacob Kiernan is a writer and doctoral student of comparative literature living in New York City.