Zhao Dayong’s The High Life is an unflinching portrait of the human condition in the city streets and prison cells of Guangzhou, China, and it marks the director’s move into narrative cinema following two acclaimed documentaries, Street Life (2006) and Ghost Town (2008). Although the intersecting narratives of The High Life are entirely fictional, the casting of real-life prison guard and aspiring poet Dian Qiu as himself serves as a reminder of Zhao’s documentary roots, while Dian’s world-weary presence effectively bookends the film with a combination of authority and humanity. The mid-section is devoted to the story of Jian Ming, a small-time scam artist who takes advantage of migrant workers via his fake employment agency, creating a collage with the photos from their application forms on his apartment wall. Jian Ming’s life begins to unravel when he develops feelings for Xiao Ya, a young woman from the countryside who he has placed in a sleazy hair salon, and makes the mistake of becoming involved in an ill-fated pyramid scheme. The narrative strands inform, but do not necessarily impact on, one another, creating an authentic representation of one of Guangzhou’s most dilapidated districts. Zhao Dayong spoke to John Berra at the 7th China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing.
JB: As you have a background in documentary filmmaking, why did you choose to feature the prison guard and poet Dian Qiu as a character in a fiction narrative rather than documenting his daily routine?
ZD: I chose to make a narrative feature because documentary is restrictive in that it has to respect reality. With fiction, you have the freedom of representation and can be more subjective. Because the prison guard is a symbol of power, it is more powerful to represent this character through fiction. Dian Qiu and I have been friends for a long time, I know him very well. Therefore, his real life gave me lots of inspiration. I combined his life with my original story about the slum and they became one movie. I originally had a story in which an outsider comes to this environment to find work and tries to survive. Although this story was in my mind for a long time, I decided that if the movie only told this story, it would not be interesting enough.
The film features two living spaces, the slum and the prison, and you make cultural and institutional comparisons between them.
Yes, they have similarities. Because this old slum is almost like a prison; it’s surrounded by high-rise buildings, which are like a prison wall. Within this space, the people are free, but it’s a superficial freedom because they have to deal with lots of invisible control. On the other hand, the prison is an enclosed space, too. The people within it, both the prisoners and the guards, are also oppressed. Dian Qiu tries to find ways to resolve his oppression; poetry is one way, conversation with the female prisoner is another.
The character of Jian Ming runs a fake employment agency and becomes involved in a pyramid scheme. How did you research this kind of illegal activity?
I was actually involved with MLM (Multi-Level Marketing) when I first came to Guangzhou, more specifically with Amway, which was a very famous MLM network back then. This was around 1995, in the early days of MLM. My friend invited me to a meeting and I saw some Westerners on the stage talking about ‘the legend of Amway’. I was told that I could earn millions within a year but I immediately said that it was all bullshit. However, I have since been fascinated by these events and I would later look for opportunities to go to them because I am always interested in the people who attend. They always look very serious, thinking that they will become millionaires the following day. The actor who plays Jian Ming has also been involved in MLM before, but he is now a chef in real life.
Did the police ever raid a meeting that you attended, as seen in The High Life?
I was involved when everything was legal. MLM was a pyramid scheme for selling real goods in 1995, so the police were not paying any attention to it. In recent years, MLM has become a scam. Therefore, the government has declared that MLM is no longer legal and sometimes the police will arrest people for engaging in such activities. However, they have managed to continue operating by changing their business description to ‘Direct Selling’, which is essentially the same activity, but considered legal.
I was wondering why Jian Ming puts the photos up on the wall of his apartment. Is it because of feelings of guilt from tricking these migrant workers? It seems that he could help these people to find jobs if he really applied himself as he recognises their potential and has a connection with them on some level.
You are too involved in the story! You can interpret this in many ways; you can interpret this as his achievement, you can also interpret this as his understanding of human beings. There are many storylines in the film, so it is also intended to mislead you.
The High Life is reflective of reality in that it does not have a big climax and certain stories, such as Jian Ming’s burgeoning relationship with Xiao Ya, are dropped just as they seem to become significant.
This is more real, because life is just like this, absurd, disordered and without reason. This film has four storylines and each story is an individual story. If I followed the Hollywood style, The High Life could be separated into four movies. But at some point, each storyline stops and transforms into another storyline, then a surprise ending appears. This represents the real world. The film also shows the goodness that is in the world, but the characters can never get hold of it. For example, Jian Ming and his lover are one step away from being happy together, but that storyline ends with separation. Jian Ming also looks for hope through his relationship with the girl in the salon.
But they are both on the bottom rung of the social-economic ladder, so they cannot help each other.
Yes, happiness always slips away. But misfortune can come at any time.
The character of Jian Ming evokes the film noir archetype of the small-time criminal on a downward spiral. Were you influenced by any Western genre films when writing the screenplay?
Not really. I watch very few films because my background is painting and I have not had any training in the field of filmmaking. The film is based on my life experiences and my observations of the world. I do not borrow from, or imitate, other filmmakers because I believe that my life experiences are sufficient for creative inspiration. It is important that a director is instinctive and intuitive; if someone has no instinct, he is not suited to being a director. Narrative filmmaking is very much related to documentary filmmaking. When you make a documentary, you observe and capture people in order to make a story from reality; you have to train yourself to unconsciously observe reality. I have always said that, if you want to make a feature film, you must make a documentary first.
The High Life has a richly textured aesthetic. How did you achieve such a striking visual style on a relatively low budget?
My background is in advertising and I work with a very good team. This film has cost 800,000 Chinese yuan. However, in order to achieve the same level of quality, other directors might need three or even five times that budget. People who have good resources are rather rare within the independent filmmaking sector in China. All my productions follow professional procedures. Although the budget is low, everything from the camerawork to the lighting, the set dressing, the editing and sound recording are all up to the same standard as a blockbuster so that the film can be shown in the cinema. But I am open-minded. If anyone asked me to make a commercial movie, either domestically or abroad, I would go for it as I would like to make commercial movies as well.
Interview by John Berra