Director Ning Ying on Beijing's Makeover

by Amanda Weiss for The Beijinger

Ning Ying, born in Beijing in 1959, is a member of the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers alongside Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. Through her narratives, she hopes to create a “visual memory” of Beijing before, during, and after its transformation. This is an excerpt from an interview conducted in English in January 2007.


TBJ: Did you always know you wanted to be a filmmaker?


Ning Ying: No, when I went to the Beijing Film Academy to study I didn’t think I would become a filmmaker. I thought I would still play the violin one day. It was just a very special situation in China.


TBJ: Did other classmates have a similar feeling when they went to the BFA?


Ning Ying: I don’t know. I was one of the young students. There were some much older than us and they were much more focused than us. I didn’t study film making per se, I studied sound recording. I wanted to do something with music. And after a very short time I realized it was not what I was interested in. It was a lot of techniques and engineering. That’s why I took the examination to go abroad. At the beginning of the eighties there was this scholarship offered by European governments for students to study art. I asked to study in Europe and in the end I went to Italy. I didn’t take the violin with me. It was like I lost a love. From there I began to fall in love with movies. Because finally there was a very open situation, I could see every kind of movie.


TBJ: Did Italy change the way you made films?


Ning Ying: It was the place where I fell in love with movies…In Europe there is the cinema of the world, you see the history and every kind of perspective, and especially in the beginning of the eighties there was a very open atmosphere in Rome. You could see so many kinds of retrospectives; you could see the director appear from the beginning to the end, and every kind of movie…I think it is when I came back to China that suddenly I became very clear [as to what kind of films I wanted to make].


TBJ: When you set up a scene, how do you decide what is reality?


Ning Ying: I research for a long time for this so-called “docu-drama.” I saw some Chinese movies. They were just showing this nostalgic feeling, for example traditional culture, [as if] only beautiful tradition has some kind of valuable meaning. But for me it doesn’t. The images must mean history, a visual memory. For example, for On the Beat, I was filming policemen. You can choose criminals or dead bodies or neighbors quarreling. Why did I choose [a search for] dogs? Maybe my film won’t sell immediately, but it means more for history and for myself, for a lot of people here. My Beijing Trilogy (For Fun, On the Beat, I Love Beijing) is three movies that try to cover ten years of extreme social changes in the city of Beijing during the reforms from 1991-2000. They try to talk from the perspective of three different generations. They discuss the social structure, the living condition, the people’s feeling—the individual—with regards to the city.


TBJ: In the film Perpetual Motion, this is your first film where all the main characters were female. Any difference?


Ning Ying: Very different. With the Beijing Trilogy I tried to make a visual memory about this transforming social moment, so the camera is focused on the street shots, the architecture of the city, the outside. That outside reflected what is inside of the people. When I shot Perpetual Motion, the city’s operation was almost complete. So you have to put the camera inside the stomach to see what has happened to the people inside this changing city, ten years after the reform.


TBJ: You also chose pretty wealthy women…


Ning Ying: Powerful, they are the most powerful. The most successful, and you can see what has happened from inside. The past is very complicated. It has been twenty, thirty years of social changes in China.


TBJ: Where do you think Beijing is headed?


Ning Ying: Beijing has already changed completely. It is already a new town. You know somehow memory is related to stone, architecture. One day the wall is gone, it is destroyed. It is like a piece of your memory is gone. For me Beijing exists in the Beijing Trilogy, not anymore.


TBJ: How do you feel about the destruction of the hutongs?


NY: It has cancelled a part of their memory, really. It is not simply a city changing. Beijing hadn’t changed for hundreds of years, but today it is final. Unfortunately, it has changed definitely. When I shot the Beijing trilogy I hadn’t yet realized that the change would be so fast and so radical.


TBJ: Is that change bad or good?


Ning Ying: [Sighs] It is very difficult. If you are talking from the perspective of the material living standard, it is better. You have cleaner water. But then there is city planning, the architecture of the city. It is like a cultural issue, you always have another way to do it, to improve the living standard. So for me, it is very bad. For me it is something totally wrong. Especially nowadays you have a lot of choice. Why use this barbarian way? It is just an economic choice. Because of money.


TBJ: What is the chicken scene about in Perpetual Motion?


Ning Ying: It is something very provocative, something very new with the Chinese to talk about desire, the woman’s desire, the sexual desire. Westerners have the feminism movement, maybe it is something that is not new, but in China it is still [considered to be] something terrible.


TBJ: There is a big difference between how Chinese and foreigners react to your films, particularly Perpetual Motion. Many foreign reviewers absolutely love Perpetual Motion; a lot of Chinese reviewers criticize it.


Ning Ying: I think that it is because the movie is showing this very direct emotion. It is something that in China is forbidden. In Chinese we say we are very hanxu (indirect). You never say exactly what you want. So you see the movie, it is as if it is showing something immoral or terrible. So when someone says, “How dare you show these old, ugly women in such close-up?” I ask, “Why do you think they are old and ugly?” Because if I shoot anyone it is because I really deeply love that person, I love that face, I like that kind of moment, so that’s why you shoot it. If you think it’s ugly you never shoot it.