Interview with Zhengfan Yang (Distant)

Before I go ahead with more blog posts on the relation of Slow Cinema and Chinese painting, here’s a brief email interview with director Zhengfan Yang, director of Distant. I have posted a comment on the film a while ago and he was kind enough to answer a few brief questions for me.

Why “Distant”? The title of your film appears to comment on the aesthetics of the film. But there also seems to be more. 
The aesthetics of the film refers to the the wide shots, the long takes and the way I connected the audience with the film, all these are about “distance”. And it’s also about the subjects, each long take contains a small story about distance.
The characters in your film are a mystery to the viewer, because you refrain from employing close-ups, which could show their facial expressions or their body language. Why do you refuse the viewer access to the characters?

On one hand, the film is not about the characters but the distance between characters. I was trying to show the distance between the characters and even the distance between the audience and the characters, so it’s ridiculous to give close-ups to bring the audience and the characters closer. It’s not about how to let the audience to understand the characters but how NOT to. All I wanna do is to avoid the audience to understand them. We are strangers and strangers. That’s our situation today.
On the other hand, for me, the atmosphere of a film is more important than the characters. I denied the viewer access to both the characters and the story. I deliberately cut off the connections between all these 13 shots, I mean, I could have built up many connection between all these stories and leave some more imagination to the audience. They might think, “oh here’s the police I saw in the hospital scene”, but I didn’t. There will be no distance if they are connected.
For me, each long-take was a film on its own. 

Yes. As I said, I disconnected the 13 sections, so naturally each long take can be one on its own. And the story in each long take is a fragment I collected from the reality, from what I have heard, or from my own experience or imagination. I kept them as fragments as they were at the very beginning instead of developing into a whole full story, with built-up, climax and conclusion.
 Is “Distant” an active engagement with the canon of Slow Cinema?
I am not sure, to be honest with you. But by slowing the film, it allows more sense of time to come from the image and sound, and allows more observation on the space too. Most of the time we see only actions or dialogue in a shot, because many filmmakers just don’t work on time and space and so when the action is done, they have to cut it away. But there’s also time and space. I am creating a world on the screen with the time and space, using the image and the sound, and I want to introduce the audience to feel them.
Do you see yourself as a slow-film director?
Same, I am not sure, I don’t want to define myself as a certain kind of filmmaker, although it is true that the film I made is slow because it is dealing with a certain kind of subject, and the time and space, which I concern as the most important issue for me in cinema. Actually I believe that we are all dealing with time and space, but it doesn’t means that “slow” is the only way to do so.
What is your background? When did you start making films?
I have a bachelor in law but I spent most of my time watching films in that four years. Then, I started making short films around 2007 after I finished my study in law school. I was taught by a film professor, Zhou Chuanji, in a one-on-one film course for one year. After that I went to Hong Kong for a Master of Fine Art program in film production. I just graduated last year and Distant is my first feature film.
Are there any specific directors, writers, philosophers or general artists who have influenced your work or from whom you take your inspiration?
Well, Michelangelo Antonioni inspired me by his way of exploring the space in a film while I see how time has been captured and sculptured  in Tarkovsky’s film. For contemporary cinema, I consider Lav Diaz as one of the greatest filmmakers, together with Apichatpong. Both of them are shaping the future of cinema. But when it comes to something about influence, I believe I was influenced a lot by Tsai Ming-Liang, mostly the image, the sound, and the ambience he shaped in his films…
 Are you working on a new project?
Yes, I am going to premiere a documentary, Out Of Focus, in Cinema du Reel (France) at the end of March. The documentary is directed by Shengze Zhu, producer and cinematographer of Distant. I worked as producer, cinematographer and editor in this documentary.
I also have several projects and some interesing ideas that I want to make, but it’s getting more and more difficult to get funding for films. Most people want good stories instead of good films.
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