Interview with Writer and Filmmaker Zhu Wen

The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen

In keeping with our featured book this week, Zhu Wen’s The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, we cover today a 2011 interview of Zhu Wen, conducted by the Wang Ge of Timeout Beijing.

In the interview, Wang discusses the multitude of Wen’s creative personas, namely as a novelist, engineer, philosopher and film-maker and he interviews Zhu about his upcoming movie release, Thomas Mao.

Wang first heard of Zhu Wen in 2002 when the bad-boy writer-film director was a guest on a radio talk show where the interviewees had been asked to bring along a book, a film and an album to represent themselves. According to him, Zhu was automatically painted as some kind of anarchist:

Ge: In 2002, he [Zhu] was still better known as a novelist, having quit his factory job in 1994 to become a writer. He didn’t join the directorial ranks until 2001, with cultish debut Seafood. The film chronicles the story of a Beijing prostitute who travels to Beidaihe to kill herself, and it flew under the radars of most film lovers. It wasn’t until his second feature, South of the Clouds (2003), the tale of a doleful-eyed retiree’s journey of self-discovery to Yunnan, that Zhu announced himself to the world. Then he disappeared. Many thought the director had quit filmmaking for good, but now he’s back with Thomas Mao – and it’s every bit the head trip you’d expect.

The film [Thomas Mao] is divided into two parts. The first half shows the cultural clashes between an Inner Mongolian yurt owner (played by artist Mao Yan) and a foreign artist (played by Thomas Rohldewald), who shares his tent for a night. The twist comes in the second half, where fiction transforms into ‘documentary’, and Zhu turns his camera on the real-life Mao Yan and his working relationship with Rohldewald, a long-time artistic collaborator.

Zhu: Both of them are good friends of mine, but it all came together when I finally figured out how the two artists are connected in their own separate realities. There was this ancient Chinese philosopher called Zhuangzi, and he dreamt of becoming a butterfly. Then he woke up and was confused as to whether he had dreamt he was a butterfly, or if he was a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. The boundaries between reality and dreams can blur together so easily that I can only explain them through their different incarnations.

The plant I worked in was built to produce machine parts, but then the Soviet Union was gone, production was stranded. So I spent my days and nights gathering my colleagues together to play poker. The factory authorities found out about this and threatened to fire me for gambling, which is illegal. Then, all of a sudden, the plant recovered, production began and skilled engineers were needed. So they called me back when I’d already packed my bags. But one day, when I finished work for the day, I looked at all these assembly lines and thought: What am I doing here?

Ge: As we part under the baking Houhai sun, my sense of reality duly challenged, I struggle to define Zhu Wen. Anarchist? Writer? Engineer? Director? Philosopher? He is both all and none of the above. Thomas Mao is undoubtedly a return to form, but I can’t help but wonder, when will we next see him? Only one thing remains certain: he will return – it just depends on which reality he chooses, writer or director. You never know with butterflies.

For the full text of the interview, please click this link.

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