Guo Xiaolu

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 April, 2010, 12:00am

It's an effort to locate Guo Xiaolu in geographic terms. Born in 1973 in Zhejiang province, she studied at the Beijing Film Academy but now calls London - she moved there in 2002 to study at the National Film and Television School - her 'second home', and is thinking of moving to Berlin.

Her latest films - the fictional feature She, A Chinese and the documentary Once Upon a Time Proletarian: 12 Tales of a Country - were made with European funds; her next, an adaptation of her novel UFO in Her Eyes, is produced by German-Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin's company. She writes books in English today - novels which, like her films, are more well-known abroad (her films were the subject of a retrospective at Paris' Centre Pompidou) than at home in China.

Such ambivalence, however, pleases Guo: the concept of national identity, she says, is dated in an age where one can relocate with ease. Her protagonist in She, A Chinese - village girl Li Mei - moves first from rural Sichuan to Chongqing city where she works in a factory, is sacked, lands up in the skin trade and falls for a gangster. She then moves on to London where she marries a British pensioner then leaves him for a younger Indian takeaway owner without ever struggling about where her real roots lie.

'She was born after the 1980s in an open environment in which people can travel the world,' says Guo, who was in Hong Kong last week to attend the screenings of her two films at the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

'This generation doesn't give a damn if their parents are peasants - I can still go to London or New York, they believe. It's a generation for which youth is more important than national or social identity. It's not about whether they belong ... [Li Mei] abolished these identities and returned to her own self, that of a 25-year-old woman trying to discover her real relationship with society. And she finds a lot of artificial relationships which are totally unnecessary and are illusions.'

Guo's resistance to identity may stem from her distaste of Chinese films which have gained currency in international markets in the past few years: the period dramas based on a reimagination of ancient Chinese history, and those gritty films set in factories and farmlands in late 20th-century and early 21st-century China. These films are an 'exotic' take on the mainland which, she says, is 'quite limiting' to the understanding of the nation today.

What Guo sees is a sense of ennui as people find themselves unable to fit into (or cash in from) the liberalised economy. 'It's a very big problem,' she says. 'When peasants leave their land and come to the cities, they don't become citizens - they don't love [their lives in] cities, or read books or go to cinemas.

'They just enjoy hanging around street corners. There is no true relationship between the environment and themselves - it's collective alienation.'

It's a situation she addresses more explicitly in Once Upon a Time Proletarian. However much Guo says she objects to engaged political cinema, the documentary is exactly that, as the filmmaker reveals her country's social malaise through 12 segments featuring individuals from various walks of life. There's a destitute farmer who reminisces about the old, communitarian days, and denounces today's apparatchiks as brutal and completely corrupt; a young car washer who despairs of the arrogance and coldness of Beijing's rich urbanites; a worker who talks about his factory's arms exports to Iran and Iraq; and entrepreneurs whose lives revolve around stock tradings and visits to Russian prostitutes.

True to style, Guo declines to commit herself and her films to a political cause - but she admits she's dismayed by the living conditions in China. 'I'm always angry,' she says. And maybe that's for the better of mainland cinema in the future.

Once Upon A Time Proletarian: 12 Tales of a Country screens tomorrow at 1.15pm at the Hong Kong Space Museum as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival