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94 min. Mandarin.

It’s not just the unbearable heat that ushers in the rainy season which bothers 14-year-old Li Senlin. She’s also struggling to come up with a good topic for an essay at school. Inspiration finally arrives when her aunt comes to visit unexpectedly and is full of curious stories – tales that could be true, but don’t have to be.
Holidays, downtime, days hard to get a grip on. Even the setting – the southern Chinese city of Hangzhou – seems strangely timeless. Like the adolescent Senlin, we look out the window at an anonymous urban landscape whose endless rows of high-rise buildings are nevertheless surrounded by woods, lakes and caves, all shrouded in myth. An attentive camera equally happy to wander off accompanies Senlin on her forays. Aunt Qiu Xiaqiu’s yarns, which are mostly about her deceased husband and working on a barge, are spun further in these natural settings. Zhu Xin’s directorial debut increasingly develops into an interior narrative that follows a logic all of its own. Misplaced turtles and lost red flags reappear unexpectedly. As the first thunderstorms and rain clouds approach on the horizon, it’s like being caught up in a Chinese midsummer night’s dream. (Anke Leweke)

Zhu Xin was born in Hangzhou, China in 1996. From 2014 to 2018, he studied film and television at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. In 2015, he made the short film, Wushan Shequ. Man You is his first feature-length film.

Hazy childhood

MAN YOU is the illusion of my real life, a fantasy grown out of my memory. During the vanishing days of the summer in the region south of the Yangtze River, the caves block the TV signals of two families. Thunder and lightning come and go, boats pass by one after another. Women stroll up and down the hills, looking into the quiet maze. From the humidity and blurry memories emerges an impression of my hazy childhood. Now, I pick up the pieces of my broken glasses with the help of film, and begin to observe the world around me with greater clarity. (Zhu Xin)

Conversation with Zhu Xin: “The film is like a small park”

Vivian Ying: MAN YOU is your first feature-length film. Why did you want to tell this story and have it take place in Hangzhou, your hometown?

Zhu Xin: I am 22 years old and have not lived anywhere else besides Hangzhou. The hospital I was born in is only a couple streets away from my current home. I did not travel much growing up. Hangzhou is a very densely populated city and to me it always felt like a small park. With the film, I hope to return to the days of my childhood. The film is also like a small park, allowing me to imagine and create, and follow paths into an unknown future.
Dai Ying and I wrote the script together. It started with a story she told me about an acquaintance of hers. We then wrote a script with 30 scenes, and we began shooting before the script was complete. We would revise the script and shoot at the same time. As such, it was quite different from a standard production in the film industry.

MAN YOU had a very small budget, you must have overcome many obstacles to complete this production.

It was not all that easy. The budget for the pre-production was very small. I borrowed 20,000 RMB (3,000 USD) from my parents and spent a few more thousand RMB for re-shoots. All in all, we spent no more than 30,000 RMB (4,400 USD). The limited budget led to a series of issues, including very tight schedules. When we started shooting, we spent several days dressing the set. The apartment that served as our main shooting location was not far from my house. I would bike over and hang around there, contemplating the set design. In the beginning, there was barely anything in the apartment. The producer did not want to spend much money on props, so we would sift through dumpsters downstairs or borrow items from other peoples’ homes in order to keep costs at a minimum.
In August 2016, we worked on the film for one week, shooting for six days. It was quite intense, we would shoot from morning to night.
I then took a year-long break. During this year, I was not in touch with anyone besides the scriptwriter and I went scouting for locations by myself. It was a pretty tough year for me. I had to take on the whole project by myself and I did not really have anyone to talk to.
The next year I got everything together and organised three days of shooting. Shooting the entire film took no more than two weeks in total. We spent a whole day at Qiandao Lake, from morning to night, and arrived back in Hangzhou at dawn the next day. The crew was completely exhausted. I would like to thank everyone for their dedication on that day.
I was in my second year of university at the time, and had not yet received any formal filmmaking training. But I did not want to wait any longer to become mature and seasoned and only then begin making films. I did not feel that so-called professionalism was the most important element in the equation.

You were not even 20 years old when you started shooting MAN YOU, which is a feature-length film. Is that not a little young?

As a child, I always enjoyed talking about things that felt unexplainable or ambiguous. Now that I talk about them again at an older age, I do so with same kind of childhood wonder. What is key is that with time things fade from memory and are perhaps forgotten altogether. In the past, the technological opportunities were comparatively more limited, which would have made it very difficult or almost impossible for someone my age to make such a film. Why does the work of a child necessarily have to contain elements of adulthood? Throughout film history, no child has had the opportunity to make their own film. I hope that I have managed. MAN YOU was a great challenge, I put my full trust and heart into this work. I would no longer be able to make such a film today. In that sense, it is also like a farewell.

In the movie, there is almost no demarcation between life and death. We see Li Senlin living out her youth and enjoying a watermelon in the summer heat, and we also see aunties and uncles laying down wreaths. There are supernatural moments, like the scenes with the dead people running and the mysterious dead body.

Three years ago, I went backpacking in Varanasi in India. On my last day there, I came across an unusual scene near the Ganges: the burning ghat. The corpse of a man who died suddenly and in mysterious circumstances was being carried to the riverbank. No one knew his identity and no one had come to claim his corpse, so he could not be covered in a white cloth like everyone else. He had to be burnt as a naked dead body and his ashes were then thrown into the river. That was the first time that I confronted death so directly. In my memory, his body seems like a dark vortex, sinking slowly and heavily into the river until it disappears. I do not dare to try and remember any other details, for there was something so sharp about that experience that it pierced through me. The vanishing bodies, as they travel through space, become phantoms that cannot be ignored. Death turns me into someone who is vulnerable, sensitive and open, and that is why it is so important.

When I was watching MAN YOU, I could feel the humidity in the air. In one scene, Li Senlin notices that her father gives off the scent of water vapour and she follows him into a hot spring, where she falls and gets soaking wet. Auntie Qiu rows boats on the Grand Canal. The killer jumps into the Grand Canal at the end. Everything in the film seems to have a connection with water.

I grew up in the south of China, which is known for its bodies of water. A lot of my childhood memories are in some way related to moisture. I used to play near the Grand Canal and my grandmother would order that I make one full circle around the river everyday from morning to noon, or else I would not be allowed back home. Once I also almost drowned in a park: I fell into a big puddle of water and could not catch my breath or make any sounds, I was completely helpless. Only after a couple minutes did someone arrive and save me. I have a whole collection of memories related to water and they emerge in accordance to the weather.

The actors in MAN YOU were all non-professionals, right? How did you choose them and how did you direct them so precisely in the film?

My mother was my history teacher in middle school. When I was preparing the film, she spent a lot of time helping with the casting. She asked around in her circle of friends, and also looked amongst students, colleagues and parents. My mother’s first recommendation was Jiang Li, who plays the role of Senlin. She is one of my mother’s students and really wanted to be an actress. I went to the girl’s home and talked with her parents. They asked what type of film I was making and also gave me some life advice. I told them that I would try my best to make the film, which alleviated their worries. Jiang Li’s mother accompanied her through the whole shoot. My mother would also sometimes help out on set, and Jiang Li always referred to her as ‘teacher’. There was something that felt slightly out of place and yet magical about it. Xiao Bo used to be my science teacher, so we know each other well. Auntie Qiu is played my producer’s mother. The mother in the film is a former classmate of my mother. We all communicated a lot with each other and overall it went quite smoothly. But I was not trying to make them understand the entire film, as they did not know what the whole story was about. Rather, I tried to figure out what they were thinking and feeling. What is important for me is that I got to know and understand them better, so that I could direct their performances in way that reflects their personalities, to better fit the feel of the film.

(Interview: Vivian Ying)

Production Wang Jingyuan, Midday Hill Films, Xia Yantao, Midday Hill Films, Zhao Jin, Midnight Blur Films. Director Zhu Xin. Screenplay Dai Ying, Zhu Xin. Cinematography Zhang Wei. Editing Zhu Xin. Music Tao Zhen. Sound Zhang Zijie, Shen Zhen. Production design Jin Jiacheng, Chen Xinjialan. With Jiang Li (Li Senlin, girl), Huang Jing (Qiu Xiaqiu, auntie), Chen Yan (Caiqin, mom), Li Xiaoxing (Bo), Lu Jiahe (Li Senlin, boy).

World sales Parallax Films
Premiere October 08, 2018, Busan Film Festival


2015: Wushan Shequ / Community (28 min.). 2018: Man you / Vanishing Days.

Photo: © Midday Hill Films

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
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