Four Ways to Die in my Hometown

First time director Chai Chunya talks about his experimental film

Every year, 15 million Chinese people move from the countryside to the city, leaving the old, sick and weak behind. Four Ways to Die in my Hometown is a poetic, experimental meditation on this phenomenon, asking, what is left when the fabric of society is torn apart? It chronicles the journey of a young college student returning to her hometown when she learns her father is dying. We talk to the film's director Chai Chunya, 37, a Beijing-based poet and journalist who was born in a remote village in Gansu province. This is his first film.

How did your upbringing in a remote region and subsequent migration influence this film?
I felt homesick and lonely after I left my hometown in Longxi county, Gansu province. For me now, it’s a land brimming with nostalgia. Some of the scenes in my film, such as the disappearing village opera, shadow puppetry and other festive activities, depict traditions that are fading and will eventually disappear. So this film is to record and mourn for that departure, before they vanish forever: the disappearance of such traditions demonstrates the death of the hometown.

In the urbanisation of eastern and southern China, many rural icons are vanishing. They now only exist in the underdeveloped western regions that haven’t experienced a cultural invasion. In these areas, local folk culture is spared.

From this position, I want to seek the spiritual hometown and discuss the significance of ‘homeland’ to the Chinese. Different from Western nations, modern China’s urban citizens can’t yet call the city home. But the country road they yearn for looms darkly as a shadow, and people are wandering on as ghosts.

You mention wandering ghosts. You spent some time travelling and teaching in Tibet. How did this experience affect you and your work?
My cultural DNA has been reformed by the Tibetan civilisation, and the experience there helped a materialist like me to turn into a man of belief, learning to take a closer look at the world with a stronger sense of compassion. Since my time there, I have found myself contemplating abstract ideas, such as temporality, heart and matter and active or passive attitudes to the world.

Chinese filmmakers are immersed in mundane stories and are too obsessed with linear narrative. Inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, I want to conduct a narrative experiment and try to remain detached from secular ideas.

Your film is full of references to Buddhism. Is this a reflection of your personal beliefs?
In the theory system of Tibetan Buddhism, the universe was formed by four elements: earth, water, fire and wind. These are elements, not matter. If applied to a human body, then the strong part of bones are formed by earth elements, blood by water, temperature by fire, and breath by wind. A death is simply a decomposition of the four elements.

So, when I say my hometown is dead, I don’t feel despair and desperation, as my homeland simply disappeared in a material sense. I found I’m not a pessimist, but a person who firmly believes in a more perfect spiritual existence and another space, which is affirmed by lots of other religions. There’s still something above and beyond matter from the four elements.

I returned to my hometown with my mind influenced by Indian culture and Tibetan Buddhist culture, but found that the local people with their folk beliefs actually have similar views on life and death. However, of course, such beliefs are rejected by mainstream Chinese culture.

Your film experiments with structure and narrative; some critics have used the term ‘magical realism’ to describe the style…

Maybe magic in the eyes of other people is realism to me. The characters in the film are based on real people. The conjuror in the ‘Earth’ part is played by my great-uncle and what he says is his own experience; I didn’t write the dialogue, it was improvised. The witch in the ‘Water’ section is based on one of my distant relatives but was acted by my aunt because of interference from local officials. They stopped my distant relative from performing in the film, thinking we are doing an anti-corruption investigation.

If there’s a style for my film I hope it is far from secularism, staying as close as possible to the spiritual world while possessing a poetic quality.

You are a journalist by trade. What compelled you to move into film?
Essentially I’m an autistic person, and poetry and novels always acted as a shelter for me. The reason why I became a journalist is quite simple. Actually, let’s say it was forced by life. Born in the bottom rung of society in one of China’s poorest villages, life was hard for me. It seemed devoting myself to journalism is the only way of taking shelter from the bondage of the rigid system in the late 1990s. [Chai was once a teacher.]

I found it harder and harder to do documentary photography. I’m shy, often feel inferior and tend to close up, so I have to stay a long time with my subjects and can only hold up the camera when they treat me like a family member. This is one reason I decided to leave the news industry, instead turning to works that were more inner-focused. In a country like China, where secularism is prevalent, a person who focuses on the spiritual side would feel alone. I think a film is like a universal language understood by many people, and I hope I can share my inner feelings with more people in the world.

Additional reporting by Xia Keyu

Four Ways to Die in my Hometown screens on Fri 22 March as part of Asian Cinema Week at The Nut. See all event details