‘Slow Singing,’ a Chinese Naturalist Sci-Fi Drama Screens at San Sebastian’s New Directors Section

Slow Singing
Credit: San Sebastian Festival

After having premiered at the First International Film Festival in Xining, China, “Slow Singing” now plays at San Sebastian’s prestigious New Directors section, its main sidebar. The debut film of Dong Xingyi is, as its title promises, a slow paced observation of the life of Junsheng, a former prison inmate who, after release, struggles to readjust to life in his hometown. Time, as he soon realizes, is a slippery notion.

Very much like the film’s protagonist, the Chinese director went back to his hometown, Anyang, in the province of Henan, delivering a patient and delicate meditation on his roots and time past that inadvertently becomes a kind of naturalist sci-fi film

Variety talked with the director in the run-up to the film’s bow at San Sebastian:

The first shot of your film is a clear statement of the overall formal approach, a slow tempo camera that moves like a distant observer. What was your core concept when designing camera movement? 

For us the concept was always the idea of a time leap forward into the present. So the character is always catching up with the rest of the world, with the rest of the people in the truck. I wanted to make the audience feel the time, better yet the time leaps in daily life and the human connections the protagonist will be building up. I had a clear idea of the character walking towards the camera, passing it, climbing on the truck and getting behind the camera. Many friends of mine said that if you can endure the first shot, you can enjoy the whole film, if the first shot is too long for you, that’s maybe game over. [He laughs]

It’s a very noticeable decision on your part to maintain a distance, rarely going into close up and, when you do, to close-ups of emptiness. Could you comment? 

We didn’t want to give viewers, especially in the film’s early stretches, a clear impression about what the characters are thinking, their emotional state. I want to keep the viewers figuring that out, held in suspense. Secondly, the environment itself is actually more important to me than the characters. I want the viewers to observe and know all these environmental factors surrounding and influencing the characters. The third thing is that the main character, the protagonist, get’s two close ups. The first one is for him to actually introduce himself and then there’s a second one of him with the child in the market. Those two close ups are very important: They introduce and explain their emotional state. There are not many but when there are, they are very important.

Was the film shot with a mix of non-actors and professionals? How was your work with them?

There are no professional actors in this film, all are from my hometown, the villagers living around them and their relatives. During the film, it never felt as if I was shooting with actors, but rather with family.

What would you say is the theme of your film? 

I had a very clear theme when writing the story. The protagonist is actually my uncle so at the beginning it’s a portrait. But the main idea was to talk about time leaps. There are many in films made in the West but they’re scarce in Chinese cinema. The original English title for the film was “A Man Dealing with Jet Lag.” How a person can jump between moments of life without ever getting into a time machine. Life changes quickly and suddenly you realize you haven’t.

How was your experience shooting the film back in your hometown? 

For a while… I don’t want to come back. [He laughs]