Please read Interview with Li Wake by Zhu Rikun
Talking about The Crack in the Crack
The Crack is my semi-autobiographical debut. I originally studied sculpture. I sold my property and went to the Beijing Film Academy (BFA) to study film. I tried every possible way to raise the funds to make this film. I just wanted to launch a warning signal to the world.
In early 1989, the ‘Inflationist’ soft sculpture ‘Midnight Mass’ that I co-created was selected for inclusion in the ‘First Modern Art Exhibition in China’ and the History of Modern Chinese Art. This gigantic ‘Inflationist’ sculpture expressed the idea that amidst the various political slogans of past political movements, people are just ‘windbags’; that past the labels of ‘Great’ and ‘Hero’, there’s nothing inside at all. Later, I put the idea of the ‘Inflationist’ sculpture into The Crack. In order to restore the truth of my long-term existence in the cracks of reality, I wrote the script of The Crack and spent all my savings making it into a film about whether people are just pretending to be alive or are really dead. Therefore, studying film at the BFA just paved the way for making The Crack, Dream Walking and Great Sound.
In order to prepare for The Crack, I designed and made contemporary fashionable burial clothes based on my script. So-called ‘burial clothes’ are traditional Chinese clothes for people who have died. I referenced various styles of Chinese burial clothes combined with the popular ‘workers, peasants, soldiers, academics, and business’ clothing styles, creating a new style of burial clothes for both the dead and the living. In 1998, I got some students from the BFA together to put on the ‘new burial clothes’ and stroll around Tiananmen Square, Wangfujing, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Great Wall, in a performance art-style ‘Chinese Contemporary Burial Clothes Fashion Show’. This was the warm-up for the film. This ‘Contemporary Chinese Burial Clothes Fashion Show’ was covered by a famous British television station and I heard that it was broadcast on a British television news programme.
The reason that I consider The Crack my semi-autobiographical film is that the heroine, ‘Loose Woman’, is a symbolic sexual taboo, political taboo, and life taboo that I have been intrigued with since childhood. She took root in my subconscious like a shadow, plaguing me like magic. The other details in The Crack are all behaviors derived from my personal experience and corresponding psychological behaviours. Among them, swallowing keys and drinking from women’s shoes became my early performance art pieces.
The protagonist’s name in The Crack is Xiangyang which means ‘Towards the sun’. (Note: since 1949, people in China have been loyal to Chairman Mao, the ‘Red Sun’, and they have been striving to be sunflowers that will always face towards the Red Sun. For a time, they were called ‘Xiangyang’. This name was used everywhere for places, streets and factories, such as: Zhang Xiangyang, Wang Xiangyang, Li Xiangyang, Xiangyang Compound, Xiangyang Brigade, Xiangyang Commune, and Xiangyang Hospital). Xiangyang is one of these sunflowers. Since birth, Xiangyang has been surrounded by political movements. He was sent to Xiangyang Kindergarten and Xiangyang Elementary School when the whole country turned ‘red’. From the first day of school, a red scarf, which is emblematic of the blood of revolutionary martyrs, was tied round Xiangyang’s neck. He was converted to Mao Zedong Thought, which from Mao’s mausoleum still guides people across the country, and the living thought of the central government.
From within the ellipsis, Xiangyang was only able to sense the merit of form. When he was in art school, while observing and creating he followed the aesthetician Clive Bell’s theory of ‘significant form’. Xiangyang found that it was easiest to find ‘significant form’ on China Central TV, but that it was difficult to realise the significance of the ‘ellipsis’ with these revolutionary platitudes. In fact, Xiangyang was already suffering from ‘Ellipsis Syndrome’. This disease is even more elusive than ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. Xiangyang feigned death in the ellipsis disease of life taboos and political taboos. In other words, he looked down upon all the living people in hell, holding spirit money in their hands, wandering around in circles as though they were at a funeral, and stuffing the ballot box with tax money in an effort to redeem their way out of hell.
Under the regime, people are ever-present absentees. Xiangyang just epitomizes them. He is sealed in the crack of existence, and he uses self-destructive behaviour in order to feel glimmers of life. He lives like a ghost in a sauce jar where strangers, relatives, and friends monitor each other, expose each other, guard against each other, and deceive each other. The Crack intentionally weakens its narrative drive by using the interaction of behavior and props to reveal Xiangyang’s psychological and physiological aberrations in this absurd and magical realm.
The Crack was originally shot on 35mm Kodak film in 2000 in Jiayuguan, Gansu. The reason why I did not use DV to shoot was I heard that DV was not eligible for international screenings and film festivals. My original plan was to shoot on 16mm film, but I was fooled into using 35mm film. With a total investment of only RMB 500,000, I rented an already outdated Alai 4 camera. It was very loud. Before shooting, the camera had to be bundled up with two quilts to reduce the noise. A small hole was left for the lens. Every time the camera moved it took a lot of time to set up again. The costumes and props I had collected over many years. At the same time, I also took on the role of art director and executive director. The actors were also amateurs. Except for the female lead, who had studied at the Central Academy of Drama for half a year, the other actors were all first-time performers. The young Xiangyang is my nephew. The teenage Xiangyang is a classmate at the Academy of Fine Arts. The leader of the rebels is my brother. The Red Guards are my sister and brother, and the grandparents were the local cleaners. Due to the difficult filming conditions, tight budget, and lack of a monitor, every scene was shot in one take. All the members of the crew were helping me out, and I only provided them with board and lodging and minimum living expenses. They often found various reasons to go on strike. I almost begged them to finish the last shot. Fortunately, The Crack focuses on the interaction of people and props. It has the exploratory qualities of a ‘performance art film’ and does not demand great refinement from its actors’ performances. Therefore, the amateur team I put together managed to complete the film against all odds.
However, when it came to the post-production stage, due to financial constraints, and to get the film out quickly to its audience, I had to migrate the footage from film to tape and then make a DVD. Unfortunately, the final version of the picture was blurry and rough and did not meet screening standards. Additionally, since the subject matter was also sensitive, it could only screen in very small circles. The film was screened a total of four times in China: in the conference hall on the sixth floor of Beijing Wangfujing Bookstore (organized by Zhu Rikun’s Fanhall Studio in 2001); in a private bookstore in Qingdao; and in two bars in Beijing (one of which was ‘Trainspotting’). The Singapore International Film Festival invited me to participate in the competition after seeing the first cut, but I was unable to do so because I did not have money for post-production.
Fortunately, after the footage and audio tapes of The Crack have been silent underground for twenty years, the film can now be seen by the public with the support of Zhu Rikun, founder of Fanhall Studio and promoter of Chinese independent film, film scholar Sabrina Qiong Yu, Yu Huiming, Feng Yu, Li Zixiao, and Newcastle University in the UK. I would like to extend my deep gratitude and sincere respect to them and Newcastle University!
2 October 2020 Jiayu Gate
‘Looking Back on Dreariness’: On The Crack
The Crack touches upon the Cultural Revolution and the June Fourth Incident, and combines traditional narrative and avant-garde art elements, which are rare in Chinese feature films. This makes this film directed by Li Wake particularly precious.
The film tells the coming of age of art student Xiangyang, from childhood to middle age. Using a personal and semi-autobiographical style of storytelling it reflects on the fate of Chinese society from the Cultural Revolution to the 1990s, through which runs the thread of a boy experiencing sexual enlightenment and hormonal release in his passage from adolescence to youth. In his childhood, Xiangyang witnessed the tragedy of his older female neighbour being raped by rebels and finally committing suicide because of unbearable criticism and humiliation. When Xiangyang was a young worker in a factory, he obtained sick leave by self-harming, and started drawing. He masturbated to the thighs and pictures in the ballet clips in Soviet revolutionary film to release the impulses of youth. In order to be admitted to the art department, he was forced to give up his model girlfriend to the Dean. He marries the girl meets at his performance art exhibition and the 1989 student movement parade, but still cannot shake off his inner loneliness.
The film does not strive to portray the protagonist Xiangyang. According to the director’s exegesis, ‘The Crack intentionally weakens its narrative drive by using the interaction of behavior and props to reveal Xiangyang’s psychological and physiological aberrations in this absurd and magical realm’; ‘The Crack focuses on the interaction of people and props. It has the exploratory qualities of a “performance art film”’. Xiangyang is an artist who has grown up as an art lover, but the film does not focus too much on his artwork. In most circumstances he is just a witness and a bystander, not a creator. He spends his childhood wandering through waste land with his ‘reactionary’ female neighbour, voyeuristically peeping at her shadow as she is raped by the rebels. He seems to surrender the female model he loves to the old-fashioned Dean without fighting for a chance just to go to college. He does not seem to mind that his good friend steals his artwork. Moreover, his marriage fails to bring him long-lasting passion. Borrowing the director’s own words: ‘He is sealed in the crack of existence, and he uses self-destructive behaviour in order to feel glimmers of life’.
There are many places in the film that naturally incorporate elements of Li Wake’s work as a well-known, pioneering performance artist in the contemporary Chinese art world. For example, the foot-licking scenes in the film echo his early performance art. In the highly absurdist funeral scene at the end of the film, the burial clothes show that takes place on stage is characteristic of Li Wake’s performance art. Accompanied by the music ‘Blood-Stained Glory’, Xiangyang’s soul sits in a corner wearing pale pink makeup, watching this real-life theatre with indifferent eyes. Obviously, the director uses a more ambitious metaphor: ‘wandering around in circles as though they were at a funeral, and stuffing the ballot box with tax money in an effort to redeem their way out of hell’. The whole film reveals the filmmaker’s criticisms of, and reflections on, the distortions and darker sides of human nature that have permeated all parts of society throughout history. In the final scene of the film, the actor who plays the child Xiangyang silently walks out of the mourning crowd, and the frame, while wearing a doctoral hat—a symbol in Li Wake’s performance art. The gaudy background music is like an elegy for people bidding farewell to the age of innocence, conveying a unique sense of solemnity and the poetic.
It is worth mentioning two poetic scenes in the film that echo each other and constitute a rare bright spot amidst its gloom. Accompanied by the music to the ballet ‘Swan Lake’, Xiangyang’s teenage sexual fantasy, young Xiangyang wanders through the same piece of waste land with his model girlfriend, teenage Xiangyang, and his older female neighbour. Temporarily, they leave the world behind—except for their grandfather, who is secretly watching them—forget their troubles, and play happily. This poetic montage introduces an innocence and gentleness rarely seen in Chinese films. It reminds one of In the Heat of the Sun, of the melancholy of the young man wandering alone on the roof to the music of ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’.
As the director’s first feature-length film, The Crack reaches a high level of sophistication on an extremely tight budget of RMB 500,000, and, except for the female protagonist, using amateur actors performing for the first time. The exploration of film language and the use of props also reflect the director’s accomplishment as an artist. Because of the nature of its content, The Crack is an undiscovered masterpiece. Since the film’s completion in 2000, it has only screened on a few occasions and has remained unseen for a long time. Today, a digitized, high-resolution version is available. We should absolutely celebrate the rebirth of such a wonderful work—although, whether you see it or not, it will always be there.
13 November 2020