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Once Upon A Time Proletarian

Guo Xiaolu

Release year: 2009

Run time: 75 min

Film type: Fiction


A subjective anatomy of contemporary China in the post-Marxist era. With a dark, poetic and existentialist visual mind, the film shows people from different classes living in modern Chinese society.

12 chapters explore facets of the Chinese social and political landscape. Stories of yearning, loss and dreams unfold: an old peasant who has lost his land, a millionaire chatting with his mate in a stock exchange office, a young migrant who came to the city to wash cars, a weapons factory worker who wishes Mao was still alive to save the country, a successful hotel owner who praises the government’s liberal economy policies, and young kids whose dream is to become famous western artists…

Led by metaphoric comical and absurd children stories, each chapter conveys themes of trivial reality, despairing hearts, lonesome youth, and uncertain futures. This film contemplates a vast and complex society whose citizens are searching for new beliefs and identities after the country’s great revolutionary days, and demonstrates how the individual is in conflict with his time and history.


Director biography

Guo Xiaolu is a novelist, essayist, screenwriter and filmmaker. She was born in south-eastern China in 1973 and studied Film and Beijign Film Academy and the UK National Film and TV School.

The English-language translation of her novel, Village of Stone (2004), was shortlisted for the 2005 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. This was followed by her first novel in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007), which was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction; 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth (2008), which was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize; UFO in her Eyes (2009), a surrealist account of globalisation; a collection of short stories entitled Lovers in the Age of Indifference (2014); and I Am China, a novel published in 2014.

Her award-winning films include the feature films She, a Chinese (2009, Golden Leopard Award in Locarno Film Festival) and UFO In Her Eyes (2011), the latter adapted as a screenplay from her novel, and screened at international film festivals. Her documentaries include Once upon a time Proletarian (2009), We Went to Wonderland (2008), How Is Your Fish Today? (2006) and The Concrete Revolution (2004), which was awarded the Grand Prix in the 2005 International Human Rights Film Festival (France).

In April 2013, she was named one of the 'Best of Young British Novelists' by Granta Magazine.

Director's statement

This film started while I was preparing and shooting a fiction film—which at that time was called La Chinoise, and became She, A Chinese. As I kept looking at the main actress’s face and trying to make her beautiful, I started to feel an urge to shatter reality. I needed to film the dusty faces of the streets, the curious and amazed faces of the peasants gathering to watch us make our film, and to include in my picture frame those sunken eyes and crazed laughs, and to record their sighs and silences too. I wanted this gritty reality to be seen, rather than to be cleared away from the eye of the camera.

In this film, there are many faces and voices. They are vivid archives documenting our history and our present. And as much as they reveal about the ancient hardship of Chinese peasants, they also show the new material desires, the cold-hearted indifference towards social responsibilities, resonating with New China's ambition to be at the forefront of capitalist nations.

I feel sorrowful and disillusioned for those people who are very much part of my background. And as much as I love my country, I hate how ordinary individuals’ inner life can be completely kidnapped by the harsh forces of society, resulting in the individual no longer being able to recognize his or her own emotions.

I grew up in a village among illiterate people. Eventually, I left them for a bigger dream. Perhaps, I see my mission not so much as a writer and filmmaker, but rather as a kind of Don Quixote insisting on maintaining the idea of the intellectual, the reflective mind—concepts lost to us somewhere in the 1970s. When I walk around and encounter these weathered faces, I feel a responsibility to let these low and anonymous people speak. I want to give them time on camera for their sadness and hope when they gaze at us.

I wanted this film to show a particular period of our country, following China’s dramatic revolutions—the Communist Revolution of the 1940s, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s/70s, and the Economic Revolution ongoing since the 1980s. As a filming method: an anti-climactic camera picks up each work-worn, warm, sorrowful, and sometimes innocent face in the film.

Between the chapters, children are reading from comic books, or we simply see the children’s faces—somehow I want them to tell us something about the future, not only of China, but also of our world, which has its beauty, brutality but mostly its banality. Through the film, I try to evoke a feeling of the birth of an unimaginable future, a birth from the grotesque, a birth of new hope. And I seek an inner truth underlying this collective melancholy.