Fever Pitch: An Interview with Liao Jiekai

Liao Jiekai's short film 'The Mist' won the the Best Director Award in the Southeast Asian Short Film category at the recently concluded 27th Singapore International Film Festival. The film, labelled a dance film, hardly has any dance in it. Instead it features two young women in a hazy concoction of silhouettes, voices and memories.

We try to uncover the thinking and concept behind 'The Mist' with director Liao.

What inspired you to develop 'The Mist'?

The Mist was made in Hanoi during a dance film lab organized by Cinemovement, a collective of filmmakers and dancemakers founded by Jeremy Chua and Elysa Wendi. We were in Hanoi to spend an intensive five days together to incubate ideas for dance films, and The Mist was made during the lab, my first foray into the world of dance. 

There is no actual dance movement in the film but perhaps more interesting pacing and the use of repetition as a proxy for dance. Could you explain what you were trying to achieve or experiment with in this film?

I collaborated with dancemakers Bobbi Chen and Sudhee Liao who interpreted my instructions of navigating the line between what can be perceived as dance and what we all understand as an ordinary movement of the body that is not choreographed. This film is also about other boundaries such as that which is visible to us and that which we can only see in our mind. Hence the title The Mist, which I was trying to evoke an image of navigating in unchartered territories.

What were the memories of the girls based on? (e.g. the long tables mentioned in the film)

I gave both Bobbi and Sudhee a specific instruction during one of the shots where one girl was lying on the bed and the other were sitting on the adjacent bed – for the one lying on the bed to recount a memory of a place that only she knew and it can be fictional. The voice over was left at the exact position in synchrony with the image as it was told (although the girl’s face is back-facing the camera and we cannot see her speak, so the dialogue floats onto the image like a layered voice-over); for me the storytelling is part of their performance and I wanted to respect its relationship with the movements the girl are doing with their fingers/hands.

Where was this shot? The house seems interesting.

This was shot on the second floor of a hotel right above the Hanoi Cinematheque where we were based for most of the film lab. It was a very quaint hotel, lots of nice sunlight through these twirling green canopies. I spent some time by myself in the morning before the shoot walking around the hotel and blocking the shots in my mind. The location is certainly a big part of the film, since the characters have to navigate through these corridors and room.

How do you feel about winning the Best Director award for the Southeast Asian Short Film segment at SGIFF?

It is a bit ironic, because I actually did not credit myself as a director in the film (in the credits I wrote “conceived by”), and I feel the same way with many of the more spontaneous/experimental projects I did in the last two years. Maybe I have a problem with categories, I do find it problematic to tell people that this is a dance film too, because words are too narrow and too limiting. I don’t think the work I do is necessarily “directing” in the conventional sense of the word in filmmaking; maybe it feels more like I set up a certain situation and context, and then sat back to become the silent documentarian; which is why I almost always shot these films myself, because it is important that I operate the camera. It is more like painting, after I prepare all the ingredients, I let them pull me along on a ride. Still, I am glad that the jury members decided to honour the film with this award because perhaps the idea of directing always relates to a unique voice; this is important to me and I truly think this is an achievement to be shared with all my collaborators in this project (including my sound post team).

What were some of the most interesting responses you received about the film?

Well, I actually don’t consciously seek out audience responses because I get very self-conscious. Some people mentioned the term ‘poetic’, not a very interesting response I guess. I am more interested if people see dance in this film or not, because I think that is one of the things I hope to do - to provoke people to think about what is dance, what is moving-image, what is choreography, and our relationship with these ideas. About ten years ago when I was in college at the Art Institute of Chicago, I took a module on “performance and moving-image”. A Butoh master visited our class one day to gave us a crash course on Butoh dance; in that class, I learned to be very aware of the way I walk, the way my feet very unconsciously perform the act of “walking” every day. For about an hour, we repeatedly walked from one end of the room to the other at a speed ten times slower than usually. It is not walking slowly, but walking in slow motion. And then we watched each other walk in slow motion. I thought, it was very interesting to think about this in terms of film, how can I also play around with these kind of sensations and experience through the moving-image, and understand the boundaries between choreography and daily movements; I hope people can respond to my work from these point of views.

text - jeremy sing / photography - alfonse chiu

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