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“Criminals and Police Officers are One Family”: Diao Yinan on The Wild Goose Lake

The Wild Goose Lake

Writer and director Diao Yinan’s follow-up to the award-winning Black Coal, Thin Ice is The Wild Goose Lake, a film noir set in a southern China of humid tenements and steamy resorts. (Although the film’s location is left unnamed, Yinan shot in Wuhan, ground zero for COVID-19, to make use of the lakes in the area.)

Yinan based his script on memories, such as the train station that opens the movie, and photographs, like a black-and-white “swim companion” lounging on a boat — imaged he uses to explore genre characters and situations. Double-crossed on a job, crook Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) flees to Wild Goose Lake, where sex worker Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun Mei) has been ordered to hand him over to local crooks for the reward money. Liu (Liao Fan), the cop assigned to the case, drags Zenong’s ex-wife Yang Shujun (Wan Qian) to Wild Goose Lake to try to trap him.

The Wild Goose Lake screened at Cannes and at the New York Film Festival. It opens theatrically March 6. Filmmaker spoke with Yinan in New York.

Filmmaker: The first things we see in your film is a train station at night in the rain. Can you talk about expanding your script from that image?

Yinan: I think generations share collective memories. In my generation, in order go to university, especially in my case coming from a small town to Beijing to attend the Central Academy of Drama–in order to make that trip, you need to say goodbye to your friends, to your hometown. So that train station, that particular space, is full of melancholy, of memories, of all the goodbyes you received.

Also, throughout literature writers have uses a train station as a way to start their stories or journeys. And stories that start in train stations are not only about the passengers, but also the sounds of trains and how they affect the tensions people have in that particular space. So it’s something I not only feel personally connected to, but the inspiration I find in literature to use as a jumping point for the rest of the story.

Filmmaker: Wild Goose Lake and your previous film, Black Coal, Thin Ice, refer directly to themes and styles in film noir. 

Yinan: Yes, to filmmakers like Boetticher and Hawks. John Ford, more for the influence of his Westerns. Definitely John Huston. Of course the French New Wave directors. But there is also a strong Hong Kong tradition, like the Shaw Bros. Studio. Those action and martial arts films are also a part of my inspiration.

Filmmaker: You’re using one the central film noir situations with your hero Zhou Zenong, a wounded man on the run. Police see him as a criminal, and in fact he has broken the law, but he is still innocent.

Yinan: This is a character who’s very fragile. He tried to escape from life, his family, his ex-wife. It’s not until the end, when he is facing death, that he starts to realize redemption might be possible for him. So, very much a drifter. It’s not until impending death, until he becomes a fugitive, the target of a manhunt, that he chooses to take revenge on all the things that happened to him in the past. And that revenge will be that finally, for once in his life, even while facing death, he is going to do something where he has full control, where he thinks things will happen because he wanted them to. Plan his own fate in what he sees as a heroic and also aesthetically beautiful way. Figure out why he needs to face death and then try to figure out the best way to die. Go out with a bang. 

I think that’s something universal, that we all share. We all know we’re going to die, so on some level we are also planning our own death, how we want to die, what we want to leave behind. Very much like the samurai in the Japanese tradition. When they kill themselves, they allow death to happen in a beautifully performed ritual. It’s a heroic way to end your own life, or other people’s lives for that matter. So it’s very much about death and how you want to die.

Filmmaker: The script keeps circling back on itself with flashbacks and voice-overs.

Yinan: The story was inspired by the framework and also the narrative structure of One Thousand and One Nights, this concept that there will be stories within stories, and you have a narrator whose motives you may not understand at first. In the particular case of One Thousand and One Nights, the story teller is performing to a very, very cruel and brutal dictator. The idea that attracted me was that if you don’t tell the story well you will be killed. I think Zenong appreciates the humor in that. So do I, because I can be my own dictator as well.

Filmmaker: Almost all of The Wild Goose Lake takes place at night. 

Yinan: For two reasons. In the first place, Zenong is a fugitive. Our main plot line is a fugitive on the run. It would probably be easier for him to hide in the dark. Therefore, night scenes, because of the plot and this character. 

The second reason is for the atmosphere I want to create for the film. Night scenes let you work with lighting design, you manipulate lighting in interesting ways to create a sense of loneliness, of mystery. That’s why I’m so drawn to night scenes.

Filmmaker: You’ve said, “Night is like another filter for the camera.”

Yinan: I see night as a great filter. When you are on location, the landscape, the buildings, the streets might not be what you want for the story. But at night, I can utilize the lighting design to make certain parts visible and certain parts invisible, certain parts pop, certain parts fall away. You can navigate the space in a specific way using lighting. Also, night tends to flatten depth and perspective. If you put things on stage in a theater lit for night, you only see two dimensions. So we make whatever we’re shooting look very surreal, because you’re not seeing it in depth, in three dimensions. We turn it into a flat space.

Filmmaker: How did shooting at night affect your production?

Yinan: About 85% of the scenes in the film are at night. We had to shoot in the summer, which added another challenge because the days are long and the nights are very short. Usually we could only shoot about 6 or 7 hours at a time, so it took us a total of four months to finish all the night scenes.

Filmmaker: You stage a crucial scene between Zenong’s ex-wife Yang Shujun and Liu Aiai, a prostitute who knows where he’s hiding, in a vast open-air market with restaurants, vendor stalls, even a plaza for line dancing.

Yinan: That was very challenging, not only because it’s night, but because we were shooting in a small county. Because these actors and actresses are very famous, a huge crowd came to see them, thousands of people trying to mob the place. Just in terms of crowd control, it was a big challenge. In terms of extras, I’d say we had maybe a little more than 200.

Filmmaker: Several different story lines and characters converge in the sequence.

Yinan: That was very much written down in the script. During production we try to actualize what’s in the script. In terms of mise en scène, probably some slight modifications and variations occur just because of the challenges that we faced during production. But the script itself is very much what you see.

Filmmaker: Those intricate dolly and tracking shots, were they scripted or did you have to adjust once you were on location?

Yinan: The mise en scene would not be exactly what I scripted, but the story lines and characters are there. The moving shots, those were tough. What we had in mind was this combination of close-up and wide-angle shots, put them together to create tension, create that dynamic.

Filmmaker: Pop songs, like “Rasputin” by Boney M., help tie the sequence together.

Yinan: I was trying to think of what I could use to create the atmosphere or suspense I wanted. Because I’m the director, I have that unilateral decision-making power to choose any music I want. It just so happened that collectively speaking, a couple of songs were very popular in the 1980s, very much in our generation’s collective memories. They embody the youthful passions and rebellious natures of our generation. 

On the other hand, as an individual, I wanted to use those songs because of my own personal connections to them. I thought they worked very well. In the line dance you see people wearing sneakers with neon lights. They are very much a thing right now in third- and fourth-tier cities, in the suburbs of small towns. You see people dancing in those shoes in the plaza.

Filmmaker: Did you have any pushback from authorities for your portrayal of Liu, a ruthless cop who uses violence and blackmail to get what he wants?

Yinan: No major issues. I’m sure you probably have a similar expression in the US, but in China we say criminals and police officers are one family. Often in order to arrest a bad criminal, you need to be even worse on some level, out-criminalize them to catch them. Because you probably couldn’t bring them in if you’re being polite or civilized. It’s a necessary evil.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about the sequence in the apartment complex? The action covers several floors, from encounters in cramped rooms to chases across an open courtyard surrounded by balconies.

Yinan: We shot that in three nights. We used two cameras, for the long takes only one camera. Before the shoot I met with DP Dong Jinsong. We looked at the location, we discussed the mise en scène, all the elements we want to execute. Wong Chi Ming, the lighting designer and gaffer we used, was a longtime collaborator with Wong Kar Wai, so he is very experienced. We looked at the lighting design and the mise en scene and then it’s just a matter of executing with the DP.

So we had around thirty to forty setups with the two cameras. If you count the scene in the small hotel with the umbrella, then it would be more setups. 

Everything is on location, even the little hotel. The interior was inside that complex. We actually got a lot more material than you see in the film. During the editing process we just took out anything that might interfere with the tempo and rhythm of the film. You only see a small portion of what we shot.

Filmmaker: What does the Chinese title mean?

Yinan: Literally? The rendezvous at a rail station in the south.

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