Modern Times:
Cao Fei on her film “Haze and Fog”

Cao Fei is not only one of the best-known international contemporary artists in China today; she is also a mother. And even at eleven-thirty Beijing time, it’s hard to get her two children to sleep. Then, around midnight, she finally finds the time to talk about her recent film “Haze and Fog,” which was just purchased for the Centre Pompidou’s collection in Paris.
Haze and Fog (2013) is a completely new kind of zombie film, a genre that has no tradition in China. Set in the service society of today’s Beijing, its dark and poetic images tell a tale of isolation, loss of tradition, environmental pollution, and social disintegration. In the film, the cleaning women, prostitutes, and couriers who turn into the undead lose their souls, or have already lost them.

Cao Fei has always critically reflected the processes of social and economic transformation in modern China. In contrast to her earlier work, however, her most recent productions, such as the animated catastrophe film La Town (2014), seem downright pessimistic. The artist, who also works in photography, installation, and performance, has long been represented with her oeuvre in the Deutsche Bank Collection. Her photographs from the film project Whose Utopia? (2006) can be seen through February 2015 in Time Present, an exhibition of international art photography from the collection that makes a guest appearance at the Singapore Art Museum before traveling to museums all around Asia. For her video and photo series, Cao Fei worked for half a year in a light bulb factory in the Chinese Pearl River Delta. During this time, she set up workshops with young workers in which she asked them to express their own personal ideas of utopia and to act out their wishes for the future in a performance right there in the factory hall. Her Coffee Yoga and Feng Shui performances for the Globe event series (2011) in the Deutsche Bank towers in Frankfurt also explore the possibilities of community and alternative methods of healing. In a conversation with Oliver Koerner von Gustorf, she reveals whether or not the world can still be helped.  

Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: While your earlier works also deal with the social possibilities of a digitalized, globalized society, your latest works seem rather apocalyptic: In“ Haze and Fog”, the protagonists are soulless beings that transform into zombies. The theme of La Town is a metropolis “struck by unknown disaster.” Are we living in end times?

Cao Fei: Yes, we are living in end times. But the “end of time” cannot be measured by time, or by latitude and longitude. “It” is heading towards end and death. We “perceive” the climate changes before the whole system crashes, but we are unable to describe the feeling. Except for this, there are no anthropological, phenomenological, or statistical methods to show that we are on the way to apocalypse. Just like a volcanic eruption, an apocalypse is unpredictable. The end also means the beginning of something else.

Is this state of “the haze” that you describe in your first full-length feature film something specifically Chinese? It’s funny, but as a Westerner, I feel like I’m in a similar state.

What I describe is a general state, a certain unspeakable feeling of “congestion” that is invisible, like the particles of the haze. This state does not only apply to China—it is a common symptom of “depression” in the post-capitalist world. This state represents an overwhelming and unconvertible paradox, a paradox involving sluggishness and clashes. It is irreconcilable and ubiquitous.
Haze and Fog refers to the loss of tradition and identity, but also to a rigid class system of consumers and service providers. Someone makes a mess, and somebody else has to clean it up. There are scenes in which a cleaning woman wears the fancy pumps of her employer and practices yoga like the rich ladies, but in a basement. It looks like an act of rebellion, but it has something stereotypical and desperate about it. Could you tell me more about this scene?

We live in a dense system, a society of order. Every time I see a clean floor in a big building, I always wonder when the cleaner comes out and works. Every time I toss away a cigarette butt outdoors, I ask myself: will the wind and rain carry the cigarette butt where it belongs, or will a professional cleaner discover it and clear it away in time? Or will the cleaner sweep the cigarette butt into a flowering shrub or a ditch, and then pretend that he did not see it? What I want to describe are these distinct divisions of clearly divided social classes and structures. Every individual has been assigned to a position in a specific space. I intend to expose other possibilities outside this division. People believe we have found certainties in the confusion, but the clearly divided spaces should be connected by something like branches and tendrils. The state of the cleaner I describe in the film is fictional. I want to explore the desires hidden in the darkness, the subconscious fighting against suppression.
At the end of the film, the struggling real estate agent feeds his clients to the zombies. What is his role?

The real estate agent himself has no idea what he is doing. He turns a blind eye to what is happening because he really is blind. He does not even know the feeling of “being alive,” and has no clue about what he is delivering along the capital chain. Listlessly, he looks for customers to feed a group of zombies living in an unsold, empty house. Who says that a real estate agent cannot feed zombies? Who built so many empty houses for us? I guess it’s more interesting this way. Perhaps this is the real meaning of “capital.”

The light in your film is reminiscent of American horror films and New Hollywood of the late 1970s and early 1980s, while the loneliness of your rooms calls Edward Hopper's paintings to mind. What are your inspirations?

Yes, I like Edward Hopper very much. Be it the artificial light and shadow, or the natural shadows cast by windows, the quality of light and dark highlights the emptiness and distance between people and cities, between people and buildings. Lonely individuals and the scattered social communities are accentuated.
Certain scenes in Haze and Fog remind me of Syndromes and a Century, a film written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand). Do you know his work? For me, he is one of the greatest directors working today—he represents a totally new way of narrating and making cinema. He also deals with the duality of rural and urban environments, the loss of tradition and spirituality. In his films, the culture of the rural population is always mirrored in urban life. What role does the duality between nature and metropolis play in your film?

Of all Apichatpong’s works, Syndromes and a Century is my favorite. His films are full of abstract poetry and peace. The way he narrates the painful split between the modern world and the past is euphemistic and exquisite. But what I am interested in are the relationships between different people and between people and the system under rapid urbanization. I am interested in the invisible, haze-like control, the loss of tradition, the relationship between the ethical changes occurring across different generations and their reflection on contemporary life and fables about the future. There are some similarities in focus, but it’s not the same, because we were brought up and educated differently and the styles of our works and the topics of our countries and nations are also very different.

You started with works about the underground culture of a young digitalized generation.
Haze and Fog doesn't use any obvious digital effects, while La Town even uses stop-motion, a very traditional technique. What happened? With every new project you seem to develop or adapt a new aesthetic. Why is that?

I am curious. I like changes, and I like to try out new things. I do not like it when everything stays the same.

Are you more an artist or a director now?

For me, a director is also an artist. There are no big differences. I am a mother of two children. Apart from that, there are more “identities” I can have. I wait for more opportunities.

Last question: If there is still a possibility for political change and environmental healing—how can we stop living in the haze?

I guess, during a long and uncertain time on this land, this will remain a pseudo-proposition. Through their individual expression and performance, artists try to disperse the haze in people’s inner worlds and tell people why “we” are depressed.