In the film, there are almost no frontal shots of the interviewees when they were interviewed, only their voices. I'm curious about the reason for this arrangement.
The film crew contains only two people, me and my friend. I operated the film camera and my friend took care of the sound. I was the one doing the interview and it's rude to film and talk at the same time, so filming took place after the interview. You see, if I do an interview with you and set up a camera to record us at the same time, what you would say would be nothing like our chats now. Also, the interviewees were all stopped by me while they were working at the roadside. For example, one gentleman was taking care of his fish pond when I went up to him to chat, so it was impossible to arrange and set up the camera.
At first I wasn't sure if this would be a good idea, but then I thought, it might not be a big deal if the audience can't see their faces. Some shots from their point of view would do. It's a bit like standing in their shoes and seeing what they see when they go about their daily lives.
You have mentioned that the ending scene is a simulation of photographic processing. What are the technical and creative considerations for this arrangement?
I wanted it to simulate the shutter of a camera. When taking pictures with a camera we'd check the shutter speed, it can be 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, or whatever. These are not just numbers; they represent the length of time the camera shutter is open. I want to replicate the moment when the shutter remains open and extend it to show the process of light coming in through the shutter and the film being exposed to light. To me this is a bit like the moment when I was on the train passing by the interviewees. I know this all sounds very theoretical, but I felt that it might work, so I went with it and fortunately it turned out well.
Time is often mentioned in your works. How do you define and understand the concept of time?
Film and music are two visual art forms that can best convey the concept of time. In my opinion, if you choose to make art using film or music, time is something you need to address. I say "films" instead of "movies" because we have this notion that movies have to be shown in a movie theater. But to me a film is a film, whether it’s by Bergman or Tarkovsky, or something made by a YouTuber.
I feel that most films nowadays focus more on the content, such as the plot or its subject matter, than anything else. That's also what filmgoers talk about when they talk about a film. They rarely talk about the time in a film. To me the concept of time is crucial in filmmaking. Because you can write a novel if you want to tell a story, or write an article if you care about an issue. You don't necessarily have to make a film.
To be very theoretical, a film can only be seen with time. Without time, a film becomes a series of still images, namely, 24 images in the space-time of a second. In fact, if you think about it, it's very paradoxical. You think of a film as a moving image, but it is consisted of a series of single images. Only when they are projected at a fast speed by a machine, an optical illusion is created to trick our brains. I am fascinated by this because it is a paradox. Each image captures but one moment, but these 24 moments combined can turn into a continuous flow of time that cannot be cut.
You once said that your works are all related to travel, film or memories. Why do you choose these three themes?
Let’s talk about travel first. I like things that offer a first-time experience, and travel is one. This is why I am not into drama films. I don't want to do any rehearsals when I make a film, because I want to retain the feeling of first coming into contact with people. If I had done a location scout for Last Year When the Train Passed by first and shot it a year later, the result would be completely different. I don't have anything against drama films. I know film is a very powerful tool and it can do anything. It can certainly be used to tell stories, but this isn't mandatory—it would be a pity because the art form would lose a lot of its characteristics.
As for the reason for using film stock, it's because the subject matter of the three films I have made so far happens to be best filmed on celluloid. Taking Last Year When the Train Passed by as an example, I wanted to create a feeling of traveling on a film strip, so of course I chose to shoot on film. In fact, it was originally intended to be a VR film, but later the VR technology was only used at the end of the film. A project may be more suitable for digital or other formats, and I have nothing against it either.
Finally, regarding memories, I really like the facial expressions of people when they're asked to recall something from the past. I have studied philosophy before and there was an essay about how phenomenology views memory. Most people think that when we try to recall an episode from the past, the event would be like a movie playing in our head for our mind's eye to see. For example, when you try to recall a car accident that happened to you ten years ago, you'd "see" yourself in the scene of the accident. But in fact it's not like that. When you're recalling the car accident, you are actually going back in time to your body ten year ago and experiencing the car accident again. There is a difference between the two, and I'm fascinated by it.
You mentioned in other interviews that you don’t like being called a director. What do you think the term "film director" means? Do you think someone who makes documentary films is a film director?
I think a film director has to do what the word literally means. He or she needs to direct the actors or the production team, but I do not direct anyone. To me, I am more like a creator, rather than a director.
I think drama films and documentary films both carry heavy burdens. Just think, why are most films about 1.5 to 2 hours in length? It's a commercial consideration to sell more tickets. Such consideration may set limits to a drama film. As a result, it has to follow a formula and needs to be shot in a particular way. For example, if you're shooting a scene of two people having a conversation, you need to follow the 180-degree rule. Documentary films also bear some burdens. They may have a self-imposed mission to expose a social issue or to fulfill a social responsibility.
For me, no matter it's a drama or a documentary, they are both films, and I think film is a type of artistic creation. How do you ascertain if a thing is an artistic creation or not? By asking this question: will it affect the survival of humanity? We're facing the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, and humanity can survive with or without documentary films, so documentary films are artistic creations. But of course others may not think so, and they may have different expectations for themselves. Some documentary film directors see it as their mission to bring people's attention to social injustice. There's nothing wrong with it and I think it's wonderful as well.