Wen Yang Liu

calligraphy by Liu Yongqin © 2010

"Small Sketches of Everyday Life--A Filmmaker's Video Notebook"
by Michèle Vicat

Portrait of Wen Yang Liu, photograph © Michèle Vicat, 2009

To capture the dynamism of life hidden behind the humdrum nature of daily existence requires courage, curiosity and the acceptance of one’s own solitude. This is hard to accomplish at the age of 26. When Wen Yang Liu left his hometown, Zhuzhou, a small town in the province of Hunan at the age of 18, he was not aware of any of that. He was still naïve, but he was imbued with the dreams of his parents. He was still in secondary school when his father informed him that he would be sent to Australia to pursue his university education and to study English. That was fine with Wen Yang Liu. As he explains, he did not really have a choice; he felt like a kid. Two days later, his father called him to announce that he would go to France instead. For the family, the destination was not really important. Their objective was to have their only child acquire serious tools of education in a different context. On June 4, 2002, Wen Yang Liu arrived at the Université Stendhal in Grenoble to study French. For Wen Yang Liu, Grenoble represented the beginning of both freedom and personal responsibility. But it also meant personal hardship in a place where there were only few Chinese students. He was held together by his determination to become an artist and his gradual discovery of filmmaking. The path to filmmaking meant assiduously learning how to “read” images, as one of his teachers, Alain Marchand, would tell him years later at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of Valence in France.
Wen Yang Liu began acquiring the techniques of drawing and painting at the age of 12, when his parents sent him to a private studio in Zhuzhou. He decided early on that he wanted to become a painter. He soon discovered that in France a student does not have to register in only one discipline as China requires.


Since painting was the technique that he had learned first, he submitted drawings and paintings to various Ecoles des Beaux-Arts in France. Because he was alone, he had made numerous self-portraits. He was fascinated by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, artists with a solid technique and a near perfect knowledge of the human body. Wen Yang Liu needed a live model, which he couldn’t afford. One day, he found a porno magazine in a garbage can. He was shocked because China still maintains a high level of modesty. But the magazine gave him a starting point to analyze the human body and he began painting based on its illustrations. With these, he was accepted in three different schools. He decided to go to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of Valence.
At Valence, he discovered that he was alone in the studio for painting! No one else was studying painting that semester. He had no guidance or support from other students, so he decided to focus on a discipline that required absolute solitude: photography. Like Alain Marchand later, Monique Deregibus, a professor, saw his talent at capturing the essence of an image, and encouraged him to go further. He took his camera everywhere in the city and started to take pictures composed like paintings. It was Alain Marchand who showed him how to go beyond the logic of a painting. Marchand told him to read an image much as one would read a Chinese character: you have to go inside the character to see the strokes and understand the underlying meaning. It was a revelation: Wen Yang Liu began to “read” everyday life.
“What is happening in my images?” Wen Yang Liu says today. “What is the meaning of this place, these people, these trees, these animals? Suddenly, my vision becomes confused. I know that I don’t know. I know that I have to understand. I know that I have to understand the everyday by looking at people around me, the way they pass me, the way they smile at me, the way they have an argument, the way they look sulky. I started to be aware of the small things in everyday life because I started to look at them, to observe the ordinary.”
His personal journey started there. It was a difficult one from which there was no return. A radical choice had to be made: to show the ordinary and to connect the simple stories of daily life, Wen Yang Liu had to capture the perpetual motion of life and feelings that was unsettled, fluid, turbulent. Only a moving image would let him reveal through the eye of the camera what we were no longer able to see. He bought his first computer and downloaded hundreds of films. The Russian technique influenced him the most.
Dziga Vertov’s 1927 silent film, “The Man with the Movie Camera,” made a profound impression.

Dziga Vertov had developed a radical theory of cinematography, which involved using visual fragments to create a succession of small, significant vignettes that revealed a deeper, underlying reality. Using this theory, Wen Yang Liu began emphasizing short scenes, rapid sequences and a cinéma verité hand-held camera technique. This helped him to move from a detailed close-up to a broader view of the whole, a technique that was often used in Soviet films.
Wen Yang Liu told us that he considers himself as a “hoodlum” because he feels like somebody who has no identity, an impression that shows through all his short movies. After living in France for almost eight years, he has acquired not only an extraordinary knowledge of the language but also a sense of his own identity, even though many questions still need to be answered.
The shock of entering another culture at the age of 18 was an enormous asset for Wen Yang Liu. In contrast to previous generations of Chinese artists, he was not forced to leave China as an exile. His generation was relatively free from internal trouble. Identity is a central theme in his short movies, but Wen Yang Liu is able to explore it from both a Chinese and a Western perspective.
His first experimental film while in school was of a Chinese friend who was living in a small French village, and renting a room to an older French woman. The rural French village had never seen anyone who was Chinese before. When he was invited to diner, Wen Yang Liu immediately felt the presence of a strange feeling between his friend and the French lady. At first glance, their relationship seemed convivial, but at dinner this impression was quickly replaced by an uncomfortable feeling that an invisible line divided the table. The French lady ate steak with a fork and knife; the Chinese friend used chopsticks and ate rice with vegetables. There was the invisible presence of two incompatible systems functioning side by side.
“ J’avais 5 ans” (I was 5 years old) is a reflection on the filmmaker’s growth since he left China. Filmed in Zhuzhou in 2007, “J’avais 5 ans” is about memory and the reinterpretation of memory. After the excitement of returning to Zhuzhou, he feels that the place is older and more decrepit. In his memory, buildings were clean and white in contrast to the reality that he now sees. Aging is linked to nostalgia. He began filming, without really thinking about a story. He was like a ghost acting behind the camera. His first effort produced a 60-minute film called “Le Nuage du Sud” (The Cloud of the South). He quickly realized that it was too verbose and repetitive. Wen Yang Liu edited the film into a new version, “J’avais 5 ans.” In this version, he adopted Russian formalism, in which parallel sequences reveal an underlying meaning. Wen Yang Liu tells parallel stories, one of children going to school and the other involving a goat. At the beginning, the goat is portrayed as a pet: we see it in a garden or being led down a street like any domesticated animal. At the same time, we see the children running down staircases and hurrying along the street on their way to school. It is a vivid illustration of Wen Yang Liu’s own past, a way to tell us that he spent a childhood as innocent as that of a pet. But, quickly, it becomes obvious that the goat is on its way to be butchered. It is in a sense a sacrificial animal. It represents the exorcism that the filmmaker had to experience in order not to fantasize his childhood, his parents, and his hometown. When the goat is killed, the film takes another direction: it forces the viewer to experience a ritual of passage.
“ J’avais 5 ans” allows the young filmmaker to find his own cinematographic expression. It is like a long sentence with repetitive sounds. In that sense it is a profound reference to the Chinese language in which one expression automatically summons another one (nî hâo/ nî hâo/ nî hâo ma?/ wô hên hâo/ etc.) More than a simple work dealing with memory, this 20-minute film follows the course of time and raises question about identity.
Identity is also a central and poignant theme in “Le Trou” (The Hole), a short film made in 2008-2009. Wen Yang Liu was already at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Lyon where he is currently enrolled in a post-graduate program. The film shows a small group preparing a letter to be sent to the bishop of Lyon. The letter is intended to explain why these people want to be baptized. Everyone in the group is Chinese, fragilized in a foreign environment, not knowing the language or rules. This film parallels Wen Yang Liu’s personal experience when arriving in Grenoble and feeling completely isolated, he went to sessions organized by Protestants for Chinese. At first, he was touched by the message of love expressed by the Christian religion. But then, he started to read the Bible and discovered that there were many damned souls for whom no redemption was possible. He found it difficult to link the notions of love and damnation, and he left.
“ Le Trou” recounts the personal experience of searching for the metaphysics of oneself. It also reveals different levels of perception. When the person playing the role of the translator says to the French priest that Chinese people do not use the word “God” but instead say “Sky,” he simplifies a whole culture because he, himself, does not possess the complete keys to understand where he comes from. In China, Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism have their respective pantheons. Following the group in Lyon for four months helped him to think about belief. It helped him to question identity because, as he explains, “To believe is to enter into a logic, an identity.”
“ Décalage Horaire” and “Khmer Star Video” are two other short films that question the notion of identity.
Wen Yang Liu feels that he belongs to a new generation of Chinese filmmakers, first, because of his age, and second, because the new way of thinking, neither Chinese nor western, which he had built in France allowed him to see the world differently.
He feels that previous generations of Chinese artists and filmmakers focused on their own history and the sufferings they had been subjected to.
“ Chinese society is becoming more diversified,” he says. “For me, it is not the physical suffering that is the focal point, although that is very important. It is ourselves that we need to find. I think that there is too much hatred in art. The profound question is to know who I am, who we are. From these primordial questions the next step is to ask: where do I come from? Where am I going? This is my point of view as an artist, as a filmmaker.” This explains why Wen Yang Liu speaks about art and not about aesthetics. Life is art, and work allows us to discover what is beautiful. He believes that beauty exists by itself; we do not have to create it.
“ Yellow Sprite” develops this process further. In 6:55 minutes, we go from pure beauty to the inexorable nature of life. This short film takes place in the semi-obscurity of an atelier, filmed with the delicacy of a Rembrandt clair-obscur. It is a stone cutting workshop and we follow the worker using assured and repetitive gestures. Water is poured on a stone just before the cutting with a giant saw. Images are filled with the noise of the saw and of the water hitting the stone. Little by little, the image zooms in on a small moving form: a snail, lost in what looks like the immensity of the sea. Inevitably, he advances toward the deadly blade. The blade’s movement is nearly out of sight at first. The camera stays immobile, as though it were holding its breath. Wide shot on a minuscule snail, an animal so perfect in its shape, so majestic in its movement. And we know…death is there…an atrocious death that will shatter innocence.
With this film, Wen Yang Liu reaches the form and content that he is looking for. It is a commitment as ‘an artist who makes films.’ “The documentary is myself,” says Wen Yang Liu, “It is my memory. It is the reflection of my memory. On the one hand, I am looking for an artistic quality but there is always another place called ‘film.’ It is a constant work of construction-deconstruction.”


To see" Yellow Sprite, " click here. One of the three editions of the film has already been bought by a collector in Paris. To obtain further information about Wen Yang Liu, please send an email to:


J'avais 5 ans (I was 5)

Le Trou (The Hole)

Décalage Horaire (Jet lag)

Khmer Star Video

Yellow Sprite

All images © Wen Yang Liu





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