One of the highlights from this year’s Encounters Short Film Festival, Layla Jian Luo’s What Do You Know About The Water And The Moon is quickly following up its celebrated International arrival in Bristol with an appearance at the London Film Festival. It plays as part of the ‘When You Think You Know How It Ends’ short film programme alongside many other weird and wonderful films in the Cult strand at this year’s festival. The story is simple, a young Chinese woman gives birth to a jellyfish during an abortion. There’s not much more plot-wise you need to know than that, it’s a short which carries itself with strong visual poetry, forming a beautiful concoction of longing and magical realism. DN caught up with Luo to talk visual and thematic inspirations, shooting on location in China, and the best advice to offer film students.
Where did the idea arise to create a story about a woman giving birth to a jellyfish?
Abortion can be a difficult subject to visually explore for two reasons: Firstly, for people who haven’t had the experience, how to best convey the isolation and absurdity of this emotional journey and how to have the audience taste something completely intangible i.e. a sense of loss. Secondly, how can I make sure this film can reach the audience in China, without being censored due to explicit/extreme images or dialogue.
I think human beings by nature are intrigued by and in need of personal stories, and I hope this film can find its audience.
I was born in an Uyghur Autonomous Region of China on the Gobi desert. Most people I grew up with have little tolerance for topics that aren’t all cheerful and glory. I think it is because life is hard enough and full of boundaries. When we get used to not sharing private feelings, even with our close ones, publicly announcing them seems to be a sin. But I think human beings by nature are intrigued by and in need of personal stories, and I hope this film can find its audience.
Who/what were your visual and narrative inspirations? Are there any specific films or filmmakers?
Three Colours: Blue by Kieslowski was a big influence on me in many ways, but especially in the way he visualises emotions. Also, the delicate drama of daily life in Hirokazu Koreeda’s work inspires me. There is a scene in Still Walking when the grandmother tries to catch a moth because she thinks the moth is her son. It’s heartbreaking. I wanted to explore moments like this when a seemingly well-maintained human being suddenly lost it. Or vice versa, when a person tries to stay sane in the most ridiculous situation.
What was it like to shoot in inner-city China?
The film is set in my mother’s hometown, a small city in the southwest of China. Due to the year round floods and earthquakes, Mianyang doesn’t have much left to offer. The government installed an extensive amount of LED panels on buildings alongside the river. Every night from 7pm to 10:30pm, the whole city is lit up by LED, creating a tourism spectacle that nearby cities have followed.
My grandfather is a birdwatcher. He told me Mianyang used to be known for its fireflies. But for the past few decades, the city is always at its brightest during fireflies mating time, making it impossible for them to locate their mates. So, fireflies have disappeared in this region. The new Mianyang is famous for spicy rice noodles and LED light shows.
Did the shoot require much planning, I’m thinking about the last scene in particular with the lights?
The LED lights are on for three and a half hours each night, which makes lives difficult, especially the ones who have LED panels hanging right outside their balconies. However, it made my shooting schedule for the last scene rather simple. Although, something unexplainable happened about that LED shot. One night during a location scout, I saw all the panels changed into a bright orange; millions and millions of flames flew toward each other to form the shape of a woman that was the size of the building. Then she started running, from one end of the river to the other, crossing all the LED panels one after another. Immediately, I put that into the script.
I went back by the river every day after that, but never saw that segment of the light show again. I asked many people about it, no one claimed to have seen what I saw. Finally, I ran out of means and just prayed for ‘her’ to show up on the day of the shoot. The last shot of the film was also our martini shot; we watched the light show looping itself again and again with no sight of her. Everybody was questioning my memory at that point. Ming, my DP, was supportive enough to wait with me for hours. But we never caught her.
Simple question, did you use a real jellyfish? If so, what was that process like?
We shot at the beginning of August when Mianyang was above 35°C. Jellyfish require a 16-20°C water temperature to survive. My mother, a first time animal wrangler, took her job very seriously. She set our room AC based on the advised jellyfish water tank temperature and never let me adjust it. I got a terrible cold during the hottest time of year and completely lost my voice before the shoot. On set, I had to speak into someone’s ear, then he’d repeat my directions to the actors. Aside from this, it was a pleasure working with the jellyfish.
I read that when you’re not directing you advise film students at the School of Visual Arts on their work, what are the common errors you see in the work of student filmmakers? And are there any common pieces of advice you offer them?
I am a guest lecturer at the School of Visual Arts grad film program. Making film, or being a dramatist, is something extremely subjective and difficult to teach. When I speak to students, I can only share my personal experience, which comes from a place of having been a student filmmaker myself not long ago.
Nourish your ideas like they are your babies. Be a very subjective, proud parent.
I’d say a common error we make is that we take other people’s advice too seriously. Here goes my advice: Nourish your ideas like they are your babies. Be a very subjective, proud parent. As a Chinese person who studied film in the USA, I’d like to add something here for student filmmakers studying abroad: it’s important to stay close to people who have the patience and curiosity to earnestly figure out what you’re trying to say with your story, before offering their notes. Coming from underrepresented cultural backgrounds, international student filmmakers will need more time and care when it comes to pitching, writing, and communicating. Make sure you are guided by people who are willing to give you that extra, well-deserved attention.
Do you have any new projects in the works?
I am in development for a feature script. It is a story set on the Gobi desert, where I am from, about two young girls being overwhelmed by each other and wanting to become each other, not realising that they are chasing the same thing. Right now, the subject of freedom is important to me, particularly the relationship between freedom and feminine desire. I am interested in young women who yearn for things they don’t fully understand. With this script, I want to ask the question, “How much are you willing to give up in exchange for freedom?” and to visualise it. My goal is to portray a fusion of things in contrast with each other: Herdsman in the casino, love versus ownership, horsewhip and prayers.
You can catch up on all of DN’s coverage from the London Film Festival here.