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3 Questions for Luo Li

The retrospective on Luo Li entitled You Can’t Go Home Again opens this Thursday at 6:15 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. It is part of the Cinematheque summer program. It opens with the contemplative and powerful I Went to the Zoo the Other Day. The film is a reflection upon an immigrant couple from Serbia visiting the Toronto Zoo and observing the animals up close, (while we, the audience, in turn observe them). The film is leisurely paced and yet brilliantly conceived, as the couple retains their real first names, but the story is made up. What is more, a longish sequence at the end of the film shows the couple speeding down the highway in a scene that reinforces the different type of zoo that is the City of Toronto.

In fact, much of the film is a meditation on the nature of home, and the message seems to be that even if we wanted to go home, we couldn’t: a theme that permeates and shapes Li’s films, as whether he goes back to China (where he was born) or stays in Ontario (where he is based, and where he attended school, at York University), there remains a sense of melancholy and existential angst.

But this is a slightly limiting view of Li’s work, as though it crosses genres between narrative and documentary, fictional and non-fictional, there is a sense of place to be found within the chaos, and Li’s films are very often funny, clever, and quite moving. The name of the series may be that we cannot go home again, but way not want to go home after becoming entranced by Li’s brushstrokes.

We spoke to Li via email and he was gracious to answer our questions. The series features four of his films, each introduced by Li, along with his Carte Blanche selection, the classic A Man Escaped, which is a truly ironic choice.

Scene Creek: In Rivers and My Father the image of the unmoored boat reoccurs but infilled with different meaning. Is it your goal to reveal events but let the audience suffuse them with meaning.

Luo Li: I wasn’t thinking in terms of meanings. I wanted to employ repetition as a structural device in Rivers, and I hoped it could help create an atmosphere similar to the effect of certain music works that influenced me at that time. I believe that images used in such a way could lead to some sort of meditative mode where emotions or feelings are more present than meanings.

Scene Creek: In the sense of an ending for Emperor Visits the Hell, was it a conscious plan to have a break in character, or did that come during the shooting process?

Luo Li: While shooting the film, I got to know more about Li Wen, who played the Emperor. I thought about filming him as himself because he’s a fascinating person in real life and that could add another layer to the character. It was a conscious plan to film him at the end, but it was done in an improvisational style and Li Wen didn’t know about my plan.

Scene Creek: What does shooting in Black and White do to ground your films?

Luo Li: Black and White works on different levels: 1) it gives me more control in terms of achieving a unity, visually speaking; 2) I am very influenced by many black and white films from the ’40s and ’50s, and I believe black and white has certain power that color doesn’t; 3) I wanted to create a little distance between the film and the viewer, black and white is more aabstract and works better for this purpose; 4) black and white is often associated with the past, and my films often deal with the past. Especially in Emperor Visits the Hell, because of the use of the picture book as well as the link to the ancient story/history, black and white helps to create that connection between the present and the past, the reality and the representation.

You Can’t Go Home Again, The Films of Luo Li will be playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox starting on June 11th and playing until June 14th. Click here for further details.