Liu Yulin didn’t have far to look when it came to choosing the material on which to base her debut feature film. It had been lying around her house for years.
As the daughter of lauded mainland Chinese author Liu Zhenyun, the 29-year-old Liu Yulin had grown up immersed in the traditions of storytelling. With her father’s many novels scattered around her home, she knew she could look to any number of his works for inspiration.
In the end, Liu Yulin turned to his most famous novel, One Word Is Worth Ten Thousand Words.
It has sold more than 1.5 million copies, was awarded the prestigious Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2011, and sees its author lift the veil on what he has said is an inherent loneliness in modern Chinese society.
“Of course, with a film the story is the most important thing and I’m lucky that my father is such a great writer, and a great scriptwriter,” says Liu.
“When I first thought of making a feature film back in 2014 I thought about this book, but this book is huge. It took me half a year to decide what part of it to use … and then I called my father and told him it was time for us to work.”
The result of their collaboration – Liu’s impressive debut Someone To Talk To – made its world premiere on October 10 at this month’s 21st Busan International Film Festival, where it was part of the main New Currents award section for first- and second-time Asian directors.
With a film the story is the most important thing and
I’m lucky that my father
is such a great writer, and
a great scriptwriter
This weekend it screens as part of the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and it’s primed for a November 11 release across the mainland.
That’s an interesting decision given the date is “Single’s Day” in China, and the film has moments that might leave audiences thinking that staying single might be the wisest move they’ll ever make.
For her part, Liu believes the timing of its release is perfect. “Everyone in this film is looking for someone to talk to and I think that is the same for everyone in the world,” she says.
Someone To Talk To begins with a couple (played by Mao Hai and Li Qian) in love and in line at a marriage registry office, before catching up with them years later after the realities of small-town life in central Henan province have taken their toll.
Conversation, if not love, has all but disappeared and the husband turns to his sister for support, as she deals with having to opt for a relationship that’s forged more for convenience than anything else. The wife, meanwhile, turns to another man.
While that all sounds a bit grim, it’s a reflection of Liu’s talent that the story is never less than engaging and that these characters come fully fleshed out.
It’s hard not to sympathize with everyone. Credit must go to the screenplay of course, written as it was by a man who has previously worked with the likes of China’s box office king Feng Xiaogang in turning his novels (Cellphone and Back to 1942) into box office successes.
But Liu – who while studying at New York University won a Student Academy Award for her short film Door God – displays a remarkable knack for slow reveals of the nuances of human relationships, and in bringing out the best in her cast.
For her efforts in playing the sister, Liu Bei has been nominated for best supporting actress at November’s Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan –commonly referred to as the Oscars of the Chinese-language film world – while audiences warmed to the film’s many charms at its screening in Busan.
The relationships on show here are more often than not fraught with emotion, especially regret, but the director believes the date of release reflects a growing shift in audience tastes in China that she hopes will soon become seismic.
If you find someone you can talk to, you are lucky in life
While box office charts are still dominated by the mega-budget blockbusters, releases such as Diao Yinan’s noirish thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014) have shown, with around 100 million yuan (about US$15 million) in takings, that there are rewards also in the world’s second-largest – and fastest-growing – film market for directors who cast their creative net a little wider.
“Although the market is huge – and growing super fast – the audience is changing,” says Liu. “They are more focused on good storytelling, more dramatic films. So it’s not only the big blockbusters, these Hollywood style films.”
In the end, Someone To Talk To is all about communication, or the lack of it, and about how the small distances that open up between people can so easily become vast.
It leaves you wondering what might have gone on in the Liu household, but the director says not to fear.
“Of course, we talk a lot,” she says. “He is a storyteller, so I am super lucky. If you find someone you can talk to, you are lucky in life.”