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KARLOVY VARY 2024 Proxima

Zhengfan Yang • Director of Stranger

“I don't need to belong to a certain place or country”


- The Chinese-born director homes in on the hotel room as a non-space and epicentre of non-belonging

Zhengfan Yang • Director of Stranger
(© Film Servis Karlovy Vary)

Chinese-born, US-based director Zhengfan Yang has repeatedly focused on the feeling of being an outsider in a socially constructed space. His personal-experience-inspired feature Stranger [+see also:
film review
interview: Zhengfan Yang
film profile
, winner of the Proxima Competition Grand Prix at the 58th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, reveals the great sense of alienation the individual feels in the impersonal space of a hotel room.

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Cineuropa: You’re a filmmaker and you travel a lot. You're probably also staying in a hotel at Karlovy Vary. Is that where the idea to set a movie in hotel rooms came from?
Zhengfan Yang:
It's closely related to my experience in different hotel rooms around the world. A hotel room signifies our alienation and isolation in modern life. The idea came up in 2016, a year after I’d moved from China to the US. Living between these countries has intensified my feeling of being an outsider. In the US, I'm an outsider due to language and culture. But the rapid changes in China make the country unrecognisable to me every time I visit. So I also feel like an outsider in my home country. Hotel rooms as a cinematic space exemplify my personal feelings, as well as the universal experience of modern life.

The idea of home comes up a lot in this movie. But there’s never a clear answer as to what home actually constitutes.
I’ve been asking myself the same question. I moved to the US when I was 30 years old and I’ve been there for ten years. What if I spend, say, 20 or 30 more years there? What would be the place that I call home? I don't have an answer to that, because I don't need to belong to a certain place or country. I always want to observe things from the perspective of an outsider.

The hotel room is a non-space in and of itself. It exists in a transitional capacity. Did you feel the need to keep it neutral compared to the characters inhabiting it?
I think so. Non-places were an important concept throughout the film’s development. Hotel rooms are similar all around the world. If we see a hotel room on screen with nobody inside it, we don't know where it is. The difference is something that we don't see on screen. It’s outside of the room, outside of the frame. And that “outside” is contemporary China. Inside the room are modern-day Chinese people. So, of course, the film could take place anywhere, but I wanted to make a film about contemporary Chinese people in a modern space.

What appeals to you about being an outsider?
My first feature film was shot in my hometown in China. Then I lived in Hong Kong for four years. That’s where I shot my second film. Afterwards, I moved to the US. There, my third film, a documentary, was shot in Chicago. It's always a personal experience that I deliver through my films. Stranger was developed over many years. I can see China from the perspective of an outsider. That's why I constructed a film using different independent stories instead of one single narrative, to provide a panoramic portrayal of society.

You also added one of your short movies, Down There, to the movie.
Down There shares the same visual concept as the last scene in Stranger. It was a different story, but the original script for that scene would have been too dramatic if I’d used it as the ending for Stranger. So I decided to make an independent short film instead, and then keep the same ending for Stranger.

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