FILM

 Roberto F. Canuto 
& Xu Xiaoxi 
26th Raindance Film Festival 2018
‘SUNKEN PLUM
CHINA / SPAIN | 20 min | Tickets
Sunken Plum - still 1 .jpg

A transgender woman is visited by her cousin, who informs her that her estranged mother has died. Feeling an obligation to her family, the woman returns to her birthplace, but must hide her gender identity and true self from her relatives.

Hey Roberto & Xiaoxi, thanks for talking to TNC, how is everything going?

Xiaoxi: We are doing really well, thanks.  I am a bit busy with some projects, and getting ready to visit London for the first time, so I am very happy.

Roberto: Yes, we are great. Thanks a lot. It is really exciting what is happening with our film “Sunken Plum”.  In the next couple of months, we have almost 30 new festivals screenings confirmed, with the highlight of Raindance Film Festival, so we cannot be happier. 

What does it mean for you to be at the 26th Raindance Film Festival with Sunken Plum?

Xiaoxi:  We feel very grateful and lucky.  It is a great opportunity for us to screen ”Sunken Plum” in such a prestigious film festival. Apart from being one of the most important film events, it is located in one of the cities that I really wanted to visit for a long time, so it means a lot to me.

Roberto: When we start the production of “Sunken Plum”, we couldn’t even imagine that it will be presented in one of the greatest independent film festivals in the world. It means a lot to the film and for our career. On a personal note, for me, It is very special, because I stay for almost 10 years in London. Since I left the city, almost a decade ago, I couldn’t come back to visit my friends, so it is a bit like a return to my second home to present the film and meet my friends again. It is amazing.

Are there nerves ahead of your screening?

Xiaoxi: I am always nervous about screening our films to new audiences. Every screening is a new experience, especially when we present the film in different countries. Also, I feel some responsibly, because the film is dealing with matters related to the LGBT community in my country, and in some ways, I represent them at the festival. So yes, I am a bit nervous.

Roberto: More than nervous, I am expecting the reactions of the audience. As Xiaoxi’s says, every audience is a bit different, and because the film talk about LGBT issues in a society, like the Chinese, that has very different culture than the British, we always have the doubt if people will engage with the story and will fully understand the conflict that we present. But I think that, at the same time, the issues that we present are universal, so I hope that will touch the British audience and it can create a debate among them. 

The response to your film has been amazing, has it surprised you at how well the film has been received at festivals?

Xiaoxi: For sure. First of all ”Sunken Plum” is a very low budget film, made partially by a crowdfunding project. We didn’t have enough resources to make the film exactly as we planned, so we compensate that after many months of work and getting surrounded by a team of people as passionate as we are. So far, we have over 65 film festival selections and we have confirmed premieres in over 25 countries, with 10 awards… It is a really big surprise for us. We never expected something like this.

Roberto: Yes, it is completely out of our expectations. Initially, we weren’t sure if we can finish the project. We deal with a theme, the transsexuality, that for censorship reasons, cannot be represented in China. For that, we knew that we couldn’t distribute the film in China or obtain any funds from Chinese companies. In the practical, the film is just from Spain because many resources and all the legal back up is Spanish. Also, we had serious limitations with the cast and crew, since most professional actors do not want to play “conflictive” roles that can interfere in their careers, and we have similar restrictions with the crew. We face many obstacles and we manage to succeed only after many months of dedication and our passion for filmmaking. After the film was completed, we really hoped to get into some festivals on the international circuit, but to see the overwhelming response is completely unexpected. We are really surprised.

Sunken Plum - still 2.jpg

Tell me a little bit about Sunken Plum, how did the film come about?

Xiaoxi: Sunken Plum is a coming out story of a transgender person in rural China. Always we try to make films based on reality. Initially, we try to get as much information as possible about the life of trans people, to be truthful in the essence. The process of the script written was about combining the reality of some trans people in China (we didn’t mean to represent the community as a whole), with a narrative that can be interesting and meaningful for audiences. We believe that films must have a combination of art and entertainment. The main complications arose when the pre-production started.

Roberto: Our first concern was to cast the main role in the film, that was key for the credibility of the story. We tried in vain to find a transgender actress to play the leading role. As I mentioned before, in China it was difficult to work with professional actors for this type of role, so the task of finding a transgender woman that was also an actress was almost impossible (considering our limitations). We organized some open castings and include in the call all non-professional actors. Finally, we meet who mean to be the lead actor, Gu Xiang, referred by our producer, and we realized that he possessed the qualities and passion we were looking for, and we thought he would give the character a sense of realism and spontaneity. But the problem was that he didn’t have any acting experience or training previous to this film, so we dedicate more than three months to train, rehearse and construct the role with him. 

Xiaoxi: The rest of the casting process faced similar conditions. Many extras in the village of the film are local people. Regarding the founds, we have a very limited budget. Apart from our own investment, we got some of the budgets out of a crowdfunding project. Many people collaborated with the hope that, by helping to create this film, may influence the unfair situation that the trans community is facing in China.

What was the inspiration behind your screenplay?

Roberto: The initial idea for Sunken Plum comes from watching a couple of videos shared on a Chinese social network (that were censored very soon). Actually, we have included an excerpt of them in the final credits of the film. Those videos captured the real-life physical and psychological abuse of transgender people by locals. They are very shocking and disturbing. 

Xiaoxi: And we felt even more shocked of how some people reacted to the videos on the internet. They made jokes in the comments and laugh about it.  We notice they have very limited knowledge of the trans community. And we realize how difficult is the situations for transgender people living in China, in order to have a dignified life. They have a lack of legal protection and at the same time, they are discriminated against on a daily basis. They find hard to come out to the families due to the traditional values of the society since family and procreation are the main concerns in China. So, we decided to write this story.

Roberto: We try to create a story with a simple and direct narrative, but with an important emotional charge so that the viewer feels empathy with the main character and understands her inner world. Our wish would be that “Sunken Plum” could be seen by both, the type of people who shared those videos for fun, as well as by the archetype of people who are represented in the village, who cannot accept transsexuality mainly because they do not know its existence.

Sunken Plum - still 6.jpg

Being both co-writers and co-directors what has the experience like working together in this film?

Xiaoxi: We collaborate in all our films since we met in 2008, while we studied a Master of Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles, and our working habits are always very similar. We tend to discuss all the aspects of filmmaking, starting with the concept of the film. In this particular movie, Roberto writes the first treatment of the story and slowly I change aspects of it, to make it closer to the Chinese society, and to represent truly the logic and the lifestyle of local people. On set, we behave as one, because we know perfectly the characters. It is the same case in the post-production and in the editing. We work on different cuts of the film until both of us are satisfied with the results.

Roberto: Probably the main differences are on set because I am a bit more concern about acting. In this film, same as other shorts that we shoot in China, it was very interesting for me when I direct actors. Since I don’t understand the language, I feel that the truth of the performance come mainly from the body language, so I was very aware of it. It is surprising how many things can be expressed just by the use of gestures. It was a very interesting experience. But the way of collaborating through the film was by sharing all the filmmaking experience. Sometimes arguments are inevitable, but as long as are constructive arguments, it makes the film stronger. 

What has been the most challenging part of making this film been?

Xiaoxi: Apart for finding the main actor, that Roberto mention earlier, I think that the main challenge was to create a story that was at the same time very local (involving local customs) and universal (so people from different backgrounds can understand it). We have worked on many versions of the script until we thought that it may appeal to both, Chinese and world audiences. But to be honest, until we start the first screenings of the film in Spain and at international film festivals, we couldn’t be sure about it.

Roberto: Also, we were very concern about creating a character and a story that the trans community can assume as their own story. We watch many films that are a bit invasive or use trans characters in a superficial way. We didn’t want to make this mistake. For that reason, we research a lot and we screened the first cut of the film to some of our trans friends, to find out if they understand what we try to express and to know if they feel that a part of their community it was truly represented in the film. 

Other aspects are definitely challenging, like the lack of funds, difficulties getting the right locations (people in some villages in China refuse to allow the crew to record funeral scenes in their streets, for superstitious reasons) etc., but these are common challenges with any other productions, but not specifically from this film. 

Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?

Xiaoxi: Yes, since I was a child, my dad bought me a video camera, I started to record everything I am interested in, so my passion starts at a very early age.

Roberto: in my case is the same. Initially, I was interested in acting, because at that early age I thought that the actors were the creators of the stories. Since I discover the figure of the director, in my teen years, I dream to create stories myself and to be in charge of the films.  

What was the first film you saw that inspired you to become a director?

Xiaoxi: I would say it was “Breaking the Waves” by Lars von Trier.

Roberto: I cannot say a specific film. I watch the first film I can recall, “The Jungle Book” when I was 4 o 5 years old, but it was in my teen years when I discover many directors that inspire me, like Eric Rohmer, Alfred Hitchcock or Pedro Almodovar. I don’t remember a specific title, but it is the universe that these directors created what inspired me. 

"...you must try to enjoy what you are doing, and never give up."

How much has your approach to directing changed since your debut short film?

Xiaoxi: I became more open and braver. I like to challenge myself by creating different types of stories. I try to express more myself rather than wait for the approval of others. I think that, if I really believe the story I write, audiences may also do.

Roberto: I think that I tend to focus on social stories in recent films and also, I delegate more task in my team, while in my first film, that was made at a film school, I was a bit more concern about the technical aspects of filmmaking. But I am at an early stage of my career, so I think that this will evolve much more with the pass of time. 

How would you describe Sunken Plum in three words?

Roberto: It is complicated… I would say “Emotional”, “Bold” and “Exotic”.

Xiaoxi: I will choose: “Raw”, “Bitter” and definitely “Hopeful”

Do you have any advice for any fellow directors?

Xiaoxi: I will say, just follow your heart. Start to take action, write stories and to shoot, and not only wait for a producer to discover you. 

Roberto: I like to share my experience rather than giving advice, but one thing that I learned in my short career is that you must try to enjoy what you are doing, and never give up. No matter how difficult and great the obstacles are, if you dream about it and you are persistent, you can achieve it in the end.

And finally, what do you hope people will take away from this film?

Xiaoxi: I hope people will understand and give more respect to the trans community, no matter where in the world. And for members of the trans community or any other human being that feel different in their society, try to be yourselves and fight for your rights. No matter how difficult is the environment where you grow up, if you don’t stand for yourself, nobody will do it for you.

Roberto: Definitely, respect. It is important to respect everyone’s lifestyle. Even if that lifestyle is very different than yours. Try to understand that person and respect her life choice. Give the same respect that you hope to receive.