Interview: Cao Baoping

Award-winning film director on finding the balance between arthouse and multiplex cinema

Director Cao Baoping has been slowly making a name for himself with a series of offbeat films that exist in the limbo between arthouse obscurity and mainstream acceptance. The Dead End may prove to be his breakthrough.

The film recently won Cao the award for best director at the Shanghai International Film Festival (the three leads, Deng Chao, Duan Yihong and Guo Tao, shared the award for best actor), and critics have been warm even if The Dead End is a grim film by most standards.

The unconventional but involving crime drama revolves around three men who committed a horrific rape and murder years earlier before restarting their lives in Xiamen, all while taking care of a young girl orphaned by their crime. We speak with Cao about redemption, balancing art and commerce and what makes a film great.

What is the main idea that you wanted to explore in The Dead End?

The premise of The Dead End is quite simple. In this film the idea I want to convey is ‘redemption is not possible’. What the characters did is unredeemable. One ordinary summer afternoon three young men, out of curiosity, get involved in a crime and spend the rest of their lives atoning for it.

Oscar Wilde once said: ‘The only difference between saint and sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future’. Yet the truth is the characters have no future after that afternoon. Essentially, sins are unredeemable. It seems a depressing theme. But it is the despair, the dead end, that draws out a surprising, unexpected side of these men. From this perspective, it is not depressing at all.

The Dead End is difficult to categorise. It seems in between arthouse and crime thriller…

I think there are roughly two categories of film. One is the art film. People have seen many so-called art films and underground movies that are extremely realistic. The cinematography has little style, because the filmmakers want to reflect the reality of life as much as possible. That’s why art movies usually are not ‘nice’
to watch. But with art films we depict the inner world, hoping to express thoughts, feelings and the soul. The other category is feature film. Feature film contains all kinds of genres. Genre films face outwards, towards the audience and market.

Why are genre films popular?

Because they rely on patterns and formulas which are applied to every single story. I’m trying to find a balance. I believe my films wander in between genre and arthouse. I want all my films to have space for different forms of expression instead of just being a simple genre film. I think the concept is very chaotic, and maybe there’s no such concept in China.

How do you achieve a balance of this sort?

All of my films are fiction, but I think everything should originate from reality. I hope to simulate ‘reality’ within a narrative that is highly artificial. I ask my actors to act in a ‘natural’ way, and we strived hard to make all the performances in this movie real, no airbrushing.

As for images, I used the camera in a bit of a unique way – anamorphic widescreen lens and handheld zoom lens – to capture the characters’ frustration and psychological nuance. So you can see a lot of details in this film, all of those subtle facial expressions. Free, dynamic, swift, fierce – this is how The Dead End rolls. Restlessness is the soul of the movie!

Your three lead protagonists picked up the top acting prize at the Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF). How do you bring out the best in your actors?

After all the films I finished, in terms of cinematography versus acting, acting always comes first. Everything should give way to acting. In a way, the director is like a parent. What sort of atmosphere do I need to create for this family? The current film industry is very commercial. In many instances film is not treated as a serious, sacred thing. In my films I hope to create an atmosphere in which everyone regards their own career and the film with reverence.

Clearly the judges at SIFF thought highly of The Dead End. What do you think makes a film great?

In my opinion, what makes a really good film is not the main topic you wish to express, like love, death or betrayal, because every film has such themes. The best films are the ones that make you discover, that make you see something from a different perspective. I think this is what good films do, and this is what I
tried to do with The Dead End.

By Nicola Davison
  • 4 out of 5 stars