When Yu Xinhua’s Tumblr poem went viral, it gave her a new lease on life as a famous poet and eventually, a divorced woman, in Jian Fan’s documentary Still Tomorrow
Even before discovering Yu Xiuhua, the poet whose story is the subject of Still Tomorrow, director Jian Fan wanted to make a documentary about a Chinese poet: “Chinese people love to buy things. They love to get richer, richer. Most of them didn’t care about poems. They have no poetry [in their] life.” He wanted to focus on a “special poet”, not necessarily a professional one, to reach a larger Chinese audience.
Serendipitously, Youku (the Chinese version of YouTube) approached Fan to make a documentary about a rising star in the Chinese poetry community: Yu Xiuhua, a woman in her early forties with cerebral palsy who has been unhappily married to Yin Shiping, an arranged marriage, since she was 19. In the film, Yu Xiuhua’s parents tell Fan that they married her off because they wanted her to have a secure future as a wife. Fourteen years later, Yu Xiuhua had become famous for her poem “Crossing half of China to sleep with you,” which she had published on her personal blog. The poem describes a fantasy relationship; Yu Xiuhua expresses her sexual yearning to be with another man, since her current relationship was so unsatisfying.
Though she’s been dubbed China’s answer to Emily Dickinson, I was surprised to learn that Yu Xiuhua never completed a formal education. Instead,“from 2009, she started to use [the] internet in her house to [gain] information, to learn other poems online. She also [liked] to read novels and other poetry [books]. So reading and the internet helped her to learn about [writing poetry].”She started to use the internet in her house to gain information, to learn other poems online.Click To Tweet
When Fan discovered her poems online, they completely shocked him. “The feeling of [her] poems are very strong, but she is a disabled person living in a small village, [on farmland]. I think it’s quite amazing. It’s amazing to read her poems,” Fan explained. “I think her poems [are] about love and female feelings, female emotions, and about her sensitivity [surrounding] her [disappointments in life]. I love these poems. She writes a lot of poems. I wanted to select some poems [that] have [a] relationship with the story, with her family, with her marriage, with her husband. I tried to make the poems have a tight relationship with the film [and its story].”I think her poems are about love and female feelings, female emotions, and about her sensitivity.Click To Tweet
Because there was a lot of interest in Yu Xiuhua, there were other journalists bombarding her for access. In order to build trust, Fan visited Yu Xiuhua and her parents 10 days before shooting to spend time with them during their daily routine. “We even work with her parents. [Farm] work. I asked my team, my cameraman and my sound woman, to try to help them with their farm work,” Fan elaborated. “After we build the trust between me and Yu Xiuhua and her parents, it is easy to shoot because their daughter welcomes my team”.
Yu Xihua’s now ex-husband, Yin Shiping, proved very difficult to shoot during the last few months of their marriage — perhaps because the world seemed only interested in his wife’s side of the story. Fan used a similar technique to build trust Yin Shinping as he did with the family: “I came to his worksite. He’s a migrant worker. I’m maybe the first guy to come to his worksite to shoot his work. I think that made him comfortable. His voice can be heard.” Fan elaborated, “There are so many journalists who interviewed his wife, but nobody wanted to talk with him, to interview him. Nobody wanted to listen to his thoughts, so I tried to balance the relationship”. Fan told her ex-husband, “We [will] not only listen to Ms Yu Xiuhua, her voice. We will listen to your voice, especially about the marriage and the divorce.”
One absent voice from the film is a person both spouses mention: their son. Despite Fan’s efforts, he wasn’t prepared to appear in the film. “We tried to interview her son. Her son is studying in college, it’s a little far from their house, [and he] only comes back home on holidays. When he came back, we [wanted] to shoot him, but he refused. He doesn’t want to comment on his mother or his father so we have to respect his [wishes].”
For Fan, the land she lived on was key to Yu Xiuhua’s poetry. There were many beautiful shots in the film where the words of Yu Xiuhua’s poetry are overlaid onto footage of her farm’s landscape. “The poems come from her life and from her landscape. Many of her poems are about her feelings about her family, her village, her hometown.” There are several shots of Yu Xiuhua standing near a pond reflecting on her poetry because her landscape gave her so much inspiration.Many of her poems are about her feelings about her family, her village, her hometown.Click To Tweet
You wouldn’t think that poetry is particularly lucrative, but it was actually through her poems that Yu Xiuhua was able to support herself financially. “She got economic independence by her poems because her poetry books are best sellers.” That economic independence is what enabled Yu Xiuhua to get a divorce. Now that she is financially stable, she is only looking for true love, which is her next goal as a newly single woman. I wondered if she would ever leave the village she was from to move to the city maybe even to meet someone new. But Fan quickly assured me, “She just wants to live in the village. I think she loves village life.”
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