China’s Xu Lei, Ning Hao Hit HAF With Rural-Set Film Project ‘The Peacemaker’

Rebecca Davis

Chinese helmer Xu Lei will return to the subject of rural life in northern China for his second feature “The Peacemaker,” one of the 20 narrative film projects selected to participate in the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum this year.

Xu’s suspenseful and darkly humorous first film “Summer Detective,” which he wrote and directed, was nominated for best feature and won the prize for best script at the 2019 FIRST International Film Festival, which focuses on emerging talent. The Beijing Culture-backed title grossed $1.45 million (RMB9.44 million) in theaters.

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In this next feature, he returns to the region around his hometown in Hengshui, Heibei province to explore the phenomenon of village residents who take it upon themselves to become “peacemakers,” of sorts — unofficial deputies for the resolution of local disputes outside the formal legal system.

“Although I come from the countryside, I’ve realized that I really have no understanding of the place, and neither do city people, or even the rural people who actually live there, who don’t reflect on how things work and just live according to habit,” he said. “There are a lot of misunderstandings about what life is like there, so I want to depict relationships and social structures unique to China that I haven’t seen expressed in film before.”

Xu first became interested in the subject of these informal “peacemakers” before he’d even shot “Summer Detective,” and has been researching and writing his script ever since. The inspiration first stemmed from a fellow he’d met who was ostensibly a factory owner, yet spent all of his time running around dealing with the disputes brought to him by other locals, such as determining fair compensation for traffic accidents or even deaths.

He and other “peacemakers” receive no salary or other tangible benefits for their troubles, and sometimes even end up paying out of pocket to resolve particularly intractable cases.

“Why anyone would take on this sort of work bewildered me; I wanted to understand their motivations, and why people would seek out their services instead of using the legal system to resolve their disputes,” said Xu. This led to years of interviewing such characters and reading sociology books about the phenomenon, during which he drew particular inspiration from the pioneering Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong and his 1947 work “From the Soil,” in which he examines the root of Chinese morality through observations of rural life and contrasts it with the West.

“I’m following his line of thought to look at Chinese rural life 80 years later, so I think this film is almost more like a report of my field research findings,” said Xu.

The new film is inspired by a real case the factory owner “peacemaker” took on, in which he was called upon to resolve a murder threat that the police were unable to track or deal with before the suspect had committed his crime. It seeks to illustrate “the awkward transition from a society of rituals to one governed by rule of law.” Authorities have in recently years strongly championed the importance of China becoming a country governed by rule of law.

Established director-producer Ning Hao and his Dirty Monkey Productions are producing the approximately $6.3 million-budgeted title, which has already secured $3.1 million in financing. Currently at script stage, it hopes to start shooting in the second half of the year.

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