Still Life:
An interview with Ji Huang & Ryûji Otsuka (directors of Stonewalling)
By Eileen G’Sell

“You have to promote yourself as a new graduate,” a salesguy at a tony Changsha boutique explains to Lynn (Honggui Yao), a young Hunan woman hunting for a side gig. “You sell the products when you sell yourself.” When she flinches at the prospect of giving fashion tips to male clients, her TikTok-posing boyfriend quips, “She’s just looking for excuses.”

The unlikely heroine of Ji Huang’s and Ryûji Otsuka’s triptych of films depicting contemporary Chinese life, Lynn is the antidote to the American “Strong Woman” archetype. From a quiet tween in a pink puffer coat in Egg and Stone (2012) to a timid high-schooler in Foolish Bird (2017) to a 20-year-old feigning interest in learning English in Stonewalling (2022), Lynn is a female character that we rarely see: however beautiful, she is uncharismatic, taciturn, and professionally unambitious. In Stonewalling, Lynn’s decision to sell her eggs on the black market (for the equivalent of 2800 U.S. dollars) leads to the discovery that she is one-month pregnant. Wavering on whether to keep the pregnancy, she lies to her boyfriend and leaves for the small Hunan town where her parents run a struggling gynecological clinic. Learning that her mother was recently sued for a malpractice-related still birth, Lynn proposes what at first seems preposterous: carry her pregnancy to term and give the infant to the aggrieved family, as a way of paying off her mother’s enormous debt to them. The fact that her plan is eventually approved by both her mother and the family (with no small amount of contingencies) exposes the extent to which contemporary China, no matter its massive economic growth and signs of modernity, radically differs from the Western world in its attitude toward pregnancy, childbirth, and achieving justice. But Lynn’s relentless hustle to make ends meet—for both her parents and herself—mirrors the reality of so many women in her generation, both in China and in the U.S.

In our conversation, Ji and Ryûji often emphasized how much of the film was based on either their own experiences or those of Honggui Yao, whose name was often dropped interchangeably with “Lynn.” After a brief exchange with each other in Mandarin, the husband-and-wife team traded off in responding to my questions, as garrulous and buoyant as their film’s protagonist is not. Reflecting on Stonewalling after our talk, it occurred to me that Lynn’s gnawing ambivalence toward her pregnancy is rooted in a deep insecurity about her own value as a human being—an insecurity that very slowly subsides as the film moves along. Stonewalling is a type of refusal, but it can also be a way of protecting a self that is not yet ready to assert its power.

This interview has been condensed for clarity and was transmitted via translator.

Reverse Shot: Stonewalling is considerably longer than your other two films—well over two hours. Its length seemed to mirror the tedium and discomfort of Lynn’s pregnancy. Was that part of your thinking?

Ji Huang: Your understanding is right.

Ryûji Otsuka: We don’t want to limit the length of the film in reflecting the ten months surrounding the beginning and ending of pregnancy. We chose to observe the changes in Lynn’s mind—and in her actual life. And the second reason for the length is that we decided to go with Honggui Yao’s own rhythm as an actor. The editing echoes the rhythm of Lynn’s experience; audiences have to follow that temporality. We wanted to show the ten months, so we also filmed for ten months.

RS: You also chose to launch the film with a party scene in English—the only time in the narrative where Lynn knows less than we do. It’s only later in the scene that we realize she doesn’t actually understand the language—especially the number of platitudes tossed around, like “don’t overthink it” or “live in the moment.” By the end of the film, given Lynn’s situation, these slogans feel totally insulting.

JH: In the beginning I want audiences to hear and understand Lynn’s capacity—on the one hand, her professional capacity to learn, and on the other hand, how young people in society adapt popular English sayings. In China, the capacity to speak English reflects a young person’s economic and educational standing—whether from a wealthier or lower-class sector of society. Through showing this gathering in the English school, we can show Lynn’s place in the larger hierarchy.

RS: In terms of Lynn’s humble standing in this hierarchy, she often seems trapped not only in her pregnant body, but by frames within the frame onscreen—like mirrors, doorways, windowsills. It reminded me a bit of Antonioni. I thought of the “everything is for money” quote from your film Egg and Stone, and how the relentless hustle to be financially solventtraps both Lynn and her mother.

JH: Your comment is excellent. [laughs]

RO: In the ten months we shot, we wanted to reflect the changes for Lynn as well as the changes of her environment in the background. So, the style was decided from the very beginning—static camera, no close-ups for the whole ten months. Without close-ups, audiences have to look for and interpret the characters’ body language.

JH: As we know, language is power, but Lynn is not a person who’s good at using language to express herself or connect with or convince other people. People around her are always using language to influence each other and influence her. Putting her in these frames within frames, she is actually stiller than the environment around her—the environment moves more than Lynn can.

RS: I actually noticed one close-up around two hours in, when Lynn breathes slowly into a surgical mask, then takes it off and replaces it. A medium close-up of Lynn appears a few scenes later during the agony of labor.

RO: Before this close-up shot, Lynn has been looking for possibilities of choices, but couldn’t make a decision. And in the close-up, we can see that she has made a decision. The medium shot during her delivery has a similar connotation; she is making another decision. We wanted to emphasize that difference.

JH: The close-up—when, aesthetically, Lynn is directly facing the camera—is the first moment when she finally realizes she can directly face her boyfriend and not be manipulated by his rhetoric. The medium close-up during the delivery is the moment that she has decided to finish giving birth to the child, collaborating with the instruction given to her by the doctor. With this decision, she actually has more possibilities for her life.

RS: One of the messages of the film seems to be thatyoung women in China pay a higher price to keep up under capitalism—in terms of selling their bodies through modeling, but also through egg donation in the black market. It was startling howUyghur and working-class women were objectified by rich, older women seeking “high-quality” eggs.

JH: What you expressed is on point, but we didn’t design for the Uyghur women to appear on camera, it just happened that they show up more frequently than others at this site. In China, women either have to rely on their linguistic capacity to find jobs, or, if one is not very good with language, they have to rely on their bodies—such as dancing or performance. A woman with no capacity for that can only look for other ways of earning money, like donating eggs.

RS: Did you write the script based in part on Honggui Yao’s coming of age as a woman and as an actor? She’s a preteen in Egg & Stone, a teen in Foolish Bird, and college age in Stonewalling. She has grown up, and yet she’s just as stuck as she was in the past.

JH: In the beginning, my screenplay did not center around her—my main character was a very positive girl, very fluent in all kinds of skills of life. After starting to film, Honggui’s responses were very different than I expected. So, I changed the screenplay almost completely. Then we adapted the filming according to Honggui’s reactions, experience, and rhythm.

RS: Smartphone and screen culture—TikTok especially—have a strong presence in this film. How did you approach representing the incredible impact that social media has had on young people in China?

JH: We interviewed Honggui and other college-age female students and discovered that their understanding and imagination of the world were all based on TikTok. In China, many women would exchange information for job-seeking through cell phones. On the one hand, phone culture provokes their imaginations and desire to consume; on the other hand, through phones they gain economic power. Phones are very important tool in young women’s lives.

RS: Lynn’s relationship with her mom is so complicated. For me, the most powerful scene is when Lynn is in pain in the early months of pregnancy and her mother massages her breasts. How did you see this physical interaction—as tender? As transactional? Their bond seems both.

JH: The actress who played the mother in the film is my own mother. [laughs] She has this unlimited energy and imagination to look for different kinds of business opportunities and do different types of things. She’s very easily influenced by other people’s rhetoric or stories. Sometimes she would borrow money from me [to pursue business opportunities]. At the same time, she is very gentle and tender to me. So, this tension between tenderness and transaction is very much my own complicated relationship with my mom! [laughs]

RS: In Stonewalling’s last scene, we see and hear Lynn’s newborn wailing while they wait for the other family to arrive to pick her up. Lynn’s breasts are hurting, and she has to leave the car. There’s no resolution, and the sounds of crying continue into the end credits. How did you wantus to feel when the movie ends? How did you feel?

JH: The feeling of the breasts hurting comes from my own experience after childbirth. It’s a kind of physical memory for many women who have given birth to children, which cannot be processed through any amount of reading or knowledge you gain. At the end of the movie, I was feeling the fullness of that pain, and the urge to leave.

RO: At the end, we want the audience to feel that the protagonist of this film is actually that baby.