Shot by Shot

Meng-nainai welcomes us in her traditional kitchen.

This is part three of four from a series of film photos I took while working on Granny Knows Best in January 2019. Nainai is Chinese for grandmother.

After an arduous shoot across four Chinese provinces in December, I flew back to New Zealand for a few days; a much-needed Christmas break. On my flight back to China, I felt refreshed and hopeful that we would overcome our challenges in the second half of production.

Arriving in grey-skied Guizhou, I realised that things were not going to get any easier.

I had spent months in this province before, field directing a Discovery doco, China's Treasure: Guizhou. We had the full support of the provinicial government, great planning and plenty of time in the schedule. Guizhou had long been joked about in Chinese rhymes as an inaccessible, mountainous backwater, full of rainy days and hunger. When we shot the doco, Guizhou was the focal point of the CCP's incredible poverty alleviation drive. We were taken on a tiki-tour of mind-boggling technology, infrastructure and tourism development. It was a sanitised but still uplifting showcase of outstanding characters and culture.

Flash forward to Granny Knows Best - which was all about rawness and authenticity. Unfortunately that meant we'd have to face the rawness and authenticity of Guizhou's past: destitution and hardship. Not the best subject matter for a light and heartwarming show.

It rained every day. My mind was so occupied with trying to find the light in the stormclouds that my memory of this time is as hazy as the photos you're about to see. So there might not be much text this time...

At first, when I processed these photos, I tried to push the vibrant colours and add warmth, but it ended up making the photos look sickly and unnatural. I've since learned that there's a lot of beauty in the grey.

Zhelu Village - Guizhou Province

Zhelu village's old wooden houses were being torn down and people were moving into unfinished brick and concrete abominations. At our guesthouse, there was no insulation or air conditioning. Lights weren't working. No running water (let alone hot water), which was especially disastrous as our producer was vomiting from a stomach bug. Not the best start to a shooting block.

The key nainai talent still lived in her traditional home. I liked that she kept pigs in the basement like in the past, though I understand why people would prefer to move to sturdier apartments if they had the money. Unfortunately we could barely communicate with her and we found out she wasn't confident in her cooking skills.

It was a ghost town, really. We saw only about a dozen or so cheerful faces as we walked around, but judging by their number, most of the houses must be derelict. There was a spark of an interesting story by the river and we shot a scene with some fishermen using cormorants to help pinpoint the fish. Not much is caught in this deathly season. The water was a thick, impenetrable green.

We stayed one sleepless night in this village and decided the next morning that we had to cut our losses. As we packed our bags, we met a beautiful nainai roasting sesame seeds on a coal fire. Perhaps she had interesting stories to tell, but it was too late. The main takeaway lesson: there's nothing more precious than time spent in research and prep.


Shuipa Village - Guizhou Province

We left Zhelu for a second option - Shuipa village, also littered with many old, abandoned houses. But walking around this town gave me a better feeling - that some villagers really cared about preserving their traditional way of life.

Meng-nainai (蒙翠芝), belongs to the indigenous Sui minority. She lives alone in the huge house her late husband built with his own hands 40 years ago. As soon as we entered the front door, we were greeted by an ancestral altar, flanked by food offerings.

Meng-nainai's children live in distant villages and her daughter visits only occasionally. It was bittersweet to see Meng-nainai, by herself, keeping the fire alive in the house to fight the rot, rather than allowing the house to crumble like its neighbours.

Sweeter and less bitter was the Whittaker's chocolate I hauled from New Zealand - can't go wrong with that gift in China. It also turned out to be one of her grandchildren's birthdays so she put on a feast for us and her family. What a blessing after a damp start to our shoot.

Zhaoxing Dong Village - Guizhou Province

I absolutely adore the villages of south-east Guizhou's Dong minority. A perfect balance of aesthetics and function that modern cities should emulate. Cascade-roofed 'drum towers' are the beating heart of the village. Its open-air design allows smoke from bonfires to ventilate out, while sheltering the gossipers below from the year-round rain. These are paired with ornate 'flower bridges' that doubles as river crossing and gathering spot. There's so much warmth and close community here, designed around surviving the elements together.

Zhaoxing Dong Village has five of these drum towers, named after five Chinese virtues: Ren, Yi, Li, Zhi, Xin - benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and trust. It seems to be thriving with its new tourism economy - not surprising considering how beautiful it is - though I'm less impressed with the architecture of the new buildings encroaching on the old farmland.

Lu-nainai (陆锦兰) was an ex-teacher, now running a restaurant with her husband. She demonstrated probably the most unique traditional recipe of the show - fermented cow gut soup! No pics here sorry, I was too busy marvelling at it while filming.

Huangyao Village - Guangxi Province

A half-day's drive south of Guizhou takes us to Huangyao village in Guangxi province, surrounded by misty karst mountains. What was most special to me about this village was the ancestral halls that extended family members could call their own, offering incense in front of plaques of those who have passed.

The people (and puppies) in the village seemed very lively - especially the wannabe Ip Man kung fu master and energetic Guo-nainai (郭美妹), who loves Chinese plaza dancing more than anything.

As well as showing us how to cook taro pork belly, Guo-nainai took us on plenty of cheerful walks, pausing at every boombox that music leaked out from to bust out some shuffle-steps. She reminded me a lot of my mother.

The locals spoke Cantonese. I saw a gate to a street bearing the same name as the Guangdong village my maternal grandfather ran from before settling in Malaysia. I discovered an ancestral hall bearing my mother's (admittedly quite common) family name and wondered if we might be distantly related. I found myself feeling closer to home than I had ever been while working in China.