Planting For Life
Release year: 2014
Run time: 75 min
Film type: Documentary
Old Jia was a white-collar worker who gave up his city life and returned to the countryside with his wife, Lizi. He abandoned chemical fertilizer to practice natural farming. His attitude and philosophy attracted a big group of admirers from the city, whereas local villagers found his approach disagreeable. When Old Jia finally left this work and looked back on this part of his life, he saw the germination of seeds, the birth of new life, the harvest of crops, and the betrayal of love. And as always, life goes on.
Gu Xiaogang, a Hangzhou native, was born in Jiangyin, Jiangsu, in 1988. He attended Zhejiang Science and Technology University, majoring in fashion design and marketing, and graduated in 2012. Gu Xiaogang discovered his passion in cinema in his junior year and has been making films independently since then. His early works include documentary shorts, TV commercials, and narrative short films. Gu Xiaogang was a member of the tenth group of the Li Xianting Film School (Songzhuang, Beijing). His previous works include Planting for Life and Bhakta. Currently, he lives in Beijing, attending the directing programme of the Beijing Film Academy while making his first narrative feature film.
I met Lao Jiao for the first time in October of 2011. One evening, he and his wife Li Zi came to pick us up by car and took us to his rice field. His workers were busy harvesting the rice; a red reaper, with a bright light, made resounding noises as it worked. On a cemented open space by the field laid rice collected in the day. It was all covered in oilcloth then. Someone had to keep an eye on these harvests throughout the night; my friends and I didn’t hesitate to take up the task. We set up tents on both sides of the space and Lao Jia stayed with us. Late in the night, we saw mist rush toward us like sea waves, and it was unbelievably quiet all around. We made fire and started to chat. We learned about Lao Jia’s life before he came here and why he decided to come. Wood kept cracking in the fire. It has been three years since we started filming. Those senior village ladies, seeing that I’m always filming in rice fields, start to tell me about their hardships. They say that farmers belong to the low class, and that it is tough to be a farmer. They also say they don’t see why we would want to stay in a rural village, since we don’t look like the underachieved at all. They say that city people aspire to live in a village, and vice versa. But for city people, a rural life represents leisure. For villagers, going to the cities means defying fate. I asked the ladies what would happen if no one wants to farm anymore. They were speechless for a while. Then, someone uttered, “Well, that’d be great!” I know she was just being upset. I was actually happy to see people like Lao Jia slowly working to rebuild this century-old image of farmers. These people are knowledgeable and cultured enough to take up the task. Many of them are idealistic and passionate. Some even dream of living a hermit’s life. And Lao Jia is their leader. Because his location is near Shanghai, crowds of followers swarm in from the metropolis in appreciation of his “back to rural villages” ideal and unique farming concepts. Young volunteers can often be seen on his farm. Paying labor in exchange of food and accommodation, they have come to learn about agriculture. But locals can’t possible agree with them. Some villagers say this is a waste of the country’s food, and that they are only growing things for the rich to enjoy. The villagers are opposed to their farming methods because they see it as a step back. After all, they have been using chemicals for decades, and now these people want to resume those archaic methods applied when they were kids. This is almost unfathomable for them. In situations like this, it seems inevitable that villages and villagers get exploited by us, the city dwellers. Speaking of the people, land, water and vegetables there… Well, decades ago, city people told them to use chemicals to grow crops. Decades later, people come to tell them that chemicals are bad and out of date, although a truly chemical-free farming system has yet been established. I don’t think the villagers will ever get the idea. Farmers are diligent; they are hard working. But they don’t get what they deserve. They can’t even support their own families through farming alone. “New farmers” like Lao Jia have indeed helped to “renew” those old agricultural villages for they contribute new thoughts about agriculture. Together with his wife, Li Zi, who gave up on an urban life to live with her love in the countryside and establish a rural family, Lao Jia becomes an exemplary figure among the new farmers. But, just like the film shows, as the couple lives and works closely together, Li Zi feels that, no matter the effort, her marriage life has become nothing but a happy one. The couple no longer supports each other out of romantic love, but shares the work more like ordinary co-workers. Moreover, Li Zi used to think that they fight a lot because they are very different persons. Now that she looks back, she feels that maybe it’s all because Lao Jia was secretly dating another woman. But only Lao Jia knows the truth. Li Zi is more of an independent woman. She has rather strong ideas about how her life should be, but she is also kind of an idealist when it comes to love. She is willing to suffer, to wait, and to dedicate herself entirely to her loved one. I was profoundly touched by her in one interview. She recalled, “Some old ladies were growing vegetables in the field. I was kind of melancholic those days, because I had to work in the field and cooked all the time. I was suffocated by life. I asked the ladies how their lives were like when they were younger. Everyone said it couldn’t be tougher. They also had to take care of kids, to cook, and to do hard labor. So I felt I was comforted. Maybe every woman lives the same way.’ Then I was able to accept my circumstances more. I said, ‘OK, since you have all lived through such hardships in youthful and mid-life years, I’d better let things be.’” Eventually, Lao Jia left the farm. Friends always ask me about my opinions of Lao Jia after they’ve seen the film. But life is full of unexpected twists and turns. No matter what you expect it to be, life develops itself as it wishes. Likewise, I think I have no right to expect someone to play the ideal role I expect him or her to play. What has truly saddened me is that Li Zi’s father passed away. We met once before his death. Now that the two most important men have left, Li Zi reviews this countryside period she spent with Lao Jia. They planted seeds together; their baby was born. Rice was harvested, and love was betrayed. But the moment she realizes that life is an ongoing journey, she feels she’s free again.