Ulrike OTTINGER [english] > Films > Under Snow > Directors statement

My Fascintion with Asia.

Thoughts and Notes on What Led Me to Make the Film Under Snow.


At the age of nine, at the house of a painter friend, I was allowed to open a Mongolian chest, decorated with brightly colored patterns and animal motifs. Its contents inspired my childhood fantasies: a coral snuffbox, an embossed silver tea bowl, another bowl made of burl wood, white and blue hadaks--large transparent shawls used to present gifts and show respect, or as offerings before a dangerous voyage--, the skin and horns of a wild sheep, bone pipes, coins, and other wonders from faraway places. What had playfully begun as a game with my finger on the map, gradually developed into the serious study of the ancient cultures of Asia, especially Asian elaborate dances, music, and stage dramas. As a consequence, my desire grew to finally visit the site of my imaginings.

My dreams seemed eventually to come true when I began to work on my project Madame X, the story of a pirate queen whose adventures on a junk were to unfold in the China Sea. Due to shortage of means, however, Lake Constance had to become the location of the film. So once again the imagining mind had to compensate for reality. Having completed Madame X, filming the Berlin Trilogy kept me on my toes in the city for quite some time. Thus, my first journey to Asia only took place between January and April of 1985--after what seems today to have been a time of struggle and enormous efforts to overcome red tape and political obstacles. China. The Arts-the People, executed in a caméra-stylo style, shows a host of images from this much talked about, but completely foreign country. My next (rather bold) venture was to make a fiction film in Inner Mongolia, Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia.  The film opens with a sequence on the Trans-Siberian Express, with Delphine Seyrig setting the tone as an eccentric British ethnologist:

   “It is always the first time. The read word, the imagination, the confrontation with reality. Must the imagination fight shy of the encounter with reality, or do they love each other? Can they form an alliance? Are they altered as a result of their meeting? Do they exchange roles? It is always the first time.”

In Mongolia, western travelers encounter nomads, and the clash of cultures takes its course. This is, however, not only a theme of the film--it was also part of our experience of traveling with a large convoy through the steppe, the deserts and grasslands, mostly without the benefit of tarmac or even dirt roads. The troubled relations between the Mongolians, with whom I wanted to work, and the ruling Chinese required more than a modicum of diplomatic skill. It is, however, precisely the hardships encountered and difficulties overcome in a foreign country with its unfamiliar, constantly changing situations that make us gradually understand a different culture. The film resonates with these experiences, growing richer and more alive through them. Cultural misunderstandings become manifest and emerge in all their absurdity and humor. The confrontation of cultures can be hard and soft at the same time, containing moments of comprehension as well as moments of discord, as can still be experienced today.

Taiga, my second film made in Mongolia, is based on precise and patient ethnographic observation. In this film, I could tackle issues that, for reasons of dramaturgy, I was not able to deal with in my fiction film Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia. In the mountainous, extreme north of Mongolia I accompanied the nomads from their summer camp to their autumn and winter camps. Taiga is a documentary epic of their daily lives, their ceremonies and concepts of shamanism.

From the early 1980s on I had used every trip abroad, every opportunity to do research for my film Exil Shanghai. It is about a cosmopolitan city in the 1930s/1940s in which all the political and social problems of world history come together. People from every nation involved in World War II were present. The city with its free port enjoyed exterritorial status and was divided among the colonial powers. Approximately 20.000 European Jews had escaped from the Nazi terror to Shanghai, mainly from Germany and Austria. Here, under dire conditions and without any means, the refugees managed to build little Vienna, little Berlin, or little Breslau in an incredible act of perseverance. In its very contradictions Shanghai--and the film Exil Shanghai--mirrored the turbulent times.

After the Wall came down, the south-eastern European countries suddenly became accessible. In my documentary Southeast Passage, I explore the area during this critical period, and the fiction film Twelve Chairs, based on the well known novel by Ilf and Petrov, is set in Odessa.

One day I received an email from Korea, inviting me to make a film there. The result was The Korean Wedding Chest. Once again, there was a chest to be opened. In this case, its contents provided many insights, some of which highly amusing. Since then, a large collection of chests has accumulated in my home, namely the many metal and cardboard boxes containing all my fantasies, experiences and moments in life that were triggered by the first two chests I opened, the chest from my childhood and the chest in Korea. Condensed and transformed into film, they can be discovered on the screen again and again.

My long and intense preoccupation with Asia--its history, its lore and its stories--through research, through filmmaking as well as through the period of reflection during the editing process, explains why I could not resist the new but thematically related project of Under Snow. My interest was sparked by a Japanese book which had caused a sensation in the last century, describing the living conditions in Japan’s so called Snow Land, conditions that have barely changed to this day. On the mountain coast facing Siberia, winters are very long and cold, and for half of the year everything is covered by a thick layer of snow. The inhabitants of this region were forced to adapt to the climate and to develop survival strategies of their own. They have succeeded, often in the most surprising ways, and have been able to preserve their customary festivals, rituals and other comforts in spite of all hardships. All activities take place either on top or underneath the snow, and even a Kabuki theater with a flower walkway for the entrance of the stars will be constructed of snow. Virtually all of my interests come together in Under Snow: Asian forms of the theater such as Kabuki, No or Bunraku, music, breathtaking landscapes, creative people who master their everyday lives under difficult conditions and gather for social and artistic activities.

In the prefecture of Echigo, a kind of badminton is of important ritual significance. It is played with large snow shovels and is called «returning the ball». The aim is to catch the ball which has been thrown at lightning speed and then to throw it back--a game between cultures, as it were, performed as it should ideally be.


Ulrike Ottinger