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Now screening on the 110m-wide façade of the M+ museum every evening until June, Yang Fudong’s new film Sparrow on the Sea imagines Hongkongers as “brave little birds” amid the city’s urban beauty and unexpected pockets of tranquillity. Starting last September, Yang and his team spent nine days filming in parts of Hong Kong that were new to the Shanghai-based artist, such as its beaches and old villages. The artist’s first site-specific project in the city was co-commissioned by M+ and Art Basel with support from UBS.

Shanghai-based artist Yang Fudong

Yang’s films and photographs capture China’s fast-changing society through a lens of empathetic alienation, with a distinctive, ethereal style that gives a sense of time suspended. Born in Beijing in 1971, he studied painting at Hangzhou’s China Academy of Art but soon began experimenting with film, a medium he has described as “painting with a camera”. At the forefront of a generation of Chinese artists embracing video and installation art from the 1990s, Yang has exhibited nationally and internationally, including at the Venice Biennale in 2003 and 2007, and the Sharjah Biennial in 2013.

The Art Newspaper: What is Sparrow on the Sea about?

Yang Fudong: I visited Hong Kong to film this 60-minute, black-and-white film, titled Yongqiu in Chinese, in English Sparrow on the Sea. The sparrow references an ancient text about a little bird by a river. People living in their own cities, by the sea, are like this bird. Sparrows are very small and it is dangerous to fly over the sea—they may tire out. So they have to have courage to fly out.

Another concept has to do with my age. As a person and as an artist, one slowly becomes mature and grows old. So the concept is a little bit about passing the age of 50. China has a saying that 50 is the middle point of life: as you grow old, your understanding of life, of art, of time, all change. You have to seriously contemplate anew how to create art and how to live.

How do you hope viewers will experience the film?

This film is a silent movie, with Hong Kong itself as the soundtrack. While watching it, maybe you will hear ships or the sound of the sea, or storms, or people talking around you. A silent film allows a meaningful shared creation and it will run for three months, so what audiences hear and experience will be different. Maybe one day you’ll see part of it on the Star Ferry to Kowloon, then a week later another part from elsewhere in the city. It is also different when viewed at night versus day. Most viewers will see it in snippets, outdoors, and I have said that the audience is the second director, in how they choose or happen to view the film. People will watch it for minutes or the full hour—it is up to them.

A still from Yang Fudong’s new film Sparrow on the Sea (2024)

It has been described as an “architectural” film. What does that mean?

The architectural element starts from screening it on the M+ Facade and then having the urban soundscape as its soundtrack, so the film becomes part of the skyline. I want the people watching it, be they residents or tourists, to take away a sort of internal architecture—to have a different feeling, an internal consideration. The screen size was less of an issue than the fact that it’s a building, which had me thinking about the psychological architecture. At night, across the water, it is like a lighthouse.

What is the story?

There are three actors [Yang Hao, Ma Choi Wo and Terry Tsang], all of them outstanding Hong Kong independent dancers. They perform one character, the protagonist Mr Wu, now in his 50s. He has a suitcase, which suggests that he wants to go overseas like that little bird, somewhere far away, but it’s unclear whether he will or won’t. The film depicts decades of his life, from young to old, as well as his abstract internal processes.

Most viewers will see it in snippets, outdoors, and I have said that the audience is the second director

What was the process of making the film like?

After going to Hong Kong a few times to film, I started to understand the place better. I had not been much before, only a few days for openings. Starting to live alongside the city, I realised how truly beautiful this place is. It has very new architecture and very old. There are villages, mountains, the sea, and yet it is very international. I wanted to film its slow life. Hong Kong can be very tranquil, like at night when it is a different city. You have to really enter the place—every street and neighbourhood has something new.

During my time at university, Hong Kong film and music were very influential. Wong Kar-wai and even [Jeffrey Lau’s fantasy] Dahua Xiyou and [action thriller] Infernal Affairs. Hong Kong film is unique, with its own style that made an impression on young people then. Though commercial, artists learned from [these films] and liked them. I hope Hong Kong can be like it was before—it is such a crucial place for international conversation.

• Yang Fudong: Sparrow on the Sea, M+ Facade, M+, West Kowloon Cultural District, 38 Museum Drive, Kowloon, Hong Kong, until 9 June

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