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Name As A Form Of Home: Writing on Qinyuan Lei’s “The One Who Runs Away Is the Ghost”

Şubat 15, 2024
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International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) is known as a safe bet for works involving highly personal stories. There are always many documentaries where the filmmaker is the protagonist, looking for more details or maybe a closure in their family history. The camera follows them traveling around from town to town, maybe even from continent to continent, as they try to uncover some secret. While great, this is quite a common format – too common maybe. However, how many of them do this by placing completely unrelated people in front of the camera?

Chinese director Qinyuan Lei’s debut feature documentary, “The One Who Runs Away Is the Ghost”, which premiered at IDFA in 2021, centers itself around two little sisters, Haohao and Zhouzhou (5 and 8 years old), in the electronics market of Huaqiangbei, a market in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. Their parents work there while the girls spend their free time playing games with other kids on the many floors of the gigantic market. The camera is at their height, and we see the kids from their level as if we are a kid playing hide-and-seek with them. The shots do not rush. At times, the kids watch a cartoon on a TV next to a shop window for minutes. Sometimes, they run and play around the empty floors of the building for several minutes. These tranquil moments are every so often accompanied by Lei’s narration where she talks about her childhood in Shenzhen, how she always wanted to leave the city, and her search for a home she can fit into.

The themes of childhood and homesickness were extremely prominent during the majority of the film. Lei reminisces about her feelings of homesickness, and how she always wanted a foreign place she could call home one day. Then, she changes her topic slightly. She talks about names. “A name that is foreign, and so, it’s mine,” she says. “Using a name that belongs to no other, to tell my own story.” That quote immediately grabbed me and made me change my initial idea of this article entirely.

I have never liked my name, especially my first name never felt at home with myself, so when I went to China for my undergraduate studies, I had an incredible opportunity to be born anew by being able to choose my Chinese name. Almost every other foreigner I knew in China went for a phonetic transliteration of their name when adopting a Chinese one. Jessy would be Jiexi, Charlie would be Chali. Instead, I tried to create my name. For my surname, I chose Xia (, summer), as a summer-loving person born in June. For my first name, I went with Haotian (豪恬). I was inspired by the word wenhao (文豪, eminent writer) for the first character hao (). I always loved writing and, now that I could finally name myself, what better than endowing some good wishes and future goals into my new name? I always loved writing that character by hand too. Tian (, calm and tranquil) was there for some modest endings after the grandness of hao to balance it out. I always considered my personality to be quite calm anyway. Or maybe, was it because I always wanted to find a peaceful place I could belong to and have some head space?

I look at my proudly created Chinese name again. It includes my past, present, and future in just three characters. It includes my story the way I wanted it to be told to others who have not met me yet. “Can you be homesick for a place you’ve never been?” says Lei at the beginning of the documentary. I think of my joyous life in China as Xia Haotian. I see it on the contact information for my years-old orders on Taobao. I miss its rather gender-neutral or even masculine tone. I miss being under the wings of my new name, serving as my sweet home until I had to return from China. Yes, I guess this indeed is the type of homesickness Lei was reminiscing about the entire film. The homesickness of being yourself in what others call you. Lei says she wanted a foreign name to leave everything behind and be free for once. “Where is home?” she asks also. Perhaps, it is not something always abstract like childhood – two little words on your ID can also be one and it might even be harder to reconcile with as it never disappears, unlike fading memories. It is a wonderfully complex privilege to have the chance to be born anew, or “to step fully into a name that’s mine” as Lei puts it, as the cityscape and wind’s noise dims everything out.


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