Hello Henry, firstly, I’d like to thank you for agreeing to this interview. How did this film come about?
Thank you for having me.
In 2015, I went back to Beijing, I haven’t been back for about 6 years, and I was overwhelmed and shocked by the changes of contemporary Chinese society. The huge gap between the rich and the poor, the growing anxiety of the middle class, the government officials’ pressure due to the anti-corruption movement, the difficulty of getting hospitalized when people are sick…all of those things mixed together become the inspiration of this short film. Qing Ping is like a mirror, I’m trying to reflect the current situation of the society through her by using simple characters and images.
What has the reception from audiences been like?
I always ask myself a dumb question: what’s film? In my opinion, film is the chemistry/vibe happens when the audience watch it on the big screen.
To be honest, this film is very personal, the rhythm is very slow, a lot of long takes, not audience friendly. It’s amazing that during some Q&A sessions, there were a lot of great questions, like the discussion of the meaning of releasing fish in Buddhism, how to direct a young kid like Marvin, etc. It made me think deeper, during this process, I know better who I am and what kind of filmmaker I want to be.
Would you say that Western audiences are more receptive to filmmakers from other countries, that draw on the rich heritage of those countries, now than ever before?
Yes, I totally agree.
What was the casting process for the film like?
It’s a story happened in China, but the budget wouldn’t allow me to bring the crew and cast from LA to China. So, I talked with my producer Rachel, maybe we can fly an actress from China to LA. A Beijing-based casting director recommended a lot of actresses to me, finally I chose one who graduated from Beijing Film Academy, in the pictures and acting reel, the lady has long hair, but when I contacted her, she said she just had a haircut, I said oh, that’s fine, she said, very short, then she sent me a picture. It’s buzz cut……I can’t imagine a karaoke bar entertainer has buzz cut.
Fortunately, Rachel recommended a LA-based actress Josephine A. Blankstein, who is a Taiwanese celebrity and worked for Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang at very young age. I checked her IMDB, I was surprised that she worked on Yi Yi (nominated for Palme d’Or and won best director at Cannes in 2000). I asked her, I watched Yi Yi more than 20 times, but never saw her in the movie. Then she told me the story. Edward Yang cast her and another actress for the same role (Ting-Ting), because at that time, he couldn’t decide who was better, so in the production, for every scene, Edward shot twice, one with Josephine and the other one with another actress. Finally, they sent the cut with another actress to Cannes.
After the first meeting with Josephine, I didn’t think I would cast her, her performance was really solid in the audition, the only thing kept bothering me is that she’s too pretty. During that week, I was still rewriting, I didn’t know why at the end of the week, when I read it, I suddenly found, it’s like written for her. I sent her the new script, she liked it, and luckily, we nailed her down.
The kid is played by newcomer Marvin Wang. This is his first short film. When I cast this role, I found it’s very difficult to find a kid who can focus and listen to my directing. Rachel recommended Marvin Wang who actually is my friend’s kid, I went to his home and ask him to focus on something for over one minute, and he did it, at that point I know he’s the one.
How does this film compare to other films you’ve worked on?
Release is very special to me, I went to the film school at University of Southern California, which emphasizes on commercial films, you know, Hollywood blockbusters. One day the Taiwan film master Hou Hsiao-Hsien came to our school, and gave us a short speech, he said that what you see on the big screen is very straightforward, simple and basic, what he tried to do during his career is adding extra layer of story, emotion, subtext, and rhythm off the screen, which is very inspiring to me. How to make a film with the mysterious extra layer, even you don’t see it, but still can feel it, that’s the challenge to me when I make Release.
Through the lens, we saw Qing Ping’s silence and other people’s endless talk, we saw her lonely back bathing in the warm afternoon sunshine in a peaceful garden. What the lens can’t see, is the bustling crowd and the increasing insecurity and distrust.
What do you think the film says about the current state of China?
China is changing significantly every year, in 2015, you still need to use cash or credit card in the daily life. I just came back from Beijing two months ago, now, you only need to bring a smart phone, that’s it, everyone uses WeChat or Alipay.
Some social issues may take a bit longer to get solved, some may not.
How do you feel about the critical praise the film has received – is it more or less important than audience appreciation?
You know what, before I became an independent filmmaker, I was a writer for a long time, at that time, when writers met with each other, we would talk about other people’s works, one day when sitting at the corner of the cafeteria, I suddenly felt that, when you finished writing something and got published, no matter whether it’s a poem, a short story or a novel, the work itself has its own life and fate, has nothing to do with the writer any more…I would say making film is pretty much like that.
What other projects are you planning on working on in the future?
My next project probably would be a web series, based on a novel named Six Thousand Nights.
With thanks to Henry.