Wayne Wang and filming Chinese Culture in the Diaspora
The international director, famous for The Joy Luck Club and others, tells us about his latest film.
In the 90s, with films like Smoke (1995), Brooklyn Boogie (1995), and Chinese Box (1997) Wayne Wang made movies that gave insight into Chinese culture in the diaspora. With these classics, Wang came to be considered an arthouse director. Wang hates labels, however, and in response he helmed the movie Maid in Manhattan (2002), a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez. Critics and fans were shocked, but Wang proved that there is no genre or subject he wouldn’t like to try. He has directed films in China, the United States, and Japan. He reads Spanish, English, and Russian literature. And, he watches films from all over the world. There are no boundaries for him. He is a true citizen of the world.
When we met at the Berlinale, where he was promoting his latest film, While the Women Are Sleeping, he told me from where his instincts come from. Throughout the interview, he wore a large, genuine smile, and I can say that he was one of the kindest interviewees I have ever met.
Artur Zaborski: I think you are a great example of an “international director.” You were born into a Chinese family in Hong Kong, which at the time was a British Colony, and you studied in the United States. And as a director, your films span many genres. Do you consider yourself a world citizen, and do you get inspiration from all over the world?
Wayne Wang: Well, I’m trying. I don’t think bounderies are good. It’s important to know who you are, but being who you are cannot close you off to others. I always try to get something for myself from any book, any film, any place, and any person I get the chance to know. In regards to my last film, While the Women Are Sleeping, I've always been interested in the painter Balthus. He painted young women in a very interesting, sexy, but at the same time, innocent way. There's always a young girl and a cat in his paintings. I was fascinated by it. I've always been fascinated with [photographer] Sophie Calle, too, who actually had a project early on in her career called “Sleepers,” where she had a guest room, and her friends came to stay, and she took pictures of them sleeping. And they are all very similar in framing. It's more of a documentation. My other fascination is with Alfred Hitchcock and the idea of voyeurism. So, when this story came up all these ideas kind of started mixing nicely in my mind and I started writing an English script, but then I found out that Takeshi Kitano read a synopsis and was interested in playing the old man. So I said I would be happy to change this to a Japanese movie, because the sensibility is also quite Japanese, and that's how everything started. The script was inspired by a Spanish short story (by Javier Marias)—and then it became a Japanese film because of Takeshi Kitano.
Zaborski: Could you elaborate on the meaning of “the Japanese style”?
Wang: Well, there is an unusual sexuality that is quite Japanese. If you look at Japanese woodblock prints, there is no full nudity. Often figures are clothed, but the sexual organs are exposed in a very discrete way. There is also what I saw quite a bit of in "Roman Porn Films"— that’s what they were called in the 70s and 80s in Japan. They were often done by young, aspiring artists like Nagisa Ōshima. There are some very interesting films, like one where a chairmaker designs special chairs to lie inside of for when a woman would sit on them. Or something more related to our film directly: Geisha, because they wear kimonos the back of their neck is exposed and it’s often seen as a very sensual spot. And in the film, Tekeshi Kitano actually shaves the back of a young girls neck. So, things like that.
Zaborski: It’s interesting, because I found your film to be rather European. I thought about Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita and Roman Polanski and his films during the screening. Did they inspire you as well?
Wang: Well, obviously I’m close to them, as Roman Polanski is quite a voyeur in many of his films also—Nabokov clearly even more. And there is another way, because Nabokov was a butterfly collector, and towards the end of his life he didn't write very much, he collected butterflies. My character, played by Takeshi Kitano, does that, too. When I talked to Kitano, he always said he considers his character to be a biologist and a scientist. These functions are priorities. He's not having sex with the girl he lives with. He's watching this young girl sleeping, and how she changes and how her innocence goes away. In that sense I found it very interesting and I followed Takeshi’s words. I was afraid I would go to jail for a character that was eight or nine years old, so I decided to make her older. She’a a teenager in a movie (Laughs). So, to answer your question, I was inspired by both Nabokov and Polanski, and obviously Hitchcock. Hitchcock is always about voyeurism. All of his films are actually very popular in Japan. They are also citizens of the world.
Zaborski: So, you consider yourself this way: That you don’t belong to one place, but to the whole world?
Wang: I'm really more a citizen of the world. I talk to a lot of the younger people who work in the tech world. It's interesting, because a lot of them come from different, mixed backgrounds. Some of them are adopted, like, you know, I was a Chinese baby adopted by a Jesuit couple, and raised by them. They think of themselves as very global. They don't think of themselves as “I'm Chinese, I'm Japanese, I'm Polish,” or whatever. I think the world, especially with your generation, it's really mixed and really screwed up in some ways, but still very interesting. Me, myself, I’m kind of a weird collision between cultures. And I wanted my films to be this way, too. I wanted to touch a lot of different things. Not only Chinese things, which, obviously, I know well. But I know a lot of things, and a lot of states of mind, as I am experienced in many ways. For example, I have a very different relationship with my father. I went to America. And I became a different person. English became my predominant language. All of those things made me see myself as a citizen of the world. My identity is complicated, and global. Both of my birth parents were very conservative Chinese people. I was educated by Irish Catholics. I was very influenced by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and all these things make me who I am. I'm not one kind of culture. I'm not one kind of person. I'm really kind of a mix. And I’m proud of it.
Zaborski: But let’s say it straight: it’s not a good time for people like you, who consider themselves this way. Right now politics build their capital on the fear of foreigners. They repeat that we are divided by cultures and nations. How do you feel in this world? And how do you see the future?
Wang: Well, I basically see myself as quite romantic and quite positive on the surface, but deep inside I'm quite cynical and perhaps quite dark about people in the world. I think the world is truly falling apart in so many ways. First of all, this morning, I'm listening to the economy and the EU news and it's hell right now. And you know, this refugee situation is really bad, climate warming is really bad, and if I had children I would be really scared and I would think that there was going to be disaster, but on the surface I'm a happy-go-lucky, positive person, who often gets stressed out.
Zaborski: Like your character, who is a writer, and who goes through the crisis of creativity. Have you ever had that kind of crisis?
Wang: Of course! To be honest, I must admit that I always have that, every day I think.
Zaborski: How do you deal with it?
Wang: I get stressed out, pretty badly, and I have to kind of get through it all the time. I always think, "Oh, this is a bad idea. I've made a terrible film. This is a stupid film." But I really like While the Women Are Sleeping because it has so many layers. And it does a lot of things that remind me of what a teacher of mine would say: "You cannot make very simple films with very simple answers." The world is becoming too simple. You have to deal with the issue of what is real and what is fiction. And I think I have succeeded in doing that. In the end it’s all fiction.
Zaborski: And what do you think about contemporary cinema? Do you still watch a lot of films?
Wang: I do; I’m so enamored by watching movies and making movies. I just love when the lights go out and the projector starts rolling. I’m taken to another world, created by somebody else. I love that journey even though I have been on it so many times. It is an incomparable experience.
Zaborski: As you have directed films that range over so many genres and subjects, is there something you would still like to try?
Wang: I don’t have big ambitions. I want, and always have wanted, to make films about people. It has been my aim since I started, and I want to continue it.
Zaborski: So, it doesn’t matter if you make indies or big-budget films—it’s always about people?
Wang: I think the underlying tone of the film is always the same: I always tell human stories. But the differences from there are huge. They’re very different. In the big-budget films it’s forbidden, or I would even say, “illegal” (laughs), to have “nothing” happen in a scene. There is no way to convince producers to keep [those scenes]. They always want to cut them. And for me, as a big Yasujirō Ozu admirer, it’s hard to let them go away. I definitely prefer indies, as I can do whatever I want. There are no people who say, “Cut these scenes,” or, “It’s lunch time, we’re taking a break.” They’ll say that even in the middle of a shot, when you have a specific energy, a specific understanding between you and the crew. I hate it, I really do. But that’s the law, and you can’t do anything about it. You accept it or you don’t. It’s your choice. I chose to do films that stay close to me. And that was a good choice. I wouldn’t change it today.