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Bev Cohn: Wayne Wang

Director Wayne Wang Interview...
Reflections on Filmmaking and the New China

By Beverly Cohn

Director Wayne Wang discussing his latest film with a group of select journalists
Wayne Wang at a recent Q & A discusses his latest film, "Snow Flower and the Hidden Fan." Photo Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures (Photo by: Eric Charbonneau/WireImage)

ayne Wang arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area from Hong Kong, where he was born and raised, in the late 60s when the racial description of “Oriental” was replaced with a new term – “Asian American.” Finding lodgings on a Quaker ranch, where in did chores in exchange for rent, he enrolled in the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland where he studied filmmaking through the eyes of directors from the French New Wave, German New Cinema, as well as Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasuijiro Ozu, and Satyajit Ray.

Wang’s first film, financed by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Institute, was “Chan is Missing,” and was followed by “Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart,” both of which established his reputation as a sensitive filmmaker.

At a recent press conference, Wang sat down with a group of select journalists to talk about his latest film, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.” The following interview has been edited for print purposes.

Li Bing Bing and Gianna Jun in a scene from the movie Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Mandarin speaking Li Bing Bing as Lily/Nina andKorean actress Gianna Jun as Snow Flower/Sophia. Photo: Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

Was it a challenge to make the film in Chinese and English and how did you bridge the language barrier between the two actresses?

Wang: Everyone said that they wanted the film to be partly in English. I said that was a tough because the characters are Chinese. I got the idea of how to accomplish that when I was doing research. By way of background, a lot of Koreans actually live in Shanghai now and people don’t know that when the Japanese occupied Korea, Shanghai was the only city that had a Korean Consul General. Anyway, I liked the idea of casting Korean actress Gianna Jun as Snow Flower/Sophia and Mandarin speaking Li Bing Bing as Lily/Nina in the two key roles and because they spoke different languages, English became their common language.

In the scene with Nina and the CEO, everyone spoke English. Is that an accurate portrayal of a typical business meeting?

Wang: The CEO was from America and didn’t speak good enough Mandarin, so he spoke English. For social status reasons, a lot of the middle class or upper middle class businessmen in Shanghai all speak English and pride themselves on that. People from all parts of the world - like Australia and America – are doing business there and there are certain communities that only speak English. Let’s not forget that during recent history different countries occupied Shanghai. There’s a German territory, a French territory, and an English territory.

Li Bing Bing and Gianna Jun as friends in the movie Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Lily and Snow Flower as little girls who are committed to a deep friendship for life.
Photo: Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

What hooked you in to want to make this film?

Wang: When I read the book, what drew me in was this contractual life-long, non-sexual friendship between these two women called Laotong. It also talked about practices in our history like foot binding, and the secret language women developed called Nüshu. Also, it’s a very strong emotional story about close friends who, through a misunderstanding, didn’t see each other for years. All these issues were very fascinating to me.

Why did you cast Hugh Jackman in the role of Sophia’s (Gianna Jun) lover?

Wang: Because he’s a big star. (laughter) Actually, when I was doing preparation in Shanghai, I went to one area where there are a lot of very nice bars and the owners are all Australian. That’s what gave me the idea that it might be interesting to have an Australian character. I also like the idea that China is doing business with people from outside and that women are falling in love with foreigners. There are many Chinese women who are more interested in Western men than Chinese men because the Chinese men are kind of awful sometimes. (Laughter) I’m just kidding.

Do you think people will be surprised at how cosmopolitan Shanghai is?

Wang: The first time I went to Shanghai, which was a couple of years before I made the film, I felt that it was more developed than New York. It’s like New York mixed with Las Vegas. It’s more modern than New York, on the surface at least, but deep down inside it’s still kind of old Chinese in many ways. When we were filming there, they just started to build the fast rail that goes from somewhere in Mongolia to Hong Kong. They just completed construction and it only took 18 months. Their infrastructure, and the changes they are going through, is simply amazing.

Between directing “The Joy Luck Club” and this film, do you think you really understand women?

Wang: (Laughs) My wife jokingly says that I was a woman in my last lifetime. I’ve answered this question so many times so I think I’ll answer in a different way. When my dad was born, he was taken to a fortuneteller who said that he would not have enough wood in his life. Wood is one of the very key elements in Chinese philosophy. So she named him King of the Forest and the characters from the forest are all made of wood. When my older brother was born, he was named Prince of the Forest. When I came along, my dad really loved John Wayne so he wanted my first name to be Wayne, but had to find a Chinese word within the family of wood that sounded like Wayne. He ended up with a word that means a small bud of a tree that in Chinese readings is a feminine name. So when I went to China to do publicity, everyone’s first reaction was that they thought I was a woman director. I had to explain that it’s just my name that is feminine and that I got my name from a macho actor called John Wayne. In the Chinese culture you have both the male and female sides within you (Yin and Yang) and you’re supposed to balance the two. I think maybe very early on, because of being so close to my grandmother and my mother, I was able to tap into the feminine side very easily.

Were there any challenges in working with a Chinese crew in China?

Wang: Yes. (laughs) Let me say that China has progressed a lot and is much more sophisticated than when we shot “The Joy Luck Club.” Amy Tan, at recent Q&A, reminded me that when we shot that film, angry villagers surrounded us because the person that we paid off ran away and didn’t pay the villagers their share of the payment. That’s how it was in those days. Now it’s more an issue of a lot of manpower on the set that makes it very chaotic. There are a lot of people doing the same job so they’re stepping over each other. For example, if it rained and I would have to walk from the video village to the set to talk to the actors, all of a sudden there would be six umbrellas trying to block me from the rain and I would get completely drenched because the umbrellas would be fighting each other. So what you have to deal with is an over-abundance of labor and lack of organizational skills. At the wrap party I found out that at one point we had 250 drivers. (laughs)

Did you want to make a specific point in having the story take place in both the 19th and 21st Centuries?

Wang: I felt that it would be interesting to bounce off of each other. Although women are freer, stronger, and more independent today, the issue of a close emotional relationship with another women, without sex, is equally, if not more important.

In shooting in China, do you have to censor yourself in any way because of politics?

Wang: Yes and no. I think they are much more open, but there are still a lot of sensitivities, especially in dealing with how much to open their markets. For example, the other day on CNN it was announced that China has banned “The Transformers: The Movie.” They did they same thing with “Avatar” and took it out of the theatres. The reason for it is unclear on the surface but you have to read between the lines with the Chinese government. They don’t want a Hollywood film to take over their audiences and they try to control that. For example, they removed “Avatar” because it was doing so well.

How are you viewed in China?

Wang: They view me as a bastard because I’m neither Chinese nor American. (laughs) I’m proud to have been born in Hong Kong, when it was a British colony, to very traditional Chinese parents. I was educated by Irish Jesuits then came to America and was influenced by Bob Dylan. So that’s how messed up I am. (laughs)

director Wayne Wang with Chinese actress Li Bing Bing
Li Bing Bing and Director Wayne Wang at Fox Searchlight Special Screening of 'Snow Flower and the Secret Fan' on July 11, 2011 at the Little Theatre on the Fox Lot in Los Angeles, California. Photo Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures (Photo by: Eric Charbonneau/WireImage)

How much direction do you give to your actors?

Wang: I don’t give a lot of instructions, but give very specific direction to help them or to get something that I really want. I learned very early on from William Hurt, and some very good actors, that my job is to provide a space where they can be free to work. William Hurt came on the set of “Smoke” and said, “Everybody in my eye line walk away. No pictures can be taken while I’m acting and if you want me to do something, use the other actor to get me to do it. Don’t tell me anything.” If I wanted Bill to get angry, I had to get Harvey Keitel to do something to provoke that emotion. I also try to free up the actors so that they’re not worried about having to hit a particular word. I give them the freedom to be the character and generally provide a place to get authentic work done.

How did you avoid getting labeled as just making films for and about women?

Wang: I do a lot of different things because I’m a lot of different things and because of that, I have always tried to run away from labels. After “The Joy Luck Club,” I was labeled a Chinese women filmmaker or an Asian filmmaker. That’s why I made “Smoke” which is all guys and set in Brooklyn. Then I sort of became the ethnic diva director with “Maid in Manhattan” with Jennifer Lopez. After that, I did “Because of Winn Dixie” - a movie with a dog, so it became hard to label me.

director Wayne Wang with producers Wendi Murdoch and Florence Sloan, actress Li Bing Bing and author Lisa See
(L-R) Producer Wendi Murdoch, Li Bing Bing, Director Wayne Wang, Producer Florence Sloan, and Author Lisa See at Fox Searchlight Special Screening of 'Snow Flower and the Secret Fan' on July 11, 2011 at the Little Theatre on the Fox Lot in Los Angeles, California. Photo Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures (Photo by: Eric Charbonneau/WireImage)

When you adapt a book to a screenplay, are you nervous when the author sees the finished product?

Wang: I’m glad I’m not around when they see it as that would be very stressful. (laughs) But I try to be as authentic in adapting and capturing the essence of the book. I’m always super faithful to that, even though I know I can’t use everything in the book. One of the things that Frances Ford Coppola said to me is, “Never adapt a book it’s too complicated; adapt a short story. It’s perfect for the film form. Especially with this movie, I understand his sentiments, because I added a contemporary story and it became very complicated. The editing process was difficult, as we had to take it down to a place where an audience could accept it.

Do you have a future project in mind?

Wang: My first film was called “Chan is Missing” which was an in-joke on Charlie Chan. A new book has come out recently and it’s about the real Charlie Chan named Chang Apana who was a Honolulu detective in the 30’s and I’m interested in adapting that book into a movie.

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Let Bev know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Thanks so much for those lovely tourism photos, especially of Ireland. I certainly enjoyed all the places you suggested, and am working towards my next vacation. Don’t forget Cuba. That’s an exciting place.

Rosalie, Los Angeles

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Enjoyed your article on Mira Sorvino. Such an interesting background – family, education, career and now human rights activist. I'm not a gossip mag fan so getting more meaty news about movie celebrities from you gives me hope that there are some inteligent life forms in Hollywood.

Peter Paul, Pasadena, CA

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Thank you, Bev. This reminded me to go see the movie, "An Education," which I had already almost forgotten about, having seen the preview a few weeks ago. I enjoy this actress quite a bit--she has a uniqueness about her and she pulls me in. I enjoyed this.

Sandeee, Seattle, WA

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Thank you Beverly,I really enjoyed reading about your intimate conversation with Forest, of whom I am a great admirer. I look forward to seeing the film "Our Family Wedding."

Yoka, Westlake Village, CA

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Thank you for the sending me the beautiful article you wrote about Ireland. We will use your recomendations for hotels in the Southern part. We plan to also go to Dublin and some other Northern cities so I will get some recommendations for these from others. After reading your article, I am getting more excited about going. I think we will be in Ireland for 8 days altogether.

Leah Mendelsohn, Santa Monica, CA

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Very much enjoyed Ms. Cohn's article about Munich, especially the visuals. Though it has been 25 years since my last visit, the piece brought back countless pleasant memories of the city and the people!! Many thanks.

Lawrence, Los Angeles

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Marianplatz and that general area is truly one of the best Christmas celebrations in the world. Between that and Oktoberfest (which I can only imagine) Munich is one of the greatest cities in the world for major annual events.

Christopher Dale, New York, NY

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Hi Bev, you have done some wonderful pieces on some great celebs...Great work. The travel articles are just wonderful too.

Scott Mueller, Huntington Beach, CA

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Your great Zurich article makes me want to go there for the holidays! I love the photos, too, especially the ones of you in the sleigh, the view over the houses and the zoo!

Anna Marie, Santa Monica, CA

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Lovely article! As a European, and having been to Zurich (albeit in summer) I can vouch for this lovely city. Great pictures, too!

Helene Robins, Santa Monica, CA

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Hi Bev,

Nice review, nice seeing you, nice website interface "...Talk to Bev" - Enjoy your Thanksgiving!

Richard D. Kaye, Marina del Rey, CA

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Hi Bev,

Your interview with John Cusack is very interesting. I always wondered why these actors/actresses always get top billing when really, if you think about it, the real work come from the animators, writers and tech whizzes who spend far more hours on the movie than those actors. I know, I know, it's the all about marketing. The names of these actors are what bring in the big bucks. Still, I think these actors are way overpaid for the "little" that they do.

I remember that once upon a time, the early animation classics never mentioned the voices behind the characters. I think it was only later when Walt Disney tapped into the voices of known celebrities like Walter Matthau in the Jungle Book or Zsa Zsa Gabor in The Rescuers that the voices became a marketing magnet.

Keep up the good work. I enjoy your interviews as you peer into the lives of the Hollywood celebrities.

Peter Paul of South Pasadena, CA

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