Freelance writer - translator - Editor

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Friday 5 June 2009

John Woo’s Chinese epic, Red Cliff

Woo’s Red Cliff opens in the UK this June.

I’ve written a 5-page feature for Impact Movie Magazine and included quotes from Woo and his producer Terence Chang.

I also wrote a sidebar detailing the best scenes in Woo’s films and a selected filmography.

Here is the piece:

The article is also available online.

To read the full feature, please buy the magazine or check out the Impact website.

Impact Movie Magazine
June 2009 issue
Editor: Mike Leeder

Tuesday 24 March 2009

This is a selection of my best clips


Analysis and investigation

Tale of the dark side, exploring Shanghai's seamy sides with director Ann Hui – that’s Shanghai, Dec 2006 (COVER STORY).
Clips Cover 1 2 3 4 Text Version

The contenders, the Chinese race for the Oscars - that’s Shanghai, Jan 2007.
Clips 1 2 3 Text Version

Monkey business, on Jeff lau, Wong Kar Wai's comic alter ego – that’s Shanghai, Jan 2006.
Clips 1 2 3 Text Version

Weapons of choice, Tsui Hark's and his swordsplay drama Seven Swords - that’s Shanghai, Oct 2005.
Clips 1 2 3 Text Version

Interviews, Q&As

Peter Chan, The Art of War, HK filmmaker Chan on his latest blockbuster featuring Jet Li -- Impact movie magazine, UK, Feb 2008 (COVER STORY).
Clips Cover 1-2 3-4 Text Version (last link)

Roger Spottiswoode, Point of Honor, the 007 director goes East -- that’s Shanghai, Apr 2008.
Clips 1 2 3 Text Version

Westlife, Anatomy of a Boy Band, the Irish lads want to eat Chinese and visit the Shaolin monks – that’s Shanghai, May 2006.
Clips 1 2 3 Text Version

Chris Lee, Man of Steel, Superman Returns’ and Godzilla’s producer – that’s Shanghai, Oct 2006 (COVER STORY).
Clips Cover 1 2 3 4 Text Version

Arthur Dong, Moving Pictures, docu maker explores the Chinese contribution to Hollywood -- that’s Shanghai, Feb 2008.

Clips 1 2 3 Text Version

1- 1/2 page

All that glitters/ Zhang Yimou’s Curse of The Golden Flower, a cinematic rhinestone -- that’s Shanghai, Jan 2007.

Clips 1 Text Version

The dark side/Andrew Lau's and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs trilogy -- that's Shanghai, July 2007.

Clips 1 Text Version

Up and away/Hou Hsiao-hsien's Red Balloon offers a unique perspective on Paris -- that's Shanghai, July 2007.

Clips 1 Text Version

Perpetual Stereotypes/ Weak female leads in Chinese film -- that's Shanghai, May 2006.

Clips 1 Text Version

No Laughing Matter/Edmond Pang and Chapman To's unfunny Isabella -- that's Shanghai, May 2006.

Clips 1 Text Version

Last update: March 2009

More, coming soon...

Tuesday 27 January 2009

Book and film reviews

We are still editing the UK section of while writing book and film reviews.
Below are a few samples.

Book reviews
Film reviews

Thursday 27 November 2008

Mini feature with good search engine results - Coweb

I translated into English Arnaud Lanuque's interview with Coweb director Hung Yan Yan for HKCinemagic. That was on Nov 11, 2008. I also wrote a mini feature .

"In the small Hong Kong film industry local talents usually need to be flexible and multi-hyphenate artists. Take Hung Yang Yang for instance. Hung was actually a stuntman-turned-actor-turned-action choreographer. He used to be a stunt double for Jet Li, then became the baddy with a jaw-dropping swordplay technique in Tsui Hark’s The Blade and ended up choreographing action films in the West (Simon Sez). Now Hung has scrapped all his business cards for new ones that say film director."

A few days later, the page ranked number one page one in the and result pages after searching for 'coweb hung yan yan'.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

Show Reel -June 2008 (requires Flash player)

Tuesday 10 June 2008

The iron word - David Wu's ground-breaking historical epic, Iron Road

Hong Kong-born filmmaker David Wu Dawei (not the David Wu who talks da talk on TV) is one of the few film technicians who's celebrated internationally. Wu's signature slow-motion and fast-cut editing techniques in action movies directed by Tsui Hark (Swordsman, A Chinese Ghost Story), John Woo (The Killer, A Better Tomorrow) and Ronny Yu (The Bride with White Hair) set the standard for Hong Kong films in the 1980s and 90s and soon spread worldwide.

Following the decline of the HK film industry (where Wu also worked as an actor, music composer and scriptwriter), Wu relocated in 1995 to North America, where he directed and edited a string of feature films and TV mini-series (Merlin's Apprentice, The Snow Queen, Son of a Dragon, G Spot). But his enthusiasm for edgy action and flamboyant editing was clearly a thing of the past.

Most recently, Wu directed and edited Iron Road, a USD 13 million epic set in the 1880s. This film doesn't feature any hyper-kinetic action either. Inspired by an opera written by Chan Ka Nin and Mark Brownell, it's a love story set against the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Featuring an international cast (Peter O'Toole, Sam Neil, Betty Sun Li, Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Luke MacFarlane), the story hinges on Little Tiger (Betty Sun Li), a poor Chinese girl disguised as a boy, in search of her father, who is working on a railroad in North America. Along the way she falls in love with the son of a Canadian railroad tycoon, James Nichol, whom she meets in China where he's recruiting cheap labor. She follows Nichol to find the truth about her father's disappearance and to fulfill her dreams of a better life in 'Gold Mountain'. In the end, she survives prejudice and treachery, and achieves a bittersweet fulfillment of her quest.

A true bridge between Canada and China, Iron Road has many Shanghai connections. For one, Shanghai-born and bred Sun Li (Fearless). Second, the film was shot in the Chinawood Hengdian film studio south of Shanghai. What's more, a group of Shanghai expats – mainly Canadians – won roles as the society friends of the railroad tycoon

Below, Wu discusses his new film, to be released in China this summer, and the reasons he's toned down his extravagant montage style.

that's: How did your work in the Hong Kong film industry prepare you for a career in the West?
David Wu (DW): The first time I set foot on a set in the US, 11 years ago, I felt spoiled. In HK, directors never have a trailer of their own; they are lucky enough if they get a chair. The way movies are made is very different. Hong Kong shoots guerilla-style, the quickest and most economical way possible. In the US, we spend a lot of time and effort on pre-production, with plenty of meetings and lots of paperwork. It's a good thing. By preparing well you avoid making mistakes. I especially appreciate the safety prep in the US, which is better than in HK.

that's: What drew you to the Iron Road project, as a filmmaker and as a Chinese?
DW: I'm one of a number of filmmakers interested in making a film about the Chinese workers who helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Back in 1998, John Woo had planned to produce one, which was supposed to be directed by the late King Hu [one of the best HK directors of the 1960s-70s]. In the same year, [Steven Spielberg's] DreamWorks was developing another one, but it was aborted. For what reason, I don't know. My guess is maybe the subject matter [the exploitation of Chinese labor] was an issue. In any case, quite a few other producers and directors had similar projects planned but none of them materialized. When first time producers Anne Tait and Barry Pearson approached me, I was instantly attracted to the script, which is a love story with a historical backdrop. A movie just about sweaty, barebacked Chinese workers with queues wouldn't sell; maybe that's the reason DreamWorks pulled the plug. But romance speaks an international language. As a Chinese director, I have to say it's my mission and passion to tell this story.

that's: Cross-dressing is a common theme in Chinese literature, opera and film. In Iron Road, the character of Little Tiger is a female playing a male. Is this a gimmick or integral to the plot?
DW: The main reason is for the dramatic effect on James' character. After all, there have been so many stories like this so it won't be a big surprise for the audience, especially for Chinese audiences, because Sun Li is a star.

that's: Typically, this story would be told from the point of view of James; yet the film's main character is Little Tiger (Sun Li).
DW: We chose to tell the story of a Chinese girl trying to survive in a world of alpha males. Films about survival have always been my favorite: The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Killing Fields, Papillon, The Defiant Ones, etc.

that's: Why did you cast Sun Li as the lead? She hasn't played much of this type of role in the past…
DW: When I cast for a film, I never want to typecast. I always invest a lot of time communicating with the actor before I decide he/she is the one. With Sun Li, simply by getting to know her persona and her attitude, how she sees the script and the world or what sort of movies and music she likes, I found out that for a petite young Chinese actor, she has a clear perspective of what roles and what films she will act in. She thinks big. She told me she doesn't want to be typecast as a sweet lover, a girlfriend or a student. At the time, she had actually turned down a big offer for the leading role in a sweet romantic Korean film for which she could have made big bucks. What's more, what I like about this young actress is she uses her eyes to express her emotion; it's the first thing I look for when choosing an actor.

that's: As an editor, did you pre-edit each scene in your head before shooting Iron Road?
DW: I think that's what every director should be doing. For me this is my way, my habit. I guess it has a lot to do with my editing background. I pre-edit the scenes so when I shoot I don't shoot what I don't need. By doing that it saves me lots of time. And time is money. Otherwise one will just keep shooting lots of materials hoping that they will capture what they need in the editing room. It means they shoot by chance, not by choice. That's not the way I make movies.

that's: How did you work the film visual with director of photography Attila Szalay?
DW: The word was 'real'. But I told my director of photography Attila that we were not making a documentary for a history channel. In terms of setting a style by lighting, camera movements and framings, I don't want the style to become an obstacle that keeps the audience from being drawn in. Because too much style kills a film.

that's: That's an interesting point for someone who edited stylish films in HK for two decades. These action and adventure movies have been internationally lauded. In retrospect, what do you think of the editing techniques you used in HK?
DW: I think those techniques I created have been very over-used. Once I was chatting with an American director about action sequences. Surprisingly, he admitted that he had a copy of The Bride with White Hair [a gem of the 1990s new wu xia pian genre, co-written and edited by Wu] for "reference", and that he literally ripped off all ideas from HK-style action to editing. To be honest, some of these techniques seem old, if not used by now. Film making is changing every day, every year. It is a craft in constant evolution. I choose to move on.

Special thanks to Anne Tait, Barry Pearson and Raymond Massey.

(c) that's Shanghai Magazine
Chief editor: Steven Crane
June 2008 issue

Wednesday 14 May 2008

Passion Play, Zhang Jingchu: China's answer to Meryl Streep?

The 2007 film Protégé, directed by veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Derek Yee, opens with what is arguably one of the bleakest and most intense openings ever seen in Chinese cinema: a young daughter removing a syringe from the arm of her mother who has just shot up with heroin. The mother is portrayed by 28-year-old Fujian native Zhang Jingchu, perhaps the only actress of her generation with the acting chops this role demands. Indeed, her commitment to the character was such that Yee commented, "[Zhang] was so engaged in her role during the shooting that I even started to worry that the movie might leave her with psychological problems."

Clearly, Zhang is devoted to her art. An art she discovered only recently with her debut in Gu Changwei's Peacock (2005). At the time, she had just graduated from Beijing's Central Drama Academy and had little commercial acting experience. Nevertheless, Gu was able to elicit a performance that won the Best Actress Award at the 2006 Chinese Film Media Awards. That performance also made a deep impression on international critics when the film was shown at the Berlin film festival.

Since then, Zhang has made 10 films, including Zhang Jiarui's The Road (2006), wherein she portrays a ticket seller at a bus station in rural China whose love affair with a local doctor spans more than three decades. Her convincing performance, through the various stages of ageing, won Zhang the Best Actress Award in the 2006 Cairo International Film Festival.

For her role in Protégé, she visited several drug clinics and studied the effects of withdrawal. That research paid off handsomely. To say that Zhang outshines her male costars Andy Lau and Louis Koo would be an understatement. In recognition of that fact, she was nominated for the Best Actress award at the 27th Hong Kong Film Awards, though she didn't win.

It's no surprise, then, that Zhang has attracted attention in Hollywood. She had a small supporting role in the Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker vehicle Rush Hour 3. This year holds more promise. Recently, she's been involved in two projects: Zhang Jiarui's low-budget Red River (currently in post-production and slated for a summer 2008 release) and Florian Gallenberger's USD 20 million Sino-German co-production, John Rabe (recently shot in Nanjing and Shanghai and set for release at the end of this year).

In the former, Zhang portrays a mentally-challenged Sino-Vietnamese girl who emigrates to China with her aunt, while in the latter she plays a schoolgirl who photographs and records Japanese war crimes in Nanjing. The film's title refers to the "Oskar Schindler of China", who helped protect thousands of Chinese people during the Nanjing Massacre. Zhang's co-stars include Ulrich Tukur, Steve Buscemi and Anne Consigny. Below, Zhang discusses, in near flawless English, her passion for acting.

that's: After studying to be a director, why did you switch to acting?
Zhang Jingchu (ZJ): Actually, I have never really done any directing work, so it's not a question of switching. Studying directing at the drama academy was a part of my personal education. It mainly helped me build up my own taste in drama and films. Before graduation, I was asked to audition for some commercials and TV series, so I started quite naturally with this kind of work. It just came up. There was always somebody pushing me, asking me to try something. I did start as an amateur, with no real career plan, with no planning whatsoever.

that's: You have said that in the beginning of your career it was difficult to unlock your passion and motivation for acting. Where did you find the key?
ZJ: I think Peacock is the most important film in my career so far, because it's the starting point. Director Gu Chanwei really made me feel relaxed, which helped me get into the character's heart. It was a magical feeling; you start thinking you aren't yourself anymore and you become someone else. Peacock was the key opening another door for me – and not only career-wise. It helped me get the sense of acting and unlocked my acting potential.

that's: What other roles have inspired you?
ZJ: For every movie I've made, actually, I've tried to use the inspiration I got from Peacock, that feeling of sincerity and freshness. I don't try to be better, just to be different and create something new. I don't rely on experience or acting skills, which don't work well [for me]. They get in the way of the surprising, interesting and special things that happen on a set.

that's: So you rely on spontaneity to create a character.
ZJ: Every time I accept a new role I feel a sense of panic. I worry that I won't be able to act the part or find the character. In The Road, for example, I played a character who aged from 17 to 60 years-old, but of course I had no actual experience of being older. It was the same situation in Protégé, where I portrayed a drug addict. Still, in both case the roles felt right and I was able to get the feeling of the characters.

that's: In The Road, how important was make-up in creating a character decades older than your actual age?
ZJ: Make-up and costume tests were very important processes for me in finding the character. I just finished a new film called Red River, where I play a mentally-handicapped Vietnamese girl. On location near the Vietnamese border I went running every morning and saw Vietnamese women wearing [traditional] dress crossing a bridge to come to China. That led me to buy a used dress, one that had been worn for some years, which helped me to bring authenticity to the character. It's this kind of process that I use to make the character in the script come alive.

that's: Authenticity takes precedence over your own experience…
ZJ: Yes, I think so. You know, my experience is so simple. It's really nothing; my experience is no different from other college graduates. It's not that dramatic or interesting.

that's: You've worked with Zhang Jiarui on Huayao Bride in Shangri-la, The Road and Red River. What attracts you to this director?
ZJ: The reason why I did three movies with him is because I think Zhang is very open. And because he's open-minded, I don't worry about my performance. What's more, I especially enjoy the work we do before the shoot. The actors, and sometimes the writer and the cinematographer, sit down and go through the script scene by scene, discussing and defining the characters.

that's: Protégé offered some shocking insights into the drug underworld; your performance as the young mother addicted to heroin was very impressive. How did you research the role?
ZJ: I went to a rehab clinic, more of an asylum for junkies actually, where they are forced to stay for several months to kick the habit. I did a lot of research because the experience was really hard to imagine. I had the same question about addicts as the audience will have: Why is it so hard to quit drugs? How does it feel to experience withdrawal? And so on.

that's: A number of Chinese actresses are trying to establish an international career, but like Zhang Ziyi in Rush Hour 2, Shu Qi in The Transporter, Gong Li in Miami Vice and your role in Rush Hour 3, the only roles available seem to be in action films.
ZJ: You're right, but I hope one day it will change and there will be more parts like the Japanese girl Chieko [played by Rinko Kikuchi] in Babel [Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006]. I hope one day I'll get a role like that. In any case, the parts I choose in China are similar to hers, powerful and full of passion.

(c) that's Shanghai Magazine
Chief editor: Steven Crane
May 2008 issue

Monday 7 April 2008

Point of honor/Roger Spottiswoode and The Children of Huang Shi

Roger Spottiswoode, director of Shake Hands with the Devil (2007), James bond 007 Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and Under Fire (1983), on The Children of Huang Shi.

It's no surprise that Hua Mulan, Liu Hulan, Huang Feihung and Huo Yuanjia are considered heroes in China. But few foreigners have ever received the honor. George Hogg is an exception. During the late 30s and early 40s, this young Englishman single-handedly helped 60 Chinese children to safety during the War of Resistance against Japanese Agression. In recognition of his heroic efforts, the city of Shandan, a remote town on the Mongolian border, erected a statue to remember his deeds.

More recently, the life of this unconventional hero forms the basis for a new feature film, The Children of Huang Shi directed by Canadian-born, UK-raised director-writer-editor Roger Spottiswoode. It took the 63 year-old Spottiswoode eight years to bring Hogg's story to the screen in a tale adapted from a short newspaper story written by journalist James MacManus.

The newspaper account of Hogg's life and death presents a bold, somewhat reckless and youthful Oxford graduate, one with a strong thirst for adventure. In 1937, at age 23, Hogg arrived in Shanghai shortly after the Japanese had seized control of the city. He soon found employment as a stringer for the Associated Press, though his reporting led to his expulsion from China. Not at all discouraged, Hogg managed to return through Korea. Later, in Beijing, he met New Zealand nurse Kathleen Hall, who in addition to her medical duties was smuggling food and medicines to anti-Japanese guerrillas.

In 1938, as the situation in the capital became more dangerous, the pair fled to the liberated areas in northern China. There, Hogg contracted typhus and Hall nursed him back to health. To make a long story short, after a great many adventures, Hogg finally arrived in the Tsingling Mountains in east-central Shaanxi Province, where, in 1943, he was appointed headmaster of a school that had been deserted by its teachers. Hogg soon restored discipline to the remaining students by imposing the strict standards of English public schools. Meanwhile, the children's safety was threatened by approaching Japanese troops. Hogg formed a plan to relocate the school to the safety of Shandan in Gansu Province, 1,100 km away. He salvaged 15 tons of equipment and set off on foot with the children early in 1945. They arrived at their destination ten weeks later, totally exhausted and near starvation (one child died of a heart attack and another was lost on the way). Four months later, Hogg had rebuilt his school, though he later contracted tetanus – an infection he didn't survive.

Spottiswoode's film focuses on its protagonist's character, rather than the era's politics. Indeed, after numerous rewrites, what emerges is a moving tale of survival and compassion. The USD 40 million (RMB 300 million) Chinese-Australian-German co-production features a stellar cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Match Point), Chow Yun-fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Radha Mitchell (Silent Hill) and Michelle Yeoh (also seen in Spottiswoode's Tomorrow Never Dies). The film premiered in Huangshi City, Hubei Province on March 31 and opens nationwide on April 3.

that's: This is your second film set in Asia, followingthe miniseries Hiroshima (1995), co-directed withKoreyoshi Kurahara. What convinced you to spend three months in China at some very tough locations shooting The Children of Huang Shi?
Roger Spottiswoode (RS): I came across the story of George Hogg about eight years ago when two friends, producers Davina Bellin and Clive Parsons, sent me an early draft of the script. We worked together with writers for another three or four years to get the script right. But it was the compelling story of Hogg and China during a pivotal moment of history that made me want to come to China. In fact, between casting and preparation and then the shoot, I must have spent about a year in China altogether.

that's: What impressed you most during that time?
RS: The huge distances. The vast size [of the country] is hard to take in from the map. What's more, there are cities whose names do not appear on Western maps, or perhaps we just couldn't pronounce their names and so we never learnt them. So it is a country full of surprises. We were also looking for the past and for some cities that were not too altered since the 1930s. Well that was almost impossible. The past is being destroyed and is disappearing so quickly in China; it is a tragedy.

that's: Where did you shoot in Shanghai?
RS: Like so many others before us, we shot at Chedun town, the Shanghai film studio [the Songjiang studio backlot] where we used the Nanjing Road set. We also shot a few scenes in Nanjing itself at a building near Hunan Bridge. While we were shooting in Hengdian [China's largest backlot, in Zhejiang Province], every Saturday evening there would be a five-hour race up to Shanghai to enjoy the good restaurants before they closed.

that's: Many foreign filmmakers have come to China for co-productions, yet most have failed to make a film appealing to both local and international moviegoers. What does your film offer to both these audiences?
RS: Co-productions are designed to help filmmakers work in different countries and raise money internationally, since film finance is extraordinarily difficult. It is an added – and I think completely unexpected – bonus if a film happens to appeal to all members of the co-production partnership. In our case, it's possible that our cast of young actors will surprise audiences in many places.

that's: In the past, some of your work has dealt with politics, for instance, Under Fire and Shake Hands with the Devil, yet The Children of Huang Shi seems decidedly apolitical.
RS: The story of George Hogg in China is not one that demands to be political. What's more, the appeal for me was a character who at an early age was finding himself and his purpose in life. The war closing in around him, the children he was taking care of, all led to an unexpected journey – a new world for them all. It was this story and not the politics that drew me to the film. But at the same time, I have always felt that Europeans have been particularly ignorant of the horrors the Japanese inflicted on China. Just as the Japanese seem ignorant of the genocide their parents committed when they killed 10-15 million Chinese.

that's: You seem to prefer location work (eg., Rwanda for Shake Hands with the Devil) toshooting in a studio.
RS: It's one of the glorious benefits of making films that you travel the world.

that's:How did you convince the two Chinese stars Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-fat to join the production?
RS: They loved the script and their characters. I went to them four years ago. They have waited patiently for me to get the money together.

that's: How has Yeoh evolved as an actress since your collaboration in Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997?
RS: She gets better and better.

that's: It's hard to work with children, be it in the US or in China. Here you had to handle 60 of them. Did that add to the complexities of the shoot?
RS: We expected it would be hard to take kids away from home for three months, to travel all over the country, to work in the winter in remote places. But it turned out to be great. The children (aged between 7 and 15) really were wonderful. The experience was amazing and rewarding. I had a second unit and a gifted second-unit director who shot 80 per cent of the scenes with the kids and she had a wonderful time with them and adored them all.

that's: Is theChinese approach to working with children in movies different from that of the West?
RS: Cannot tell you this, but kids are similar the world over.

that's: What visual style did you want to create with director of photography Zhao Xiaoding [Zhang Yimou's cinematographer on House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower]?
RS: We wanted to create a world of muted colors, where the color of people's skin was the most striking part of each frame. It was a completely different approach from the other two films [shot by Zhao for Zhang Yimou]. But what he loves and we shared, is creating a palette of interesting colors and shapes. My Chinese is non-existent, his English is developing and so without our valued intermediary and translator, Wang Xiaomeng, it would have been very difficult indeed.

that's: Peter Loehr has been one of the rare Western producers to help several independent Chinese filmmakers. How did he help you on The Children of Huang Shi?
RS: This was in every way a Chinese-Australia-German co-production. Our crew was more than 95 per cent Chinese; most of our department heads were Chinese. All but one day of shooting was done in China. So Peter and Er Yong [also known as Wang Zhang] were the producers. Post production was made in Germany and Australia and the remaining crew and facilities came from Australia.

that's: George Hogg's life in China was tumultuous and full of hardship. And apparently so was the shoot.
RS: The mountains in winter were a challenge to us every day. Sixty children, four mules and 30 handcarts are quite a handful to put onto a narrow, precipitous trail in the mountains, along with a big film crew. I don't quite know how we did it day after day. But on about the sixth day, when shooting on the most dangerous mountain, it snowed and froze. The next morning our generator was leading the way back to the location in the mountain, 50 trucks and busses behind it. The truck carrying the generator got caught on ice and drifted slowly backwards, plunging 60 feet into a chasm. Fortunately, the driver jumped to safety.

Special thanks to Peter Loehr.

(c) that's Shanghai Magazine
Chief editor: Steven Crane
April 2008 issue

Monday 3 March 2008

Showreel March 2008

Thursday 7 February 2008

Moving Pictures - Arthur Dong's documentary Hollywood Chinese explores the Chinese contribution to Hollywood

China loves the Oscars. Every year, 22 million Chinese turn on the TV to watch the big night (routinely aired on CCTV6 -- this year the 80th ceremony will be broadcast on February 24). The love is rather one-sided though. If the Academy Awards are any indication of the Hollywood establishment's interest in acknowledging Chinese and Chinese-American artists, well, that interest can best be described as minimal. Indeed, since 1929, Chinese contributions to the US and foreign film industry have resulted in a mere 13 Academy Awards, in all categories.

Meanwhile, the American entertainment media has for decades all but ignored Chinese and Asian minorities, except when portraying them as subservient (sexually or otherwise) or subversive (evil or mysterious) stereotypes. Multi-award winning producer, writer, director Arthur Dong explores this subject in his latest documentary Hollywood Chinese, a blend of film clips and interviews with Chinese film talents (Nancy Kwan, Tsai Chin, Wayne Wang, Ang Lee, etc.). Within this format, the 54-year-old San Francisco-born Chinese-American filmmaker examines the history and perceptions of Chinese who worked in the industry.

What first strikes the viewer is how limited a view Hollywood had of Chinese. In the main, Chinese actors were confined to play China dolls, villains, action heroes, zen masters, dragon ladies or gangsters. And at times, they weren't even allowed that much. Many Hollywood productions featured white actors in 'yellow-face', further disseminating die-hard racial stereotypes. The list of 'yellow-faces' is surprisingly long, including John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando. The Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu franchises are notorious reminders of this trend.

Despite the stereotypes, Chinese and Chinese-American actors and technicians have had a tremendous influence in Hollywood, a fact which soon becomes apparent in Dong's documentary, which won the 2007 Best Documentary Golden Horse Award. Scheduled for US theatrical release in the spring of 2008, Hollywood Chinese makes clear that the Chinese influence has resulted in a number of memorable performances and landmark films, despite its unfortunate history of race and representation. For that reason, this film should be as eagerly celebrated in Hollywood as US productions and the Oscar ceremony are in China.

that's: How have Chinese stereotypes evolved in American film?
Arthur Dong (AD): Representations of the Chinese in American films have existed since the beginning of cinema in the late 1800s. From the start, coming from halfway around the world, the Chinese were considered foreign and "other"; their customs, language, and dress were considered exotic and a novel curiosity, not only in films, but also other forms of pop culture. Throughout the 20th-century, and up to present day, this fantasized cinematic treatment persisted. Coupled with political and historical developments, ranging from the Boxer Rebellion, World War II and the formation of the People's Republic of China, the Chinese were regarded as either an ally or a threat, and in many cases, unscrupulously mysterious.

For me, the image that most represents the slow-changing attitudes in Hollywood is the depiction of the Tongs [a Chinese-American secret society]. That image has morphed itself into the hatchet man, opium dens, white slavery, gambling lairs, gangsters, and today, it’s the threat of the Triads. No matter what the label, this characterization continues to find its way into American productions [Rush Hour 3's storyline being a fine example].

that's: What effect has globalization and better access to information had on the perception of Chinese and American-Chinese actors in today's America?
AD: By and large, Chinese film artists are treated in America as foreigners, a perception that reflects a long history of discrimination against the Chinese since the 1800s. The big names in Hollywood are the "Jackie Chan's" and the "Jet Li's", the kind of actors who formed their reputations first in Asia, and whose overseas on-screen personas as martial arts experts remain pretty much unchanged in American films. While they have found a level of popularity in Hollywood, the question remains whether their films expand creative boundaries and give audiences new insights into the Chinese or Chinese American experience, or are their films just doling out more typecast pulp.
The situation for Chinese American actors is slightly different. They're still called upon to play secondary roles and caricatures like bus boys or grocers, but at the opposite end, they are now also cast in the "new and improved" professional model minority stereotypes such as engineers, doctors, and, especially for women, news reporters a la Connie Chung [anchor for NBC, CBS and ABC]. Very seldom are they main characters in Hollywood films.

that's: Many directors from the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong have worked in Hollywood (Tsui Hark, Chen Kaige, John Woo), with varying degrees of success. In your opinion, which director has best integrated with the Hollywood system?
AD: In art cinema circles, the directors most respected are filmmakers from China who make films about their homeland, versus Chinese-Americans who produce films set in America. Perhaps John Woo might be the exception with films like Mission: Impossible 2. Of course, Ang Lee's ground-breaking resume of films can't be ignored, but I think he said it best when I asked him about his directing Oscar for Brokeback Mountain: "I made Brokeback Mountain, [but] they will still call me a Chinese filmmaker. But I made a very pure American film. [Still, be they in the US] or in China, people will say, 'The movie is so good because he's Chinese. He looks at things differently.'"

that's: In 2001, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won four Academy Awards and was a USD 130-million blowout at the US box office. Has its success changed anything?
AD: The Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon phenomenon was a major coup. The upside was it showed the world that a Chinese-language production can succeed in both critical acclaim and in box office. But because there is so little product that reflects the wide range of Chinese and Chinese American experiences, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has stood in as the image that most Americans know. Starting with Bruce Lee and now with this film, the kung-fu figure has become a stereotype. Movie executives have a predilection for playing safe and we're seeing copycat productions based on the Crouching Tiger success – not only from Hollywood but also from China. While this strategy provides plentiful employment for artists, it further narrows the definition of who we are as diverse individuals.

that's: Conversely, Flower Drum Song was a groundbreaking re-imagination of Chinese in Hollywood.
AD: For many Asian Americans, this production was the first time they saw themselves on screen as contemporary Americans. Flower Drum Song was a 1961 Universal Studios film that introduced a radically different vision of Asian Americans to Americans. Based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Flower Drum Song was produced just 15 years after Cold War; the paranoia persisted and Chinese Americans were still perceived as subversives and communists, [though] discriminatory immigration laws against the Chinese had just been lifted. For most non-Asians, this would be the first time they'd see beyond touristy facades of Chinatowns and experience Chinese Americans as three-dimensional people.

Flower Drum Song was a breakthrough for Hollywood as well. It starred Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, and Miyoshi Umeki, three of the industry's most popular Asian stars of that era whose prominence has yet to be equaled. This was the first major studio release to feature all Asian characters played by real Asian actors. Prior to Flower Drum Song, lead Asian characters were mostly portrayed by white actors in yellow-face (The Good Earth, Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, etc.). And when Asian actors were allowed to perform, they'd be cast in secondary roles that were usually stereotypical and demeaning. In this respect, Flower Drum Song was a landmark film that would set a higher bar for future Hollywood productions -- a bar, unfortunately, that wouldn't be met frequently.

that's: How do you see the future representation of Chinese in Hollywood films?
AD: We now see Chinese in many levels of employment, including studio executives, but I'm not sure how much we can count on them to stick their necks out in order to create fairer screen representations. We need to always remember that Hollywood is commerce; it's not an industry that has altruistic goals at the forefront. Regardless of their race or ethnic background, decision-makers must consider their profit margins. Given that, I want to believe that there are executives who harbor idealistic goals and that besides financial gain they may have desires to produce intelligent and honest films that don't rely on insulting portrayals.

BOX Chinese who have made a difference in Hollywood

Anna May Wong: actress, born in Los Angeles (1905-1961)
First notable Chinese American Hollywood actress (The Thief of Baghdad, 1924). Wong repeatedly played stereotypical Oriental roles in the 1920s and 1930s. She moved twice to Europe at the height of her fame in protest of such roles and finally retired in 1942.

Bruce Lee: actor, born in San Francisco (1940-1973)
One of the most influential martial artists of the twentieth century. Lee sparked the first major surge of interest of Chinese martial arts in the West with Enter the Dragon (1973). Lee, who exhibited Chinese national pride in his movies, has become an iconic Chinese figure.

James Wong Howe: cinematographer, born in Canton (1899-1976)
Considered one of history's ten most influential cinematographers by the International Cinematographers Guild. Nominated for ten best cinematography Academy Awards, Howe won twice.

Nancy Kwan: actress, born in Hong Kong (1939-?)
Played a pivotal role in the acceptance of actors of Asian descent in significant Hollywood film roles. In the 1960s, Kwan was considered a major sex symbol (The World of Suzie Wong, 1960; and Flower Drum Song, 1961), and appeared on mainstream magazine covers (Life, Esquire).

Wayne Wang: director, born in Hong Kong (1949-?)
Named after John Wayne. Wang is best known for The Joy Luck Club (1993), a successful adaptation of Amy Tan's novel about a family of Chinese women living in contemporary San Francisco. This film proved mainstream audiences would pay to see Asian lead characters.

Ang Lee: director, born in Taiwan (1954-?)
Has deftly cut across cultural and national boundaries with a string of films in English and Chinese language (Hulk; Lust, Caution). Holds the record for the most Academy Awards nominations and wins (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon won 4 Oscars; Brokeback Mountain won 3) of any Chinese director.

(c) that's Shanghai Magazine
Chief editor: Steven Crane
February 2008 issue

Wednesday 6 February 2008

Showreel4: My cover story, "The Warlords" in Impact Movie magazine UK

An interview with director Peter Chan by Thomas Podvin (plus a film review by Mike Leeder) in Impact, Feb 2008 issue.
The "monthly magazine featuring Eastern and Western Action Cinema, Anime, DVDs and Video Game Reviews" is avaiable at

Thursday 17 January 2008

French filmmaker Sylvie Levey documents the real Shanghai

Shanghai, Waiting for Paradise (SWFP) is French journalist/filmmaker Sylvie Levey’s latest exposé of the lives of ordinary people in modern Shanghai. Shot between 2001 and 2006, the 92-minute documentary follows three generations of Chinese living under the same roof in a small apartment on Fangbang Road in Huangpu district. During this period, the family awaits relocation to a new home as their neighborhood faces demolition. It’s this long wait – five years – during which their dreams for a new start clash with harsh urban reality.

Born in the fishing port of Saint-Malo on the northern coast of Brittany, Levey’s interest in China began at the age of 10, after reading Pearl Buck’s novel East Wind, West Wind. Since arriving in Shanghai in 1999, she’s made a series of documentaries on subjects that few foreigners ever experience, including the one-child policy (The Golden Babies, 1999), trans-sexuality (The Unique Destiny of Colonel Jin Xing, 2001) and the women’s penal system (High Crimes in Shanghai, 2005).

SWFP is as intimate as a reality TV show, though it replaces voyeurism with a distinctly humanist point of view. Mixing laughter with tears, and hope with outrage, the film portrays a range of emotions that are as big as life itself. As the camera follows the daily routine of the Wang family before their relocation to a Shanghai suburb, the viewer is treated to a wholly unique work: at times heart-rending, at times comical, a warts and all portrait of an ordinary Chinese family. In the end what emerges is a distinctly Chinese tale, but one that transcends cultural and language differences with its universal appeal.

Despite the difficult topics Levey’s tackled, all her work is made with the consent of local authorities. Fluent in Chinese (she studied Mandarin Chinese in Paris and Taipei), she works without an interpreter to increase the intimacy and understanding she has with her subjects. Known as ‘Le Shiwei’, Levey has been called the “third eye watching China". As an outsider looking at the Middle Kingdom, that third eye has won her multiple awards overseas; the only market where her films are shown.

In our interview at her richly decorated apartment in the former French Concession, Levey discusses how China appears through her camera viewfinder.

that’s: When you arrived in Shanghai in 1999, did the reality match your dreams?
Sylvie Levey (SL): China is always full of surprises. Everything is possible and nothing is impossible. That is what I love about it. But if people come with preconceived ideas, if they seek their imaginary view of China, they won’t find the real China or real people. The key to understanding China is modesty; by being modest you can get as close as possible to the essence of China and its people. What’s more, Chinese respect hard work, courage and dignity; if they feel you have respect for those qualities, then they will appreciate your love of their country. Of course, if you can speak their language, use their sayings and idioms – even with mistakes, they’ll love you even more.

that’s: How does your approach to your work differ from that of other foreign journalists?
SL: I am idealistic and ultra sensitive. I make documentaries from my guts. In most of my work the point of view is subjective, the opposite of what’s taught in journalism schools. I don’t believe in objectivity at all, which for me is meaningless and dull. Subjectivity is my primary interest; the time and money spent on my work is secondary.

that’s: In SWFP, this subjectivity is even more manifest than in your previous films.
SL: That’s because the subjects of this film, the Wang family, are my friends. I shot the film without using a third party, so my relationship with them was direct. I was like a member of their family, and that’s why the film is so strongly subjective: their view became my view. Initially, I thought about having a Chinese friend handle the camera for me, but I gave up on the idea. It wouldn’t have worked with a Chinese outsider. I was looking for a direct approach because Chinese don’t speak to other Chinese in the same way they do with Westerners. We are from the outside; we are lao wai. What’s more, my film will be shown overseas and not on Chinese television; that was one of the Wangs’ conditions before they agreed to be filmed.

that’s: You made this film over many years. How could you be sure that you wouldn’t miss key moments in the lives of the Wangs?
SL: I always carried a small camera and eventually they became used to it. In the beginning, however, nothing really happened on film. The initial approach was modest; none of us knew where the story would take us. We had some ideas, of course, but fortunately life is unpredictable and so are people.

that’s: In the end, what does your film tell us about Shanghai?
SL: Actually, this film takes the pulse of the city by looking inside the heads of its ordinary Chinese residents. It is a modest attempt to look into the modern Chinese psyche and how it has been affected by what is, at times, overwhelming change. In fact, few works have ever attempted this point of view, with the possible exception of Four Generations under One Roof by the famous Beijing novelist Lao She.

that’s: There’s one sequence near the beginning of the film where the Wangs are watching a news broadcast of the 9/11 attack and making comments that some viewers may find shocking.
SL: It is not for me to judge their comments; my role was to observe. [What they said] was what they thought at the time. I admit I was very surprised by what they said, and there is indeed a risk that some viewers will be offended. Too bad for them. My films are not made to please Western audiences; if they were I’d be making reality TV shows. I’d also be richer, and would own a car and a flat. In the West, there are two caricatures of China: one as an ultra-liberal market where we can make billions. That image, of course, has no human face. The second portrays China as a gray zone for human rights. In my film, I didn’t want to follow these stereotypes even though my raison d’etre as a filmmaker is to work on the edge. What I wanted to do with this film was to introduce the Wang family and China to the West. Like the films of Jia Zhangke and Yasujirô Ozu, I want to tell stories that have universal appeal, the sort of appeal that allows the viewer to sympathize with the characters. My brother Christian, who’s neither into my films nor into China, watched my documentary and said he could identify with the Wangs as fellow human beings and as friends.

that’s: There are echoes in your film of Jia Zhangke’s Still Life, which also deals with destruction and relocation.
SL: When I watched Still Life in a Paris theater, I was struck by how his actors act out the lives of ordinary people on screen. It reminded me that my characters are also actors in their own lives. Jia’s films blend cinema and documentary, fiction and reality. I love his work because it has a humanistic dimension; it’s not propaganda. His characters are human and their story is powerful. He shows China as it is today.

that’s: In your film you followed the story of the Wangs between 2001 and 2006. In the end you produced 180 hours of footage.
SL: Yes, it was crazy and very expensive to produce and then edit 180 hours of film, but I have no regrets. During the years of filming, I was permanently ready. Sometimes I captured nothing and other times I found magic: poetry, misfortune, anger and smiles. Clearly, this took a lot of patience, but it was both necessary and worthwhile. Of the 180 hours of film much was left in the editing room. For example, I spent a lot of time shooting the pavement stones in the courtyard, and the doors, corridors, etc. I could have produced a 60-minute silent film on Old Shanghai streets. At times, I was obsessed with these streets and even dreamed of finding a millionaire to rescue them from demolition. Of course, these scenes did not make the final cut.

that’s: In one scene in your film, a passerby stops, looks directly into your camera and scolds you for filming common people in a poor neighborhood. He thinks you should be showing modern China to the world, and he has a good point. Many Westerners only want to see the old China, which they see as colorful and exotic despite the poverty.
SL: There is no misery in my films, but it’s true that some viewers do expect what might be termed a sensationalist view of China. A friend of mine, Li Xiao from the Shanghai Media Group (SMG), once told me that he went to a festival in France where an amateur Chinese filmmaker presented a film on the killing of a pig. It was horrible; the pig was purposely slaughtered slowly to produce a reaction from the viewer. My friend felt nauseous, but the film attracted a big audience who wanted to reinforce their stereotyped view of Chinese as a cruel people. However, my films will not appeal to these people; for me, dignity and respect are important.

that’s: What’s next?
SL: I’m working on two projects. One is in Beijing the other in Shanghai. I don’t want to say too much right now, but one of them is a personal project about the Chinese television industry, in particular CCTV.

SWFP premiered at the Istanbul International 1001 Documentary Film festival in October 2007. For more information visit

(c) that's Shanghai Magazine
Chief editor: Steven Crane
January 2008 issue

Monday 17 December 2007

Thomas Podvin Showreel 2


Tuesday 20 November 2007

Critical Darling/Whitney Crothers Dilley on the risks of Ang Lee's latest film

Ang Lee’s Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman helped put Chinese-born directors on the international map in the 1990s, but it was his Oscar-winning films Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2003) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) that propelled him to international superstardom. His most recent effort is Lust, Caution – a return, of sorts, to his Chinese roots. Based on Eileen Chang’s eponymous short story, the film, starring Joan Chen, Tang Wei and Tony Leung, is already gaining accolades, and captured the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival this past September.

Lee is perhaps most known for his bold versatility that knows no national, cultural or even sexual boundaries – a characteristic that is the focus, among other things, of film writer Whitney Crothers Dilley’s new book The Cinema of Ang Lee: The Other Side of the Screen (Wallflower Press, 2007). Although it would undoubtedly be a valuable tool for academics, this first full-length study of the 50-year-old director’s work is also an accessible and gratifying read for film buffs. The author, who is an associate professor of English at Shih Hsin University in Taipei, not only positions Lee’s work within the context of world cinema but also the roots of the Taiwan-based New Cinema movement. We caught up with Dilley last month to ask her about her take on Lust, Caution.

that’s Beijing: What was Lee’s mindset at the time he was producing Lust, Caution – particularly on the heels of Brokeback Mountain?
Whitney Crothers Dilley: After making The Incredible Hulk, Ang Lee was so depressed he considered retiring – it was his late father who pushed him to continue. So Lee made Brokeback Mountain on a shoe-string budget without expecting it to be a success. I suspect that his father’s wish for him to continue [also] brought him to the point of making Lust, Caution … Lee’s grandparents were from the Chinese mainland, and his parents left for Taiwan just a few years after the end of World War II, so this material also resonates with him personally.

that’s: What are the universal themes of Lust, Caution?
WCD: Lee has been dealing with repressed desires in all of his films – he’s a master at the topic. Another interesting aspect is the strong feminist voice represented by Lust, Caution’s focus on a female lead (played by newcomer Tang Wei). Eileen Chang’s fiction is known for voicing the intricacies of the female psyche – in this narrative, she plays out repressed female sexual desire against the backdrop of the very masculine world of war and corruption.

that’s: How does repressed desire translate in the film?
WCD: Lee brought out an element of the story that was much more subtle in Chang’s narrative: graphic representations of desire and sexuality. Lee was convinced the sex scenes were necessary to fully represent the psychology of the main characters, and he has compared them to the fight sequences in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

that’s: Bold as it may be, Lust, Caution has been given the strictest rating in the US (NC-17) and was released in a truncated version in China.
WCD: Lee’s films have always been full of risk, both topically and stylistically. His willingness to walk the line between security and insecurity, as I have said in my book, is what makes his work transcendent.

that’s: How has Lee managed to become a bridge between Chinese and American cinema?
WCD: Lee intrinsically understands the gap between Chinese-style art (i.e. martial arts in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and American-style art (i.e. the Civil War in Ride With the Devil). He finds the universal themes that appeal to people of both cultures, such as gender differences, cultural identity, family ritual and social duty. It’s very important for Lee to be bold in building bridges between cultures – this is one of the key roles we need to play in an increasingly globalized world.

(c) that's Beijing
Chief editor: Oliver Robinson
November 2007 issue

Lest we forget/a new docu-drama on Iris Chang and the rape of Nanjing

Iris Chang will be remembered as one of the most important human-rights activists and investigative journalists of her time, in the main for bringing a forgotten chapter of history to international attention with the publication in 1997 of The Rape of Nanking which documents the atrocities of December 1937 in the former Chinese capital.

Born in New Jersey, Chang worked at the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune before devoting her efforts to examining one of the most tragic events of World War II, the Nanking (Nanjing) massacre, an event some historians have compared to the Nazi holocaust. More than just an account of the carnage, Chang’s tome exposes the Japanese Army’s utter disregard for human life, as well as later efforts by the Japanese government to suppress knowledge of what had happened.

The book became an international bestseller and at 29 Chang became a literary celebrity. More importantly, she also became a role model for thousands of Chinese students in the US. Indeed, her book, the first English-language account of the massacre, became mandatory reading in many college classrooms.

This year, the 70th anniversary of the tragedy has inspired more than a half-dozen filmmakers to commemorate its victims. Bill Guttentag’s Nanking opened in China in July, while Lu Chuan’s Nanking! Nanking! and Roger Spottiswoode’s The Children of Huang Shi are in production. In addition, Simon West, Oliver Stone and Stanley Tong all have scripts in development. That said, one project puts Chang center stage, the Sino-Canadian co-production The Woman Who Couldn’t Forget: The Iris Chang Story. This feature documentary employs archival footage, re-enactments and even CGI to allow the viewer to see the story unfold, much as Chang did during her research. The film is directed and produced by seasoned Canadian filmmaker William Spahic and his spouse, Anne Pick, Hot Docs International Documentary Festival founder and award-winning documentary producer-director-writer.

that’s: How did you come up with the idea of a docu-drama blending archival footage with interviews and re-enactments?
William Spahic (WS): We first heard about Nanking from our son Matthew, in grade 10 here in Toronto, who wanted to do a historical assignment on holocausts. We thought that meant the Jewish holocaust in Europe but he chose the Nanking holocaust instead. In helping him proofread his essay we learned about the Nanking massacre. Our research and writing of the script started in July of 2006. In December 2006, we first went to Nanking for the 69th anniversary of the holocaust, where we filmed the remembrance event at the Memorial Hall and interviewed nine survivors and other people. In March 2007, we had a script and returned to Nanjing to film the drama scenes as well as other interviews. In April, we went to Japan and filmed the Japanese perspective. We found a Japanese war veteran who had chilling stories of atrocities he had committed in China. In the same month we filmed in California, New York and Washington.

that’s: Before the release of Chang’s book, how was the Nanking massacre perceived in North America?
WS: As Iris states in her book and we confirm it in our film, the Nanking holocaust was swept under the carpet by all concerned for geo-political reasons. Very few non-Chinese people in North America knew about Nanking. Her book more than any other event changed that forever. Most of the recent spate of documentaries and feature films on the subject credit Iris Chang’s book for opening their eyes to those terrible events in 1937.

that’s: Why and how did you put Iris Chang at the center of the film?
WS: We’re the only film that has Iris as the central character, thanks to an exclusive agreement with her parents Chang Ying-Ying and Shau-Jin. We also interviewed and talked to her husband and her friends and colleagues. By getting to know Iris, the audience will, through her eyes, get to know and understand the Nanking massacre on an emotional level that goes well beyond a standard documentary primarily using archival footage. Modern day audiences have built-in emotional filters against such emotional exposure. We wanted to reach our audience on that same emotional level, i.e., personal and emotional, as the people who went through and survived the atrocity. There is no other way of looking at it.

that’s: Indeed, Chang was emotionally and personally involved.
WS: Iris had just completed but not published her first book, Thread of a Silkworm and was looking for a subject for her next book. She was aware of the Nanking massacre from her parents, whose families narrowly escaped before the Japanese took Shanghai and Nanking. She saw pictures of the atrocities and realized for the first time that she was witnessing real people’s lives at the very moment of their deaths. She did not perceive them as nameless statistics or objective historical events but as real human beings in real tragic events. She determined to do something about it. Iris was deeply influenced by what she found in China on her research trip, especially interviewing about a dozen survivors. That left a deep emotional motivation for her to write the book. After she wrote the book and later in life, she became a human rights crusader. On her grave [she committed suicide in 2004] there is an epitaph stating she was a human rights crusader.

that’s: Is the film difficult to watch?
Anne Pick (AP): We do make a conscious effort not to sensationalize the graphic archive but we choose not to shy away from it either. Some of the images are hard to watch and we are careful where and how we use them and how long they are on screen. But it was those very images that finally convinced Iris that she had to tell their stories. We hope in our film it is the emotional aspect we are underlining, not the gore.

that’s: Talk about Olivia Cheng, who portrays Iris Chang.
WS: Olivia has the same qualities that Iris had: determination, drive, intelligence and beauty. She even resembles Iris. In fact, when we filmed a scene with Olivia interviewing Professor Wang in Nanking in March 2007 [he was one of the people who helped Iris research her book in 1995], Wang completely forgot that he was talking to Olivia and kept calling her Iris and telling her that she needed to write the book. We are very happy to have found Olivia to play the part of Iris, especially since we inter-cut video interviews of the real Iris and our actress throughout our film. The cutting back and forth is seamless.

that’s: Did you encounter any difficulties when shooting in China and Japan?
WS: We had full co-operation in Nanjing and the Jiangsu Province Foreign Affairs authorities were very helpful. The hardest part was listening to the tragic stories the survivors had to tell. It had the same impact on us as on Iris when she interviewed survivors in 1995. Several times our crew would break down and weep when they heard the sad stories from our survivors. Similar to Iris’s experience, we also felt they were our motivation for making the film and they drive our narrative. But what amazed us all is that they bore no ill feelings toward the Japanese people. All they wanted was the recognition of what happened to them and above all they wanted peace in the world. Japan, on the other hand, was a mixed experience. For example, one war veteran also felt the need to tell his story because he did not want this type of tragedy to happen again. And we found people sympathetic to getting the truth told. But then we interviewed a right-wing nationalist who denied everything. That was hard to take. Emotionally, it is not an easy film to make.

AP: Japan needs to come clean, take ownership and stand accountable for its Imperial Army’s actions in the Pacific theater, China and Korea during WW II.

WS: We are not interested in making a political film. We are making a documentary about a brave young woman who dealt with bigger issues. Our motivation for making the film was the same Iris had for writing the book. And I quote her: “That beneath the thin veneer of civilized society lies a darker side of human nature.” We must always be on guard because if the darker side rises to the top as it did in Nanking many human lives are affected. All she wanted and all that the Chinese survivors we met want is recognition of what happened by way of a sincere and meaningful apology, some reparation to the victims and above all, to teach the true facts of Nanking in Japanese schools.

that’s: How will your film stand out from other films made this year about the massacre?
WS: Our film is the only film that tells Iris’s story and by doing that tells the story of Nanking. All Western films on Nanking have been influenced by Iris’s book but ours is the only one to give her the narrative she deserves. And because we are using the docu-drama format we will be able to give the audience the perspective that lets them get to know who Iris was and through her find the emotional door to a truly tragic and horrific event. We’re hoping to have a premier in Nanjing in December 2007 and with the help of the curator at the Nanjing Memorial Hall, we will have a screening and a permanent exhibit there.

For more information on Iris Chang see
2007 marks the 70th anniversary of the Nanking massacre, the 10th anniversary of the publication of The Rape of Nanking and the 3rd anniversary of the death of Iris Chang.

(c) that's Shanghai Magazine
Chief editor: Steven Crane
November 2007 issue

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