Wayne Wang

Wayne Wang
It’s hard enough getting one film to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), but Wayne Wang succeeded with two. The Hollywood auteur, if that isn’t a contradiction, unveiled A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Princess of Nebraska, two low-budget character studies. The godfather of Asian-American cinema, Wang has walked both sides of the filmmaking fence: making Hollywood fare such as Maid in Manhattan and Smoke, and alternating with his indie films such as these two. Wang also appeared in a fine documentary, Hollywood Chinese that unspooled at the festival. During TIFF, Wang sat down with Exclaim! to talk about his new films, Asians in Hollywood, and Chinese youth culture.

What do you think of the status of Asians in Hollywood these days?
I think it's gotten worse. There are more jobs for people, more roles and more executives, but then you look at a film like Balls of Fury, which is back to the days of Fu Manchu.

You're talking about the Christopher Walken film where he portrays an Asian?
Yeah. You look at Memoirs of a Geisha — it was pretty strange that it was all Chinese [actors] playing Japanese as geishas, which is very specific — and trying to speak English through all of it. If you look at all the so-called good roles, there's still basically Gong Li — who is in the more classic mode — then Zhang Ziyi who is the fast kung-fu woman. It's still stereotypical. There are many opportunities, but I don't think much has changed. You try to do a more realistic down-to-earth film about Asians and it's pretty much impossible.

Do you have any hope? At his Q&A after the screening of Hollywood Chinese, director Arthur Dong said that Asian executives could help the cause.
I don't know if they would really help. One out of ten would really have the passion and commitment to make something really interesting, but most of the other ones have to do what the studio wants them to do. If you look at even co-productions with China it's so difficult with their censorship, so that doesn't help. I don't know. I wonder if a film like Joy Luck Club today would get made or not.

But it was a box office hit.
This day and age is different. The business [Hollywood] aims at pretty big-budget, action, special-effects films. The smaller, so-called character-driven are not that easy to make. People tend not to make a film for $10 million or less anymore, because advertising is so expensive now. It takes $20-, $30-million to put a film out there. Who would push an all-Asian cast film? Maybe I'm too cynical, but my instincts tell me that's where things are at.

What is your release strategy for The Princess of Nebraska?
The U.S. doesn't have a distributor yet and we're still working on that. There's some interest and we are figuring out what is the best way to approach it.

What was the genesis of this film?
I did this other film called A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, which was written by Yiyun Li in a collection of short stories, and the other short story I liked from the book was Princess of Nebraska. So when I finished A Thousand Years I felt like I wanted to do something a little freer and delve with a younger, brasher, more recent generation of people from China. In A Thousand Years there is the old father in his 60s, and a doctor in her 40s. I'm intrigued by the young women from China who are 18, 19 or in their 20s. I've been meeting lots of them and finding them quite different from even my own perceptions of what Chinese women are.

How are they different from the Chinese women growing up in America?
In attitudes, there is some similarity, but the difference basically is during the Cultural Revolution [when] a lot of things just got destroyed. These kids grow up with very little roots — cultural, moral, religious or spiritual. They're pretty much into making money and consumerism, which isn't that different from our generation here. In the movie she says, "I love Paris Hilton.” That's the model that they have, but they're even more cut off in my mind. That's why I find them really interesting. And they're really aggressively searching for Western culture and Western men and, like I said, consumerism. Labels are really big with them.

That seems to reflect the lead character who kind of drifts in a moral vacuum. She doesn't know where she wants to go.
The film focuses on her 24 hours in San Francisco and trying to find something to hang on to emotionally.

Why did you choose Ling Li in the lead role?
She's a newcomer. She speaks English really well. Her own character is in some ways similar to the character I'm looking for. In that sense she was almost a perfect fit.

And why cast Pamelyn Chee? She said she was hired in a day.
I found her on YouTube. Somebody said to me you should check this girl out. There were a bunch of clips on her and in one she was letting loose in a really free way. I wanted somebody very different from Ling Li, somebody more Americanized, and Pamelyn fit the bill. In a way she reminded me of Maggie Cheung with whom I've worked with in Chinese Box.

Pamelyn said that the film was largely improvised.
It is. We had a script, but we didn't always follow it to a tee. We wanted to be freer and go from the gut.

You have a different visual approach to this film.
It was shot in HD on a smaller camera, the Panasonic. It's very painterly, different from my other film, which was more classic and traditional.

Was there also the freedom of movement?
Absolutely, we were moving around a lot. We never put it on a tripod. We handheld it and moved it so we could be more with the actors.

I found the ending enigmatic. What did you intend the audience to feel?
Like the short story, I didn't want to say that she definitely had an abortion or didn't. I wanted to the audience to go what the character had gone through and make their own decision about what she might or might not do. In a way what you don't want is a clear answer. It's an emotional journey for her.

In Arthur Dong's film, one issue that he raises is that Asian women are fetishised in Hollywood. Do you find that Asian women have an advantage over the guys?
At the same time you have a lot of female executives who go cuckoo over Chow Yun-Fat or Ken Nakamura, who find them really sexy, or Jet Li for that matter. I find it works both ways. There is a little more of a tendency in the white executives to say, "Oh, Zhang Ziyi is so sexy! We should use her.” But I've always heard female executives go, "Oh, Chow Yun-Fat is so sexy we should cast him.” Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie probably go through the same kind of stereotype too — they're being slotted into something very narrow. Myself included: after the Joy Luck Club I was the "women's director” or Asian-related subjects. So it's hard to get out of that box. Every time they [Hollywood] tend to box you in. After Maid in Manhattan I became the romantic comedy guy.

Don't you have some room to play with because you do the mainstream Hollywood films and your own movies?
I have to keep moving between a lot of different things. If I don't I easily fall into one trap. I really have to consciously push myself to go from one to the other.

Like Ang Lee, you always surprise us with your new film. There's no predictability.
Which is good. It's important to me. So the next may be Asian porn. (laughs)

You got some flak from how Joy Luck Club portrayed the Asian male. Anything you want to say in response?
That movie isn't about the males. What I portrayed was pretty truthful for the men. They're not stereotypes. In that sense I don't apologize for it.