Even though his father named him after American movie icon John Wayne, Wayne Wang has never really made an action film or a western. But the Hong Kong-born filmmaker has been something of a chameleon throughout his fascinating 25-plus year career, moving easily from independent films to Hollywood projects.
Wang burst onto the then-nascent independent scene in 1982 with Chan Is Missing, a study of two San Francisco-based Chinese taxi drivers searching for a man who stole their money. The indie presented something unique to filmgoers: a cast that consisted of all Asian actors, directed by an Asian-American director. Its arthouse success led to Dim Sum: A Little Bit Of Heart and Eat A Bowl Of Tea, two other low-budget efforts detailing the Asian experience in America. Wang then ventured outside of his home turf with the offbeat film noir Slam Dance, and was eventually recruited by producer Oliver Stone to helm the big screen treatment of Amy Tan’s best-seller The Joy Luck Club in 1993.
From there, Wang kept one foot in indie and the other in commercial filmmaking, fashioning the Paul Auster collaborations Smoke and Blue In The Face; the Hong Kong-based Chinese Box with Jeremy Irons; and the erotically charged Center Of The World, while going all-Hollywood with such star vehicles as Maid In Mahattan with Jennifer Lopez and Last Holiday with Queen Latifah, in a part played by Alec Guinness (!) in its original British version.
Wang’s two latest projects are A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers and The Princess Of Nebraska, two films shot on digital video, quickly and on the cheap. They mark a return for Wang to his earlier years of on-the-fly filmmaking, yet represent two distinctive styles and sides of the director.
A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers is centered on a reunion between a divorced, middle-aged Asian woman who has been living in America and her elderly widowed father, who has come from Beijing to visit her in her Spokane, Washington apartment complex. Issues of politics, culture and generational differences are broached, as the two seek to communicate and the father tries to reconcile their uneasy relationship. The film is shot in a straight-forward, no-nonsense style.
The Princess Of Nebraska details the adventures of a Chinese woman, impregnated by an opera star, who lands in Omaha and then heads to San Francisco where she seeks an abortion. Also filmed on digital video, the movie is filled with hand-held camerawork and quick pacing, distinctively different from A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers.
Both films are available on DVD, singly as well as in a double feature.
Movie Buzz recently spoke to the San Francisco-based Wang in this exclusive interview.
MB: Both A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers and The Princess Of Nebraska were based on stories by Yiyun Li. What drew you to these stories?
WW: I started my career by doing films about Chinese-Americans, and when I finished that whole series I jumped off and did a bunch of other films, and then I came back and looked at the change with the population.
Then I also found this book (by Yiyun Li), and these two really popped out at me. A Thousand Years reminded me of the sorts of films I used to make. Here was a father and daughter who were like two strangers who have nothing in common. And The Princess Of Nebraska talked about a unique woman and a unique immigrant experience, so the two women (in the films) were very powerful to me.
I got the author to adapt the first one (A Thousand Years), and I was faithful to the first one and I wanted to have some freedom to have a low budget. And I had a story structure that I could take off from. Michael Ray, who worked for Francis Coppola’s literary publication Zoetrope: All-Story, helped me adapt the other one. And the author was happy with how it turned out.
MB: You use very different approaches to filming the movies. Thousand Years is no-nonsense and evenly paced, while Princess has lots of handheld camerawork and seems more guerilla-like in style.
WW: I wanted to juxtapose those two styles for two women from different generations. One (Thousand Years) is classic. I never really moved the camera. And I just wanted it to unfold in front of us. In Princess, she doesn’t know what she wants, and I wanted a moving camera. She doesn’t have a handle of her own identity. We filmed it as if we were looking for something. We went with that same outlook.
MB: The two films are together on DVD and seen as companion pieces, even though they were distributed quite differently in theaters.
WW: In Europe—especially France—they were shown back to back. I did something pretty interesting with Princess Of Nebraska here– I showed it on the YouTube screening room.
MB: Were you happy with the alternative distribution style on YouTube?
WW: I was happy on some level to get YouTube, but couldn’t tell if they were hits or repeat hits. We wanted to be reaching a larger audience, and we reached a huge audience on the Internet, but we couldn’t tell if people watched the whole film or were just checking it out. Somebody made money, probably YouTube. There was some deal for payment for the use of the film. But until there’s enough advertising, I’m not sure how it will work out financially.
MB: Since you shot both films quickly and cheaply, did you stick strictly to the scripts, or allow room for improvisation?
WW: One is strict to the script and one is off the cuff—Thousand Years is strictly to the script and we added some things; Princess had a script and sometimes we went off the script.
MB: You’ve always been interested in capturing the immigrant experience in the U.S. How has the next generation changed since you first started to chronicle the experience?
WW: First of all, when I came to a Chinese-American community in San Francisco, the immigrants were from Toy San, from Canton. There were some immigrants from Hong Kong, but those came later. Most were farmers and they sort of influenced the community in a lot of ways, and then there were immigrants later that went into the suburbs because they had money. New immigrants from China came over, and they were more well off and probably from a generation like Ling (Li Ling, the actress in Princess), and if they were older, they were pretty established so they could move over here. Eighty percent of the stores were owned by new China immigrants.
When I did Chan Is Missing, the Chinese-Americans were very much into discovering what their own identity was—similar to blacks at the time who were seeking a place in society and the idea that black is beautiful. These days, with the new generation, it’s good and bad. They don’t care, they have grown up in suburbs and they have grown up American completely—they don’t miss it and their identity is not an issue.
MB: You seem to have two careers, as both an independent filmmaker with movies like Chan Is Missing, Eat A Bowl Of Tea, Center Of The World, and these two films, and as a commercial Hollywood filmmaker, directing Maid In Manhattan, Because Of Winn-Dixie, and Last Holiday. Was Anywhere But Here a transitional project for you?
WW: Anywhere But Here (about a mother-daughter relationship, with Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman) was difficult because I was straddling both worlds. But I have no problem making a film to please an audience and entertain people. I can say I got caught up in it (making Hollywood films).
MB: Can you be more specific? Why did you get caught up in Hollywood movies?
WW: After Center Of The World, I couldn’t get arrested—I could not raise money. Smoke was not too long ago and The Joy Luck Club was not too long ago. I was looking for a commercial project. Maid In Manhattan came along and I figured out a way to make a great fairy tale. Then I got caught up. There were projects that were offered me before I finished films.
MB: Can you give me an example of a Hollywood movie you didn’t really have an interest in that you agreed to direct?
WW: Last Holiday, I was talked into. The producers were great, and they sent me into a meeting with Sherry Lansing, and she’s such a great persuasive lady. So I had every intention of saying “No,” but I walked out saying “Yes.”