From Here to China
With a nod to the past and an eye toward the future, Daniel Wu ’97 and Roger Lee ’72 are reshaping modern Asian cinema.
Daniel Wu ’97—Hong Kong–based actor, director, producer, and all-around cinema sensation—quietly slips into an out-of-the-way conference room in the depths of Knight Library, a semisecret location where he can chat without interruption about his movies, his fans, and the nature of celebrity.
“Tabloid media has taken over entertainment media,” Wu says. “It’s happened here with TMZ and E! Entertainment News and all that. And that becomes almost its own genre of entertainment.” Speaking of his own fictitious documentary, The Heavenly Kings, he continues: “We were trying to show that it’s not just the tabloid media making up sensational stories—the celebrities themselves do it to . . . get more attention.”
By the time the fifteen-minute interview wraps up, the room is no longer quiet or secret. Several dozen fans, mostly young women with phones poised for photos and pens in hand for autographs, have gathered outside the door. Given that The Heavenly Kings was a send-up of celebrity culture, reality and fiction have bled together for Wu. In the tradition of This Is Spïnal Tap, with a nod to Orson Welles’s F for Fake, Wu not only made The Heavenly Kings, a mockumentary about Alive, a boy band invented specifically for the sake of the film, but he also danced, sang, and released singles as a member of the group—all in the service of the cinematic ruse and cultural commentary. Fans had little idea the band was fake until the film debuted, followed by a media storm of slings and arrows . . . and then accolades. Wu won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best New Director for his efforts, adding to a trophy case already occupied by a Best Supporting Actor Golden Horse for 2004’s New Police Story.
Wu, a California native, earned a degree in architecture at Oregon before traveling to Hong Kong, where his work as a model quickly led to his first film role. Now something of a cinematic rock star, he returned to campus this spring as a featured guest at the University’s fourth annual Cinema Pacific Film Festival, a five-day event featuring film and new media from Pacific Rim countries. Richard Herskowitz, director of Cinema Pacific, has attended countless film festivals, many featuring Hollywood luminaries such as Sandra Bullock, Anthony Hopkins, and Nicolas Cage—but the excitement Wu generated among the 400-plus Eugene fans who turned out for the star’s appearance at a screening of his latest film, Overheard 2, at the Regal Valley River Center theater was unlike anything he’d ever seen. “This was more like a Justin Bieber pop star experience,” Herskowitz says. “It was a little bit like Beatlemania.”
But that kind of celebrity is not really what Wu is after. This model-turned-actor-turned-director-turned-producer wants more than, as he puts it, to “get more attention.” The son of Chinese immigrant parents says he wants to bridge cultures and influence the future of Hong Kong cinema.
And Wu has a good start. He recently starred in films with Kevin Spacey (Inseparable, 2011) and Russell Crowe (in the Grammy-winning music producer RZA’s directorial debut, The Man with the Iron Fists, 2012). And under his newly founded production company, Diversion Pictures, Wu is starring in and producing a third feature, Control, a neo-noir thriller in the tradition of Blade Runner and Sin City. “I’m trying to head in a direction now of taking control,” Wu says. “As an actor, you’re much more passive. You wait for the jobs to come to you. But as a director, as a producer, you’re really out there trying to shape the industry.”
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Roger Lee ’72’s screenings at Cinema Pacific, in contrast, were quieter. So are his films.
At the UO, Lee studied business administration. His took the occasional film class—such as Film as Literature, taught by Bill Cadbury—which helped propel him into public television work, first as a production assistant, then as a director. Although the bulk of his career has been on the business side of the movie industry in Asia, he’s been able to do passion projects that have helped him shape modern Asian film.
His latest effort, A Simple Life, is a semiautobiographical film about a young boy’s relationship with his amah, or nanny. Deanie Ip’s portrayal of Sister Peach, the nanny, earned her Best Actress honors at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, and A Simple Life also served as Hong Kong’s entry for Best Foreign Film in the 2012 Academy Awards competition. But Lee, who penned the script with Susan Chan, didn’t start out looking to win awards or tell a big story. Instead, the longtime producer and financial wiz was looking to tell a smaller, more intimate Hong Kong tale after working for four years on director John Woo’s two-part historical epic Red Cliff (2008–9). “I was very tired and wanted to do something else, so I wrote up a story treatment,” Lee says. He showed it to director Ann Hui, who had worked with Lee before. Actor Andy Lau loved the script and financing followed, as did the audience and accolades. “What started out as a story he wanted to get off his chest turned into a critical and commercial success,” says Lee’s friend and colleague, Terence Chang ’73.
Iron Fists and Oscar Gold
In The Man with the Iron Fists, opening November 2, Daniel Wu faces off against Russell Crowe in a love letter to Shaw Brothers-era kung fu B movies. Wu plays a villain, Poison Dagger, in this much-anticipated directorial debut by RZA of the Wu Tang Clan, who also stars and produces with cowriter Eli Roth (Hostel,Inglourious Basterds) in a movie presented by Quentin Tarantino. We talked to Wu about film, kung fu, and getting his ass kicked by an Oscar winner.
How were you approached to do the movie?
I’ve been a fan of Wu Tang Clan since I was a kid. Basically my ’90s soundtrack was Wu Tang because it melded two things that I loved: hip-hop and kung fu. RZA just told me a really compelling story . . . so it was a fun thing for me just to see this guy’s passion and see his love for not only the Chinese culture but Chinese kung fu, and him wanting to spread that to a new generation of American audiences was exciting to me.
The film is about a blacksmith who must protect his village, and features Rick Yune, Lucy Liu, and Pam Grier, among others in an international cast. How do you think it will play in China?
Unfortunately, I don’t think the film is going to show in the China market because it’s quite violent. Heads chopped off, blood spurting everywhere, kind of in theKill Bill vein, or more so in the vein of the really old Shaw Brothers movies. I’d rather [RZA] do it than some random American director who all of a sudden realized kung fu movies are cool and wants to do kung fu movies, you know?
Which leads to the question: What was it like to get a beat-down by Russell Crowe?
He was really game. At first, I think he was a little bit uncomfortable, because this is not the type of movie that Russell usually does. I don’t think it was a genre he’s quite familiar with. But then, once he realized what the tone of the movie was, he caught on really quick and was really, really into it—making fun of the B-grade kung fu movies that we saw in the ’70s. It was really fun for me to think, “Oh, okay, I’ve worked with Kevin Spacey and now I’ve worked with Russell Crowe—two Oscar winners. So I’m on a good roll here.”
A longtime producer for Woo, Chang returned to campus as a featured artist in last year’s Cinema Pacific festival, his first visit since 1974. He says Lee “made that movie with his heart. The honesty and the conviction are what Chinese cinema now desperately needs to have.” Lee offers a simpler version of why the film caught on: Hong Kong’s film industry was losing its identity. Saturated with big budget movies such as Red Cliff and American coproductions such as Jackie Chan’s Karate Kid reboot and The Mummy 3, the Hong Kong audience was growing tired of blockbusters aimed at mainland China. Bigger and broader was not always better, and the constant stream of action films, some felt, didn’t reflect Hong Kong life.
“Our film was like a comeback for a local film with very strong local flavor, for the local audience,” Lee says. “So, in that sense, it was something refreshing for the Hong Kong audience.” In making something small and personal, Lee told a tale that spoke to the universal human condition, while filling a neglected niche in Asian cinema. Fellow filmmaker Wu explains, “It was so successful because in the past five years there haven’t been films like that. It was a statement. . . .
these films usually don’t make it into the Chinese market because they’re so specific to the Hong Kong region itself. Although we’re all Chinese, there’s a huge cultural difference.”
Among the differences: Hong Kong still has a free press and courts system, and many residents are still distrustful of Beijing. Mainland China, by contrast, has many more rural areas and cultural homogeny after decades of Communist rule. The regions are separated not only by language (Cantonese in Hong Kong, Mandarin on the mainland) but also by very different views of what it means to be Chinese. Everyone still loves the movies, however, even if the kinds of movies China produces for a broad audience, and the subjects of those films, are tightly controlled by its now unified government.
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So there’s the rub. In between blockbusters and low-budget indies, there have been very few midrange films, notably dramas and genre flicks, made for contemporary Chinese audiences. And post-British Hong Kong filmmaking is no longer the Wild West (East?) of moviemaking pioneered by Tsui Hark, John Woo, and the New Wave of Asian cinema, the ultraviolent gangster films of the late 1980s and early 1990s that influenced American filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino. Since the British handoff of Hong Kong to China in 1997, restrictions have been tighter on distribution, content, and subject matter. China forbids movies about politics and shuns films that are deemed gratuitously violent—a trademark of Woo’s famous “bullet ballets” of the early 1990s. With no ratings system, all films level out at a PG aesthetic. And there are more esoteric rules: no dirty cops, no ghosts, no sex, no supernatural slashers, no time travel—which explains the glut of costumed, period action films in the industry.
“If you have anything that’s contemporary, it’s problematic,” Lee says. “So everybody’s making films with subject matters that are pre-1949, before the Communists took over China.”
“We are struggling as creators and filmmakers to work within this box of censorship to try to create something that’s interesting and fun, but also fulfilling the government requirements,” adds Wu. Lee’s response has been to make intimate, personal stories. Wu’s strategy has been more diverse, as he balances a career of modest indie projects, action films, and kung fu movies produced under his own shingle, Diversion Pictures—the first of which include two genre-bending steampunk/kung fu movies, Tai Chi 0 (pronounced “zero”) and Tai Chi Hero, which will be released in Hong Kong this fall.
“Right now, we’re still in the experimental stage because we haven’t released anything that we’ve shot yet,” Wu says. But with U.S. companies such as 20th Century Fox and Disney pushing for coproductions, Wu thinks he can fulfill a need with Diversion Pictures. Both Wu and his producing partner, Stephen Fung, were raised and educated in the West, which Wu believes gives them an advantageous perspective; he feels as if they are “properly positioned to be right in the middle.” He says, “We understand both cultures very well. We feel like we understand how to meld the two together. So we’re trying to do that: Not only revitalizing the China film market, but also to bring Chinese film to the Western audiences in a newer and fresher way.”
That newer, fresher way—for Wu and Lee—means telling tales that resonate with audiences, whether they are intimate, autobiographical stories or fun, reverent kung fu indies. It’s the midrange films that need revitalizing, Wu says, especially the kung fu films. “This kind of genre is dying,” Wu says. “And we don’t think the genre should die, we just think it needs to be improved.”
Robert K. Elder, MA ’00, is a journalist, author, editor, film columnist, and founder of Odd Hours Media. His books include Last Words of the Executed, The Film That Changed My Life, and John Woo: Interviews.
Russel Wong ’84 has made a name for himself as a movie set photographer, most notably for Oliver Stone on Heaven and Earth and for Ang Lee on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Wong’s extensive work as a magazine photographer and commercial director have also won him international acclaim. He joined Daniel Wu and Roger Lee on campus during Cinema Pacific, presenting a major exhibition of his work, Russel Wong: The Big Picture, at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. From his home in Singapore, Wong talked about his style, his career, and shooting figures as diverse as Jackie Chan and Imelda Marcos.
What did you learn at the UO that affects your approach and style as a photographer?
I was shooting track at the UO, and this helped me observe action and make split-second decisions. I didn’t have a motor drive so I only had one crack at it. As I work on a lot of action movies, I do incorporate the action element in my shots and it’s quite easy for me after my Oregon training!
Who was your most memorable celebrity subject?
Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines. [The shoot] was supposed to be thirty minutes but it ended up being four hours! What a character! I ended up having tea with her and discussing the political figures she knew, like Mao and John F. Kennedy, who were present when she was first lady. She said Jackie O was a bit reserved but [she] enjoyed JFK.
Her house was filled with amazing artwork, including a Michelangelo. We ended up shooting more outfits and she started showing me and explaining to me the artwork and photographs she had around the house. We then had tea and chatted more just about everything, especially how [she and deposed president Ferdinand Marcos] left the Philippines and what happened after they were exiled to Hawaii.
What was your most difficult shoot?
I was supposed to do a cover of Jackie Chan for Time magazine and it started pouring. We didn’t have security and the shot was him in the road, sitting on a director’s chair. We ended up waiting for an hour in the bus, as Jackie didn’t want to go with plan B, which I appreciated. The skies finally cleared and out we ran onto the middle of the road with a chair, and we started shooting with hundreds of people looking on in amazement. It’s always risky shooting on location, as you don’t know what’s going to be thrown at you.
How does working with celebrities as a photographer inform your style as a director?
You manage people better and [don’t] get too intimidated. This allows you to have more control and get what you need to make it work and not succumb to the egos!