"I want to make a film that's accessible to a lot of people, and yet challenge that same audience, too."
Born in Hong Kong in 1949, director Wayne Wang was given his first name as a tribute to his father's favorite actor, John Wayne. It's fitting, then, that the meeting of things Eastern and Western is a theme that has run through many of Wang's films, including the new Chinese Box. Set during the time leading up to the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule in 1997—and partially filmed during the event itself—the film, which stars Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, and Maggie Cheung, is an allegorical, sometimes experimental drama about the way the change in government affects a handful of diverse individuals. Wang made his breakthrough in 1982 with the pioneering independent film Chan Is Missing. Following a period that alternated between smaller movies and Hollywood projects in the late '80s, Wang has enjoyed a string of critical and financial successes with recent films like The Joy Luck Club (1993) and the 1995 films Smoke and Blue In The Face. Wang recently spoke to The Onion about Hong Kong, his actors, and experimental pursuits.
The Onion: Chinese Box was filmed as Hong Kong's handover to China was actually taking place. Were you at all worried that history as it actually played out would vary from your script?
Wayne Wang: Well, the script was really focusing on the individuals, the individual characters, on the choices they have to make during this period. So whatever happened, it wouldn't dramatically change what they do. We'd try to incorporate whatever happened into what happens to the characters. But it was left open enough that we could take that in and not be affected by it.
O: At the same time, did you feel that the tone of your film changed as a result of your actually being there during the handover?
WW: Yeah, in different ways. Every day, I would look at the headlines, cut a news clipping out, and have Jeremy Irons read it on his desktop, which is very direct. Or, at other times, it would be something more subtle, where maybe the Chinese officials are being non-committal about certain things, and I would try to use that as a subconscious, contextual thing for a scene… Let's say I was shooting a scene between Gong Li and her boyfriend, and the boyfriend is non-committal about his relationship to her. There are many different levels of trying to capture the mood, the uncertainty, and the changes that were going on in the city. Those are the ways that we sort of let ourselves be influenced by what was going on.
O: I thought the Maggie Cheung character [a mysterious, scarred street vendor] was fascinating. What was the inspiration for her?
WW: It actually, first of all, came out of going back to myself. A lot of the middle- and upper-middle-class kids [in Hong Kong] were sent to English private schools, and were very much influenced by the English growing up in the '60s and '70s. At the same time, I was fascinated by a short story by a writer named Rachel Ingalls, called Last Act: The Madhouse. It's a story of young love and betrayal and denial and all that. I kind of transposed that story to the Jean character because I think she's really interesting: She's caught between two worlds with a certain amount of denial of her own identity, and yet she's a great survivor, which is what Hong Kong is.
O: Getting Gong Li [a superstar in China] for her first non-Chinese movie was quite a coup.
WW: That was really difficult. [Laughs.] I literally chased her to Beijing, to Singapore. I went to Hong Kong a couple of times and had many meetings with her. She was always very open to the role, but it took a while to get her to commit to it.
O: You left Hong Kong at a time when it was really starting to become a productive filmmaking center for movies people thought were really interesting. You said it was too restrictive. What about it didn't you like?
WW: Well, I was still a little bit before that time, so when I first went back, it was still relatively traditional. All the so-called New Wave directors hadn't really started yet; they were all working in TV, doing soap operas, doing documentaries in the more sort of classical mode. I was just a little bit too impatient. I, perhaps, left a little bit early. Then they all went on and started making really interesting films.
O: With this film and Blue In The Face, it seems you've been exercising a license to do more experimental stuff. Has that been a problem throughout your career—conflicts between commercial interests and your own vision of a project?
WW: There always is. As Sydney Pollack always says, you've got one foot in art and one foot in commerce. I actually consciously choose to deal with that contradiction and conflict, just as I'm one side Chinese and one side American. I want to deal with that conflict, and try to push the envelope as much as I can. I want to make a film that's accessible to a lot of people, and yet challenge that same audience, too. It's not easy. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes it's interesting. Sometimes it works great.