By Nien-chen Lin
Stanley Rosen: Hi, my name is Stanley Rosen from the University of Southern California. I will be a juror for the 2017 Los Angeles Chinese Film Festival.
Nien-chen Lin: What do you expect from LACFF? What kinds of films are you expecting?
SR: I've been tasked with evaluating documentary films, but I’m also very interested in feature films and independent films. I would be most interested in seeing the level of creativity, filmmakers that think in a very independent way and come up with something which is innovative and new, in terms of story, subject, and the use of camera, and any number of things like cinematography. I'll be looking for something which is not too derivative, and story I think is probably the most important.
NL: In your opinion, what is the main difference between Chinese and American films?
SR: As you talk about American films it’s usually considered to be Hollywood films. There are so many different varieties of both Chinese and American films, but the U.S. is known particularly for Hollywood blockbuster films with big budgets and international stars. But of course, we have a lot of independent films and one of the main differences stems from the nature of distribution and marketing, distribution in the sense that we have a big independent film circuit. A fair number of theaters, at least in the bigger cities, will show at least some independent films, and even foreign language films. In China, even though they produce five or six hundred films a year, only a small percentage can get into the theaters. They don't yet have an art house film circuit, or they are just starting to develop that, with director Jia Zhangke playing an important role in this.
The two industries are coming a little bit closer together in that the Chinese industry is now producing films like Wolf Warrior 2, which are very similar to Hollywood films. The hero is not that perfect and is a very independent person; he is an individualist and he sets out on his goal as an individual quest. He ends up being kicked out of the Wolf Warriors and he ends up going to prison. At the beginning of the film he seems to have lost everything. But he’s very similar to an anti-hero, when he starts out standing up to authority.
The difference is that Chinese films at this point are mainly for the Chinese film market. They don't travel well outside of China and they tend to be big films, although some small films have also done surprisingly well at the Chinese box office. These more independent films are subject to more censorship. In that sense, Hollywood film is very different in that the market is really what is censoring these films. But in China it's not just the market, but also government censorship. But things are loosening up a bit. However, at the same time, there are other basic differences based on the role of government, the history, and the political culture.
NL: One of your areas of expertise is the relationship between Chinese film and Hollywood film. In one of your recent articles you wrote about the Chinese Dream and American Dream. You said that the Chinese Dream conflicts with the American Dream. Back to the example of Wolf Warrior 2, do you think that Chinese filmmakers are making their own dream apart from the American Dream?
SR: Wolf Warrior 2 is an interesting film. Although it's clearly a Chinese film with Chinese themes and patriotism, Wu Jing received some good advice from focus groups like we do in the U.S. as well. I've seen some aspects of the original script and how it was changed when the film was actually completed and exhibited. It also has some reliance on the Russo brothers who have done the Captain America films, for example they used his stunt coordinator and his stunt team.
But they were also intended for different audiences, Wolf Warrior 2 was made to succeed mostly in China. It may be shown in some other places and it’s done well in Malaysia and in places where there's a large Chinese community. When I went to see it in Los Angeles, the theater was almost all Chinese. Whereas Captain America is a film that is intended to play all over the world, and 70% of the box office will be outside of the States and Canada (North America). That’s one of the basic continuing differences, that China has not yet come up with films that will be successful outside of Chinese communities.
NL: Following that again, do you think it's possible that in the near future Chinese film will reach out to a worldwide audience?
SR: It's hard, because international stars and universal themes are important. Hollywood films are high concept films, which means that you can watch the film in different places and come up with different conclusions, like Avatar. You can see how different markets view the film differently. For example, in the U.S. it would be about environmental conditions and environmental rights, and in China it might be seen as property rights. It has a kind of universal appeal, whereas Chinese films, if you look at Wolf Warrior 2 again, which is obviously the biggest hit of all time in China, you see that it is very much for a Chinese audience. It's about China, Africa, and nationalism. It's about protecting Chinese people around the world. I don't think you can come up with an American film like that, at least in terms of those content details.
NL: What was the first Chinese film you remember watching?
SR: The first Chinese film I remember watching was in 1971, in Hong Kong. I watched a film called Wo Zhe Yi Beizi. It would sometimes be translated as Life of a Peking Policeman. Lao She wrote the novel. I was so taken with the film. The Cultural Revolution was still going on in China. I went to all the old bookstores in Hong Kong, trying to find the original novel. I found it in a back room in Mong Kok. I read the novel and it really taught me a lot. The film was made in 1950, and it goes up to 1949, the victory of the People's Liberation Army in China, but the book ended in the early 1920s and none of the political stars or the Communist party were in there. It was completely revised to reflect the current political conditions, to the point that at the end of the film, it even said it was adapted from the Lao She novel. It's a short novel. It's about the last days of the overthrow of the Manchu Qing dynasty, followed by early part of the Warlord period in China. This taught me that this film is meant to serve the revolution, and no matter what the original story is, it can be completely changed. The whole story in the Lao She novel is about the hard life of the common people. Rickshaw Boy, or Luotuo Xiangzi, is another example by Lao She of the hard life of people in Peking. That’s focused on local rickshaw drivers, and there’s also one in Peking Policeman. However, the Peking Policeman film basically changed the larger story. People of course still have a very hard life. However, the story is meant to argue that all these people who were suffering don't realize that they can’t solve their problems on their own. They need an organized movement like the Chinese Communist Party or the People's Liberation Army to solve their problems. And they are depicted as foolish for not realizing this. This is made clear in one of the important scenes in the film where the main character, a policeman in Peking, is in prison, unjustly arrested. He's in the same cell as a communist revolutionary who's about to be executed. He says to the revolutionary: "I don't understand this. I've lived my entire life as a good person. I've always tried to do good things. How did I end up like this?" and the communist revolutionary says: "Because you are a fool. You don't realize that living a good life on your own is not enough to solve your problems. You need to rely on the movement and the communists to solve your problems. We all work together collectively. Working individually is not going to solve your problems." So it is there for a political purpose completely different from the novel.
That was the first mainland Chinese film I saw, and of course I saw plenty of others after that, like Biao from the late 40s, another film about children living as beggars on the streets. In fact, in the film Wo Zhe Yi Beizi, the main character dies on the streets during a snowstorm in the late 1940’s. There's a scene put in after that where the People's Liberation Army comes on screen triumphantly, and that's the end of the film.
NL: So who's your favorite Chinese director and why?
SR: There’re so many good directors. I can just tell you a couple of films and directors. Jia Zhangke‘s film Xiao Wu (The Pickocket), and Zhan Tai (Platform). Zhang Yimou's Gui Lai (Coming Home) and Huozhe (To Live). Chen Kaige's Bawang Bie Ji (Farewell My Concubine). Li Yang’s Mangjing (Blind Shaft), which was a great film I showed it in my class. Huang Jiaxin's Heipao Shijian (Black Cannon Incident) from mid 80s. I would also include his Bei Kao Bei, Lian Dui Lian (Back to Back, Face to Face). Lou Ye's Suzhou He (Suzhou River). Xie Jin's Fu Rong Zhen (Hibiscus Town). Too many to list!
NL: Do you want to say something to the filmmakers or the audience of LACFF?
SR: I look forward to watching and sharing the films in the theater. I would like to see films in a theater with other people so you can see their reaction. It's particularly good to see a film where the filmmakers, or people involved in making the film, are there to do a Q&A afterwards, so you can find out much more about what went into the making of the film. So I'm very much looking forward to seeing some very, very good films.
I hope to see everybody at the Los Angeles Chinese Film Festival this November!
Proofreading editor: Liz Carter