Interview with Michael Berry

By Nien-chen Lin

Michael Berry: Hello everyone, I am Michael Berry. It’s a pleasure to be serving on the jury for the 2017 Los Angeles Chinese Film Festival.

Nien-chen Lin: What do you expect from LACFF? What kinds of films are you expecting?

MB: It’s best when you go to any film festival and to approach it as if you are going to see any film, and that’s to not have expectations. Because so often when you go to see a film, you have a certain generic expectations that it’s going to be action film, or drama, or horror film. That excuses how you approach these films. I think for a film festival, it’s a kind of microcosm of all these different films with all different styles and visions of these various directors. I think it’s best when you come to a film festival where you let go all your expectations and just be prepared to go on these exciting new journeys with films you haven’t seen and experienced.

The ways these two industries have evolved, the type of films that came out of China versus those of Hollywood, you just have a very different history, political context, sensibility in terms of storytelling and the aesthetics.

NL: In your opinion, what is the main difference between Chinese and American films?

MB: While there’s certainly some mutual inflow, it’s more so from Hollywood into China rather than the other way around. Although in the last few years there have been a lot of Chinese inflows coming into the Hollywood and the industry. If you look back historically, the ways these two industries have evolved, the type of films that came out of China versus those of Hollywood, you just have a very different history, political context, sensibility in terms of storytelling and the aesthetics. They are coming from very different places although the two industries do interact and collaborate in certain ways as they have over the years. But I think they are still very different industries. The industries and the films both function very differently. So it’s hard to pinpoint one thing when you are trying really look at why or how they are different. But one thing is for sure, you can’t take the kind of market, cinematic and aesthetic values that you project at one industry and then apply them wholeheartedly to the other. They don’t translate directly. Of course a lot of big Hollywood blockbuster films have done very well in the Chinese market. But when you look at local Chinese films, there’s just a different sensibility, style of storytelling, mythology, and political subtext that they are playing off against. That creates very exciting biosphere of different types of films.

The pitfall of a lot of co-productions is that the eventual output isn’t something innovative, exciting, and dynamic but very conservative and not taking a lot of risks.

NL: Do you think the co-productions between China and Hollywood are helping the two industries to communicate?

MB: Co-productions, in terms of the way the industries function, it does help them communicate because they’ve got to work together, to collaborate, to bring these different studio heads and directors, producers, actors and crews to come together to create something. There is a certain learning curve that both sides need to go on when they come to the table. Each side is required to step outside their comfort zones a little bit and learn about how the other industry operates. At the same time, an ideal situation you would hope when you have a co-production is that hopefully you are going to take the best elements from the Chinese film industry and the best from the Hollywood industry or other foreign partners involved and bring them together and create something new, exciting, innovative, something people haven’t seen before. However, what often happens with the co-production model is that the stakes are so high in terms of the investment. Also there are so much calculation in terms of figuring out what’s going to work for the Chinese market, the American market, or other global markets. When you try to make a film that’s supposed to please everybody, it’s like trying to cook a meal for a group of guests: this one is a vegetarian and this one doesn’t eat spicy food. Basically everybody has their restrictions and tastes. If you want to make something that’s going to pleases everybody it turns out to be something very bland and doesn’t really have any unique characteristics. The pitfall of a lot of co-productions is that the eventual output isn’t something innovative, exciting, and dynamic but very conservative and not taking a lot of risks. That’s really one of the tragedies of a lot of the co-productions that have been made over the last several years.

I think one of the important aspects of this film festival is it’s meant to highlight independent cinema. Within China there’s increasingly fewer forms for independent cinema to flourish and to shine, so this is a great opportunity to see these younger filmmakers and these new and exciting cinematic visions.

NL: Do you want to say something to the filmmakers/audience?

MB: For audiences, this is a great opportunity to see a lot of new and exciting Chinese films that you are not going to see elsewhere. One of the tragedies of Chinese film industry in the last several years is that how much it’s been dominated overwhelmingly so by big budget commercial films. What that has meant is that smaller budget, more independent films, short films, films that ideologically or a little bit more risky just don’t have a form to be exhibited and to be enjoyed. I think one of the important aspects of this film festival is it’s meant to highlight independent cinema. Within China there’s increasingly fewer forms for independent cinema to flourish and to shine, so this is a great opportunity to see these younger filmmakers and these new and exciting cinematic visions. I hope people can come out and support these films. 

NL: What was the most impressive Chinese films that you’ve watched?

MB: When I think about some of the Chinese films that most impressed me over the years, the vast majority of them have not come out from the major studio but smaller and independent films. Films like Xiao Wu (1997) by Jia Zhangke, also known as Pickpocket, it’s a very intimate portrait of a young man in the mid-90s, who was trying to get by in the town that’s caught up in the thrills of the transition. Or other early 6th generation films by Wang Xiaoshuai and Zhang Yuan. Their films were just very daring, they were doing something below the radar, looking in marginalized figures living on the edges of the societies. They weren’t the kind of figures normally you saw or talked about in mainstream films or depicted in novels or seen in the news at night. These were the kind of the everyday person, not the hero, and certainly not the archetypes of socialist China like the workers, the peasants, and the soldiers. In this new and very exciting cinematic vision, I am really happy that the Los Angeles Chinese Film Festival is picking up the independent thread of Chinese cinema and trying to create a new form for those types of films that have a way forward. 

A lot of PRC film festivals focus mostly on films from the PRC and the same for other regions. Given we are in the third space here in Los Angeles, the focus can really be on just good filmmaking that’s depicting the Chinese reality whether it’s coming from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, overseas film directors who are working in China.

Another very valuable aspect of Los Angeles Chinese Film Festival is the openness because there are a lot of festivals in Asia are increasingly and ideologically bend to a certain geographic site. A lot of PRC film festivals focus mostly on films from the PRC and the same for other regions. Given we are in the third space here in Los Angeles, the focus can really be on just good filmmaking that’s depicting the Chinese reality whether it’s coming from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, overseas film directors who are working in China. So that it brings a certain global vision to the festival, which is very exciting and very unlike what you’ve seen in a lot of the other Chinese-language film festivals.

I look forward to see everyone this November at the inaugural of Los Angeles Chinese Film Festival! 

 

Proofreading editor: Luke Fisher