By Scott Proudfit
All great directors are great storytellers, but few relish the craft of storytelling like Wayne Wang. Time and again, his films reveal the power and seduction of stories. In The Joy Luck Club, the force of four mothers' stories forges a chain from the past to the complicated present-day of their daughters' lives. Their tales provide answers for tough questions, but more importantly fill their children with strength and purpose, giving them the ability to succeed as wives, mothers, and women.
In Smoke, a cinematic homage to tale spinners, Wang examines the bonds created through the sharing of stories. In the final scene, Auggie, the cigar store manager, gives his writer friend the present of a perfect Christmas story, the truthfulness of which is highly suspect. Still, it's clear, to the director at least, that whether it's fact or fiction doesn't really matter; it's the story that does.
The value of story over all else is something director Wayne Wang earnestly professed in a recent interview.
"My central role is absolutely that of the storyteller," agreed the director. "Actually, more than stories, I enjoy telling really interesting lies that capture people and yet at the same time help them understand something about what truth is. I think sometimes there is more truth in a story."
Wang's current feature, Chinese Box, is a web of lies and half-truths. Focusing on a British journalist (Jeremy Irons) in the months before China regained control of Hong Kong, Wang examines a city with a past obscured by lies and an unforeseeable future. Rather than try to capture the single essential story of this city, his film reveals the fundamental inscrutability of Hong Kong and its inhabitants. His characters include a nightclub manager (Gong Li) whose former life is shrouded in mystery and a hustler (Maggie Cheung) who entangles the journalist in the improvised fictions of her childhood in the city, ultimately leading him to more questions than answers.
The style of the film, part documentary and part big-screen romance, also calls into question the reality of the images on-screen. Lines between real and unreal, between character and actor, are blurred. Wang said he likes to keep his audience actively questioning the validity of what they see.
"When I started making films, I made fake documentaries, because I've always believed that all documentaries and all news footage are manipulated," he said. "Chinese Box is all fiction, but it also contains these contradictions between fact and fiction, improvisation and script, documentary and artificial images, actors and characters, real people and actors. I like that sort of chop suey of contradiction. It forces people to think."
It's not hard to imagine why someone with Wang's background might be obsessed with contradiction. As he put it, "I like things clashing, because I've got this clashing within myself." Wang was born and raised in Hong Kong, and attended an English-run Jesuit high school there. At the age of 18, he traveled to the U.S. to study film and painting at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Calif. Wang feels that these three cultures--Chinese, British, and American--are still fighting for domination of his identity.
And this internecine battle has a lot to do with his interest in truth and perception. Wang's trip to the States, he said, was one of the first times the director was forced to examine the validity of images vs. experience.
"All I knew about America were Westerns, war movies, the Rock Hudson comedies, and the soap operas," he said. "I was sold on the reality of America through those films. Then, when I came here, I saw that it was completely different. In Hong Kong, you don't hear about the poverty. You don't hear about racism, or any number of things."
The throughline that Wang found in his experiences in China and in America was his love for the urban environment, whether in Hong Kong, San Francisco, or New York.
"I love cities!" he exclaimed. "The stories that I'm interested in all happen to be in cities. It's the chaos that appeals to me, and the fact that so many different kinds of people are trying to survive together."
But making a film about the city of his youth was not always a love affair, the director admitted. After traveling to Hong Kong in early '96 with novelist Paul Theroux and developing stories there for a possible script, Wang returned to the States and began to re-consider his plan.
"I sort of backed out of the project," he confessed. "It was too much, besides I read a really good script at Columbia that I wanted to do. When Paul heard, he called me up and said I really was a chickenshit, that it was my responsibility to make a movie about Hong Kong. Who else was going to do it? I was really hurt, really pissed off. It took me a while, but I came back to the project. Of course, by then Paul had already started several books and wasn't interested in doing a movie. So I hooked up with Jean-Claude Carrire, a great writer."
Once committed to the story, Wang wanted to film the actual events on the night of June 30, 1997, the handover of Hong Kong from England to China. He found that a deadline in real time held a lot more weight than a release date. The director supervised two camera crews at different locations that evening, while three other crews shot footage at other city locales. It paid off, as he captured the first public protest by the democratic group in Hong Kong challenging China's revocation of the city's demonstration laws.
Wang felt the only way to successfully combine the immediacy of the actual events with the plot was to work in a mixed style of improv and script--sort of a combination of his two most recent films, Smoke and Blue in the Face.
"Smoke was a little too restrictive, spiritually or visually or whatever," said Wang. "But I felt I had to do it because I respected the words [the script was by novelist Paul Auster]. It was a discipline." Blue in the Face, a completely improvised film based on Smoke's characters, was "like letting the mental patients out of the institution. Chinese Box was a mix of the two."
Out of Mind
Wang said the emotional impetus behind his choice to direct Chinese Box was also a mix--part out of love of his childhood city and part duty. As an Asian-American director, Wang is no stranger to the concept of duty. When he was younger, he felt a responsibility to tell Asian-American stories with Asian-American casts. Fortunately, this led to some of his best work, in films like Eat a Bowl of Tea and Dim Sum.
But every great storyteller has the ability to step out of his own mind and see through the eyes of others. Wang has demonstrated this skill in movies like Slamdance and Smoke, which feature only minor Asian-American characters. In fact, his next project, Anywhere But Here, based on the Mona Simpson novel, stars Susan Sarandon, and has little to do with Wang's heritage.
In another example of Wang's ability to tell the "other" story, he's become known as one of the most insightful directors of mother/daughter relationships (cf. Joy Luck Club), which has actually led to some problems with his friends.
"I've been accused by Asian men of misrepresenting them, because of all the more feminine films I've made," said Wang. "I tell them I've always wanted to make a real men's film, maybe a gangster story set in America somewhere. But I haven't found the right material yet."
Of course, Wang doesn't feel he'll ever stop making pictures with primarily Asian-American casts altogether.
"It's part of my life, my culture. I know it well. And I'll probably always be drawn to it," he said. "But at the same time, I no longer feel obligated or responsible for it. For a while I was, but now I'm kind of free from that."
The important thing is to keep working, Wang believes. It's a work ethic he inherited from his father, a retired engineer.
"My father is kind of a driven man, with a lot of expectations of his kids," said the director. He compared his relationship to his father with that in Joy Luck Club between Lindo and Waverly, a child chess prodigy who is pushed very hard by her mother. "That's really the relationship between my father and myself. It's the story I'm most connected to in that film."
Considering the master storyteller Wayne Wang has become, one can only imagine that today his father is quite proud. BS