The Upcoming and Wayne Wang put the world to rights
Chinese-American director Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing, The Joy Luck Club) is at the Berlinale this week for the first time since he won a Silver Bear for Smoke in 1995. He returns with a very different film entitled While the Women Are Sleeping, an all-Japanese production based on the short story by Javier Marias. The Upcoming met him for an entertaining conversation that covered topics as varied as filmmaking, politics, and stockings.
We learned some things from While the Women Are Sleeping that we didn’t know before, thanks to the grey-whiskered bar owner: the intensive breeding of calico cats, the unit of measurement for stockings – the most sexually appealing weight being 40–60 denier, apparently?
That’s right, and in fact Lily Frankie, who played that part, is a novelist, and he carries a lot of information around in his head, so he can be very useful. He added a lot of those extra details himself. We gave him room to do that and there was a lot of it, but then we just narrowed it back down. For instance, that thing about the denier of stockings was in the script but he embellished it – you know, the detail of the stitching and the way it stretches around the knee.
But the core fact was already in the script. So this was something you had already picked up and had stored away?
These little nuggets seem like the kind of things that might be plucked out of a writer’s notebook. Do you have your own scrapbook of inspiration?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m always looking around me and observing people. Looking out for the strangeness in normality, peeking into dark corners. I would like to take things from my scrapbook of inspiration more often, and use them in other films, but then there’s usually a budget issue, which limits how much you can add to the script.
It’s a way of working that seems to be instinctive to you. For example, in Chinese Box, which you made during the Hong Kong handover, you allowed a lot of space for the unfolding events to be incorporated into the film.
Yes, I’ve always been like that. It’s just a part of who I am. But actually we made a mistake with Chinese Box. We went there thinking that a lot more was going to happen during the handover, but in the end it was quite boring. The British and the Chinese had it all so organised, and it was so controlled that nothing unexpected was ever going to happen. And we were really scratching around trying to find things for Jeremy Irons to interact with. It was too soon – just on the cusp. But here we are – what is it? – nearly 20 years later and now a lot of things are happening. And yes, right now, that’s something that’s gone into my scrapbook of inspiration. These three booksellers from Hong Kong who went missing. They were publishing books that the Chinese government didn’t like, so they were charged with criminal activities and suddenly disappeared.
Sounds like something you might need to investigate for your next film.
Well, I don’t know enough about it yet, but yes I’m going to go and see what I can find out.
Better watch your back then.
[Laughs] Right! But no, really, it’s getting very serious now, all this surveillance everywhere. There’s always somebody watching you. There’s a bit of that in this film, with the cameras around the hotel that capture Kenji. I was in London recently and it’s the worst I’ve ever seen it there. It’s worse than Hong Kong. Everywhere you go there are cameras in London.
One last question before you go, and it’s about Rachel Ingalls (who wrote Last Act: The Madhouse, the novel that inspired a character in Chinese Box). She seems to be very elusive. Nobody seems to know what’s happened to her. Do you know where she is?
I think she’s a very private person. But I was in touch with her quite a lot when we were making Chinese Box because I wanted her approval for what we were planning with this character, you see. And I still want to make a film based completely on that book, Last Act: The Madhouse. It’s just a question of getting the funds together, so I will need to contact her again sometime.
She’s a fascinating character – just the kind of person who you would feel drawn to and intrigued by.
Oh yes, without a doubt. She’s an eccentric, and I love eccentrics.
Well there’s a surprise! Thanks for your time, Wayne.
Martin Rhys Davies
Read more of our reviews and interviews from the festival here.
For further information about Berlin Film Festival 2016 visit here.