It’s been a while since we have heard from Wayne Wang. In fact, it’s been a while since we have seen him cover some Asian ground in film — but that’s where Snow Flower and the Secret Fan comes into play.
Since Joy Luck Club, Wang has been laying low when it comes to Asian identity movies. He’s done more commercial fare like Anywhere But Here, Maid in Manhattan, and Last Holiday. He even did an very, very, very racy movie called The Center of the World — which he is proud to call a guilty pleasure. (He also has an affection for comedies like The Hangover, Animal House, Old School, and Dumb and Dumber — especially Dumb and Dumber).
He slowly started to wade in the pool of Asian-oriented movies with indie flicks like A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Princess of Nebraska. Then Lisa See‘s critically-acclaimed, bestselling novel crossed his path. Wang was first introduced to the book when his then-assistant from China insisted that he read it. So he did.
“I was quite moved by the friendship part of it and the whole thing about regret,” says Wang. “I tried to find out who optioned the book and found out they’ve been developing it for a while and that’s when I came in.”
The movie stars Bingbing Li and Gianna Jun as friends in different time periods: a story set in 19th century China, modern China and ’90s China. Wang decided to add more layers to the sisterhood-centric movie and it became an epic project for the director. We had the chance to talk to him about the movie, creating period-specific movies, Asian American identity in media and what he really thought about the Kato in the new Green Hornet movie.
Joy Luck Club dealt with Asian American identity across generations. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan seems similar. Do you feel the need to “reinvent” different stories about Asian American identity or do you think they are all different enough to tell fresh stories?
I think they are all different. I don’t see (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) as cross-generational so much as about friendship between two people. Joy Luck Club was about mothers and daughters across generations — this one is about the friendship between two women. The modern day story I added was also about the friendship between two women. One of them is connected to the past and that’s about it. I kind of want to consciously get away from some of the Joy Luck Club themes. This one is also about China — it has nothing to do with Chinese Americans. Joy Luck Club was about Chinese Americans with a little bit about where their mothers came from — so that’s really different. I never really dealt with China and the history of feet binding and things like that so those are all new things. That is also related to the fact that China is now so strong, powerful and has a film industry.
You’ve mentioned before that you had a connection with the history of bound feet, but at the same time, you did not want to do a period piece. Why were worried about making a movie that took place in a different era?
I am not a big period piece person. I get a lot of ideas by just standing on a corner and I see something and say, “Let’s film here!” or “Let’s film something about this or that!” With a period piece, you can’t really do that because everything is planned. Everything has to be specific. Every detail has to be worked out. I’m always a little leery of it. This time, I sort of accepted that challenge. I wanted to tell a story within a period and make it more visually theatrical — almost like paintings. We never moved the camera that much. There was a very “stage” look to it. I had fun doing it.
When adapting source material like novels into movies, do you feel extra cautious to stay true to the material or do you feel like the book and the movie should be different creatures?
I stay very cautious to maintain the original tone. We stayed pretty faithful with the period in the book and in the film — but we had to distill a lot of the things out to keep the essence of it. The modern story is also a way for me to create something. I’m interested in modern-day Shanghai — how global it is, how crazy it is, how difficult it is. Even those these women are free, independent, and could have their own lives, it not easy considering the competitive work world and their love lives. All these elements that come into play influence their friendship.
Considering the movie takes place in two time periods, what kind of challenges did you face during filming?
The problem was that there were three films in one. There’s the teenagers growing up in the ’90s in addition to the modern and period piece. We shot so much material I found that I had three films going on and that’s why I ended up simplifying a lot of stuff. It was one the most problematic films for me in the editing room. At one point a cut a version that was just a period piece — I actually threw out the modern story. In another version there is very little of the modern story and it was mostly period. There are many different versions!
How do you think Asian American identity in media has changed since you first started in the industry?
I think it’s reverting back (laughs). You know, all of a sudden, it seems like people don’t mind Fu Man Chu and Charlie Chan — they don’t seem to mind it. People really don’t care. The racist thing pretty much exists. If you think about how many Asian American films are made in a truthful way, there are none. If I go to a studio and say “I want to make Lisa See’s book” they would laugh at me because there is no audience. They’ll say, they’ll make a Latino film or a Tyler Perry film before they get to an Asian American film. That’s why it’s pretty rare that Florence Sloan and Wendi Murdoch would back a film like this and get it done in China. Ang Lee started with films like these but gave up on it. Justin Lin has given up since Better Luck Tomorrow.
Do you think we are “shrugging off” the whole Fu Man Chu and Charlie Chan stereotypes?
We are shrugging and we don’t care. I was just back east and talking to a lot of Asian Americans about this and they said, “We don’t care, we know who we are.” People and characters like Fu Man Chu an Charlie Chan and all the bad guy characters that appear in these movies — they don’t seem to be bothered by that. You know, The Green Hornet (movie) was a step backwards. Bruce Lee was so strong in the role of Kato and the guy who played him was a wimp! (laughs)
Do you think we can “sell Asian”?
We can’t sell Asian because there isn’t a box office for it. Nobody’s interested in telling a good story because they’ll just lose money on it. All these younger guys who are coming up and doing movies like Fast and Furious — they are breaking into the industry and it’s great. In the days when I first started going to Hollywood, it would be hard to find a director. Ang Lee and I were the only ones. There were very few Asians who were executives; now there are a lot more. Slowly everyone is breaking into the industry, but they are only making industry movies — which is good and important but I ask the question, “Who’s going to make films about us?” There are a lot of low budget indies, but nobody will be able to make a West Side Story about Chinatown.
How do you approach film topics and are you working on anything now?
I want to stay with the Chinese — or Asian at least — because no one else is doing it. I recently read “Charlie Chan” which is a big no-no (laughs) BUT the book is really about how Charlie Chan was based on a real detective in Honolulu named Apana and is a real person. I am much more interested in Apana as a detective and the fact that the guy who played Charlie Chan was Swedish and drunk most of the time. That book is very well written and I’m developing a film based on that.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan opens in select theaters on July 15.