INTERVIEW: An Independent Chinese Voice; Wang Chao And "The Orphan of Anyang"
by Gabe Klinger and Ray Privett (translated by Sophia Wong Boccio)
(indieWIRE/ 02.04.02) — A man loses his job, and finds a new life in “The Orphan of Anyang,” from the talented first-time writer/director/editor Wang Chao. Just after being fired, Dangan, a humble factory worker in the Chinese city of Anyang, finds an abandoned baby. The child’s mother, a prostitute, promises a few pennies to whoever cares for the baby. Dangan takes in the child. Ultimately, he takes in the mother herself, and all her other troubles. “The Orphan of Anyang” has already captured the international film press prize at the Chicago International Film Festival, and has also been celebrated in Cannes, Rotterdam, Telluride, Toronto, Vancouver, and elsewhere. “The Orphan of Anyang” shows April 6-7 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, as part of the New Directors / New Films festival.
indieWIRE: Let’s talk about your background.
Wang Chao: I was born in a blue-collar family, in a worker’s home. After my high school graduation, I tried to get into college but I couldn’t get accepted, so during that time I started working. The following six years, I worked in three different factories. During my teenage days, I was frequently sick. I had a problem with bronchitis. Because I was always sick I spent a lot of time thinking, using my imagination. I used to write little poems, and read a lot of magazines, including film magazines. I also started reading a lot of foreign-language scripts translated into Chinese. When I finally got into the film academy in Beijing, I had already read all the scripts of the movies I saw. I was a late-starter; I got into the school when I was 26. But I think I went in with a lot of life experience. In a lot of ways, compared to other young students I was more mature with my writing and social skills.
iW: Do you think you have stronger literary or cinematic influences?
Chao: For me, personally, it’s well blended into one. When I started writing poems, I had filmmaking in mind, so the poems were like little scenes in movies. Now, I still value those poems, and think that if I make them into films, they will be the best films I could make. In some ways, certain scenes in “The Orphan of Anyang” already incorporate my early poems in terms of how we arranged the shots and the set. Looking at the finished film, I know it all started from the poems.
iW: How did the story evolve?
Chao: China is going through a lot of changes — economic, sociological, and so forth. Everyone is going through a lot of difficult issues. Like everyone else, I am experiencing this. So really, this is not just the story of this baby, this orphan. “The Orphan of Anyang” opens up a little window to say something about China in general.
iW: The film is very still, but you emphasize certain scenes by using pans.
Chao: I wanted the camera to show exactly what happened on the set, without saying much. In that scene when Dangan helps a bus driver to change a tire, I used a pan to show a feeling of loneliness. The entire movie was shot with a still camera, except for the ending scene, which uses a handheld camera. This scene shows a breakthrough in the female character’s emotional state of mind.
In that scene, the woman hands the baby to somebody else as she is chased by policemen. We then see that Dangan, who is no longer around, is the one holding the baby. In a way, this can symbolize Dangan’s ghost coming back for the baby. But in reality, it is the girl fantasizing the baby is in the right hands. Still, the man who receives the baby is another guy wearing the same overcoat as Dangan. So you have the sense that this could or couldn’t be Dangan.
iW: Two shots in the film have the camera facing upward towards a light bulb. Why are these shots there?
Chao: The shot of the light bulb on the ceiling is from the point of view of Dangan lying in bed at home. In the first scene, if you listen closely to the sounds, you can hear him masturbating. At that point he is just a bachelor. And then later on, in the second shot, he is with the baby, but again he is masturbating, though this time he is a little more controlled. Before and after the baby comes into his life, these shots show his loneliness and desire.
iW: Can you talk about developing the roles with the actors?
Chao: Aside from the female lead, the entire cast was made up of non-professional actors. I went to the city of Anyang four times, and out of the four visits, three were for casting purposes. I visited lots of old Chinese flea markets and dog markets to find the right actors. I looked at people’s eyes especially. I put together about 10 people for the role of Dangan. Out of the 10, I found the current actor to be very calm, but also with some personality and a little dignity and hope. The female lead is from Beijing; I noticed a slight stubbornness in her. She has a strong spirit. I thought that while she could play the part of a poor prostitute, she does not convey misery.
The gangsters in the film are real gangsters — not big gangsters, just local hoods. The way they walk on the street and in groups, you can never find professional actors to do that.
iW: Dangan is poor and the only way he is able to survive is by collecting welfare wages for the baby. Is this a plausible reality in China?
Chao: I don’t know of any such incidents. But this could happen. I actually find that the Dangan character comes from a lot of my own personal experience. Because of factory workers’ low-income, it’s very hard to find a woman. So I had the same sexual frustrations as Dangan. While writing the script, I had to decide whether this would just be the story of Dangan, or whether it would include three stories that weren’t all so personal. Finally, I decided on the latter because it helped flesh out the film.
“The Orphan of Anyang” presents all my personal views of China, destiny, workers, and so on. I couldn’t go to the government and ask them to support this. If I worked for a major studio and proposed this project, the censors would reject it. As a completely independent production, we didn’t have this trouble.
But I faced other problems. The film is legal, but it doesn’t have official state support. I didn’t have access to post-production labs, and I haven’t yet found a proper distribution channel. Eventually, I will have to find a way for it to show in China, where it hasn’t shown yet.
iW: Do you have any opinion on other Asian filmmakers, such as those working in Taiwan?
Chao: I have seen most of Hou Hsiao-hsien‘s films. He’s very well known in China. But I wouldn’t say I’m influenced by him. Still, because we both come from Asian backgrounds, I think we have similar relations to time and space. Speaking personally, I have very little contact with Hong Kong and Taiwan. I have seen a lot of films coming from there, but I don’t have a lot of contact with the filmmakers.
It seems like when Hou and Tsai Ming-liang first started working, they were more concerned with the outside world. They have now widened their scope, and become better filmmakers. Now, they’re focused more on the internal feelings of their characters. This is a more natural focus in their progression as filmmakers. Both of these directors have struggled very hard against the circumstances of their film industry and have become better filmmakers as a result of it. I myself am just beginning that struggle.