After "Spicy Love Soup," Zhang Takes "Shower"
by Augusta Palmer
Something about Zhang Yang‘s “Shower” wins audiences over regardless of whether they are Chinese, Canadian, European, or American. Veteran producer and native New Yorker Peter Loehr has unwittingly discovered a formula for making films that are both local and global in their appeal. Already successful in China with “Spicy Love Soup“(also directed by Zhang Yang) and “Beautiful New World“(directed by Shi Runjiu), Loehr’s Imar Film Co. is trying to open up China’s film market to domestically produced independent movies.
And, though Zhang and Loehr claim no interest in marketing tie-ins, they have audiences from China to New York clamoring to buy the “invention” seen in “Shower”‘s opening sequence. Their futuristic public shower is a cross between an automated public restroom and a car wash, which not only required a team of aeronautical engineering students and $10,000, but also forced director Zhang Yang to literally put his ass on the line for the film – it’s his posterior you’ll see in the film’s first scene.
Set in a Beijing bathhouse, “Shower” is actually a story about fathers and sons which hinges on the preservation of traditional spaces and values, rather than the creation of technological wonders. The film was made for only $400,000 and will be released by Sony Pictures Classics on July 7. indieWIRE sat down with Zhang and Loehr the day after “Shower” had won Best Film and Zhang Yang won Best Director at the Seattle Film Festival to talk about the film’s success and the state of independent filmmaking in China.
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indieWIRE:Congratulations on winning best film and best director at the Seattle Film Festival. “Shower” has received awards in Toronto, Thessaloniki, Rotterdam and San Sebastian as well as in China. Did you expect the film to be so successful? And what do you think are the reasons for its success and its “translatability”?
Peter Loehr: I really don’t know. The film’s main themes — family, the relationship between the father and the son, the two brothers, and the theme of modernization and losing certain things as progress goes on — are much more universal than we thought. We thought it was very local, but we went to various places and found that the audience laughed at the exact same times. The reaction outside China was almost identical to the reaction inside China. That was very surprising to us. We found that out very early in Toronto. The audience reaction was so strong that the press and industry screening was full. If there hadn’t been such an audience response, I don’t think anyone would have been there. We thought this was the most local and the least international of our three films, and this is the one that’s broken out.
iW: The acting in “Shower” is very strong; there’s a very genuine character to the performances. Is this something you see as crucial to the film’s success and how did you work with the actors to achieve it?
Zhang: The actors who play the father and the older son are very famous stage actors in China. The problem with working with stage actors is that they have a tendency to over act, so I tried to get them to be more relaxed; to pull them back and make the characters more real. Also, with Jiang Wu, who plays the younger mentally challenged brother, it would have been easy to overplay the role, making it less believable. We spent a lot of time talking, discussing how we’d balance the role in a way that his character would come out, but not go over the top and turn people off.
iW: Is that why you originally resisted casting Jiang Wu (brother of recent Cannes Grand Prix winner Jiang Wen) as Er Ming? And how did he end up with the role?
Zhang: At the beginning, I wanted to cast someone who was actually mentally challenged in the role. Then we went to many hospitals and institutions but we couldn’t find anyone who really satisfied us. Jiang Wen was in one of our other films (“Beautiful New World“) and he’d seen the script for “Shower” and really liked it. He tried to persuade me to cast him, but I was still going to institutions to look for a mentally challenged person to play the role. So, he went with me to many of these institutions. He also put on weight and tried to make himself look more like the character. So I finally felt he was very sincere about wanting to do this and that he could really perform the role well.
iW: Do you consider “Shower” an independent film? I know that your company, Imar Film Co., has a relationship with Xian Film Studios — is that a nominal relationship?
Loehr: It’s a totally independent film. You have to go through a studio to get a license, so we have a license through Xian Film Studios. Other than that, they’re not involved in the script, they’ve never been on the set, and we distribute and market the films by ourselves. We’re the only company doing it exactly this way. We’re still the only independent film company in China.
The Chinese film market is really, really bad. Ninety percent of all Chinese films lose a lot of money. Western films, especially big blockbusters, do better. So, for us, the question is, how do we compete with a Western film? There is plenty of room for more and more good Chinese films. We don’t need to compete with Chinese films because there are only two or three a year the audience watches. But, how do we go out and beat, say, “Armageddon“? The most important thing for us is to try to make films that are very close to Chinese people’s lives, films that a foreign director couldn’t make, and that includes a Taiwan or a Hong Kong director.
Our films are very down-to-earth; they’re set in big Chinese cities, and they’re shot by first or second time directors. How do we attract people to a Chinese film when they can go out and see anything they want any time they want to on pirate (DVD)? The most important thing is to focus on relationships and feelings, which are the most Chinese things you could deal with.
We don’t have big budgets, we don’t have special effects; we don’t have Brad Pitt. So we try to make something that they can identify with. There’s not really a company model influence because I don’t think anyone has done this anywhere. We’re not really a distributor; we only distribute our own films. And the only standard we have is: would we like this?
iW: Do you expect there will be more companies in China following your model?
Loehr: We hope so, because two or three films a year does not a market make. At one point it really seemed like there were going to be some. “Spicy Love Soup” had a huge impact and everybody started trying to copy this model. One company had a lot of money and then their building was under-rented and the film was dead. Some people shot films but didn’t know how to release them so their films died. There’s kind of been a cooling down period, but hopefully some people will start to step into the vacuum. With more U.S films coming in after WTO, the studios are definitely going to die off. So if a bunch of independent film companies don’t jump into that vacuum, then the market will be in very big trouble.
iW: How would you compare what Imar Film is doing to what Sixth Generation filmmakers like Zhang Yuan (“Seventeen Years”) are doing?
Loehr: I think it’s quite different in that we’re trying to make films for China and Zhang Yuan is trying to make films for film festivals. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we feel that if we’re going to say something about China we’d like the Chinese audience to see it. We’re not going to change China through French film critics. We’re going to change China through the Chinese audience saying, “Hey, we should think about that. That’s not good.” And, though we may do it in a subtle way, that message does get out. Foreign funding means that you have to make a film that’s totally suited to a foreign market. And the best way to get a foreign market is through film festivals. So you have to make a film that’s very suited to win awards at film festivals. And if those films aren’t seen in China it’s kind of a waste.
iW: What do you think of the way that politics has been used to sell Chinese films?
Zhang: Since the 1950s and 1960s, film has always been a propaganda tool in China. That’s the problem on the China side. There are all these movies that the audience doesn’t want to watch because they’re so full of propaganda. So no one goes to the theaters. And the Chinese government hasn’t really considered that aspect of films: that they should be a joy to watch. By the same token, outside of China the concept of China as this repressed place and the conception of the filmmaker as an oppressed artist make it seem like a movie banned in China must be a good movie, and must be a political movie. But it’s not necessarily that way. A movie doesn’t have to be banned in China to be a good movie. You should look at a movie as a movie, not as a political instrument, whether you’re in China or outside of China.
[Augusta Palmer is a free-lance film writer and a doctoral student in Cinema Studies at New York University whose dissertation will focus on urban Chinese cinemas in the 1990s.]