INTERVIEW: Crouching Ambition, Hidden Finances; Ann Hu's "Magic"
by Augusta Palmer
(indieWIRE/ 04.06.01) — Ann Hu can hardly be faulted for her lack of ambition. For her directorial debut, “Shadow Magic,” she pulled off a major international co-production. After leaving her native China in 1979, Hu studied business at New York University. But when she started her career as a commodities trader, Hu would have been the last to guess she’d make the transition from financier to filmmaker.
“I’m not from a film background, so I never would have imagined it [as a career].” Meeting acclaimed Chinese director Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine“) through mutual friends, “opened the door” into the world of filmmaking, she says. “But it took another three years to wrap up my business career.” Afterwards, she painted, wrote, studied photography, and, in 1992, took a two-month continuing education course in filmmaking at NYU. After that, Hu decided she “wouldn’t ever be bored again.” Not long after completing her first student film, Hu became interested in a script that later became “Shadow Magic,” the Sony Pictures Classics release that premiered at Sundance 2000.
The film has been described as a valentine to early cinema, but at its center lies a compelling story about cross-cultural exchange. Set in 1902, the film depicts the arrival of the moving picture in Beijing. Jared Harris plays Raymond Wallace, a down-on-his-luck Englishman hoping to make his fortune by bringing cinematic technology to China, a country whose language and customs he is almost entirely ignorant of. Xia Yu plays Liu Jinglun, a curious young photo shop employee who is fascinated by Wallace’s equipment and takes pity on his cultural ignorance. This unlikely couple joins forces to introduce Beijing audiences — from tradesmen to the Empress Dowager — to the wonders of cinema. Fraught with cultural misunderstandings and technical difficulties like exploding nitrate, the arrival of the motion picture in China is portrayed as both literally and metaphorically incendiary.
When the film opens in the U.S. on April 6, it will be six years since Hu started work on the project. She began rewriting a script she had received in 1995, three years before she would start production. After a three-month shoot in 1998, Hu spent 10 months of 1999 in the cutting room, getting her first full print back in January of 2000.
Not surprisingly, the lion’s share of the six years Hu worked on the film was spent fundraising. With roughly eight major investors, including Wim Wenders‘ Road Movies, Post Production Playground, Schulberg Productions, Beijing Film Studios, and Taiwan’s Central Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC), “Shadow Magic” is a truly international production. When asked how she obtained funding from so many sources, Ann Hu smiles, “How does it look to you? It looks very organized, right?” According to co-producer Sandra Schulberg, whose own grandfather B.P. Schulberg was an American film pioneer, one of Hu’s unique qualities is her “ability to bring people together in a way I’ve rarely seen anyone do,” Schulberg says.
Another trait which helped Hu manage the film’s international investors, cast, and crew was her childhood experience during the Cultural Revolution. When Hu was only eleven, her parents were sent down to the countryside and Hu was forced to fend for herself and her younger brother. “I learned to develop a kind of blind confidence, and did not respect any kind of authority for a long time,” says Hu. “I’m not going to be intimidated by anyone.”
In the summer of 1998, Hu decided to invest her own savings to start shooting. “Otherwise,” says Hu, “I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you today.”
Even the historic first of an official co-production between a Mainland Chinese studio, Beijing Film Studios, and a Taiwanese government studio, CMPC, didn’t faze the new director: “It was about trust and cooperation. It was actually quite easy, because I kept everything on a business and personal level rather than a national or political level.”
The large number of investors in different locations, using different languages, and holding varying expectations made basic communication about the film’s progress a challenge. Hu and her producers hired an accounting firm to distribute the finances according to an “extremely comprehensive” spreadsheet, which detailed exactly whose money was being spent on exactly which aspect of the production. Later, the accountants admitted it was the most complex spreadsheet ever developed by that firm. Despite these complications, the large number of investors may have been a blessing in disguise. “Having too many bosses,” says Hu, “is almost like having no boss at all.”
Hu managed to keep her investors satisfied, but she also knew that she had to think about yet another set of expectations: “I was very aware of the audience. It was like fighting for my right to live. I wanted to keep my integrity while reaching as many people as possible. As long as I knew I wasn’t sacrificing my vision to please, that was fine.”
In addition to the many years searching for financing, a prodigious amount of energy also went into detailed historical research: such as which early filmmakers and exhibitors went to China; what kind of footage they shot with what kind of cameras; and finally whether any of it still existed in film archives. Several pieces of rare archival footage serve to anchor the film within its setting, complementing the painstakingly detailed set and costume designs — the aged patina of an archival pan across Beijing’s Forbidden City provides a sense of “being there” entirely absent from, and a lot cheaper than, a computer generated recreation.
Strong performances by Harris and Xia Yu, along with the hard work of the rest of the film’s international cast and crew helped “Shadow Magic” win multiple prizes at both Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards and China’s Golden Rooster Awards. The director is now in pre-production for her next project, “a love story set against extreme human conflicts” which will begin shooting in China early next year. “The finances are more or less there,” says Hu, breathing a sigh of relief that the funding will be less of a headache this time around.
In the current global environment of filmmaking, where a film like “Crouching Tiger” was greenlit by studio bosses in L.A., co-produced by New York-based Good Machine and Hong Kong-based Columbia Pictures Asia, and then wins an Oscar as a foreign film from Taiwan, it’s difficult to classify a film or director as strictly “Chinese” or “American.” And, when I ask Ann Hu which classification she prefers, she turns the tables and asks me what I think: “Is ‘Shadow Magic’ an American film or a Chinese film?” I answer that I think it’s very much a cross-cultural work, but Hu is less equivocal, saying, “I’m more clear now that I’m a Chinese filmmaker. It’s the culture I grew up in and the one I relate to. That’s my roots, but living in the West has been a supplement, like vitamins. It works with and enhances your original material. In the future, I know I will be working on films that are not cross-cultural, but I will always have these two halves: -Western [filmmaking] methodology and Chinese essence.”
[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer, has taught at N.Y.U. and the School of Visual Arts, and is currently writing her dissertation on urban Chinese cinemas from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People’s Republic in the 1990s.]