ÉCU is very excited to be in China right now and so this week we’ve decided to spotlight a native of Hong Kong, director Wayne Wang. He is the namesake of John Wayne (his father’s favourite actor), and so is inextricably linked to cinema culture. He moved to the US at 17, where he studied film and television in California, before returning to Hong Kong. However, in Hong Kong, Wang’s filmmaking contemporaries were concentrating on kung-fu movies, and Wang was interested in creating movies which expressed something personal. Feeling his creative visions would be smothered in mainstream cinema he chose the path of seeking arts funding so that he could branch out and do his own thing.

He succeeded in producing, directing, editing and co-writing Chan Is Missing (1982) on a micro-budget with the help of funding from various arts foundations. The film depicts the difficulties of Chinese Americans who are trying to survive on the margins of American society. It is considered a seminal work in Asian American cinema and is significant because it avoids reducing Chinese characters to stereotypes and is one of the first American films which uses Chinese non-actors and gives a realistic portrayal of Chinese Americans. In the movie, a $4000 robbery takes place in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and two taxi drivers embark on a mission to recover the money, landing themselves in some unexpectedly comic moments.

Depictions of Chinese culture appear recurrently in Wang’s work. Other examples of this include Dim Sum: A Little Bit ofHeart (1985), his adaptation of Amy Tan’s Chinese generational epic The Joy Luck Club (1993) and his film based on the British hand-over of Hong Kong to the Chinese, called Chinese Box (1997). Gong Li, Maggie Cheung and Michael Hui all feature in Chinese Box, and Jeremy Irons plays John, a British journalist, who observes and documents the changing face of Hong Kong at such a prominent point in its history. Wang also gained a reputation with two independent films, an adaptation of Paul Auster’s Smoke (1995) and Anywhere But Here (1999).

Smoke centres on the intersecting lives of those who frequent a little tobacco shop in Brooklyn, which is run by Auggie (Harvey Keitel). In this alienating city these strangers have messy family relationships and somehow fit into unlikely friendships together. Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman star in Wang’s Anywhere But Here, a film which deals with mother-daughter relationships. It focuses on the irresponsible Adele (Sarandon), who leaves her husband and moves to Beverly Hills, dreaming of a leading a glamorous life. She is a financial disaster and stubbornly adamant on her more practically minded daughter Ann (played by Portman) becoming an actress, despite her pleas to study at Brown University.

Wang’s biggest mainstream movie is probably Maid In Manhatten (2002), a romantic comedy that stars Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes. We’ve got our eyes on talented Chinese filmmakers right now and ÉCU is very happy to spotlight Wang’s indie films and impact on Chinese American cinema!

Gill Gillespie

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