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[MulanIFF 2019] A brief conversation with Elaine Wong and Fu Mulan

Photo: Elaine Wong (left) and Fu Mulan (right) at the 2019 Mulan International Film Festival

At this year's Mulan International Film Festival, I had a chance to speak with filmmakers Elaine Wong (presenting her film Where Dreams Rest) and Fu Mulan (presenting her film Stray Cat Ah Q). Their films screened at the festival on August 9, 2019.

Throwdown815: Mulan, you’re currently living in New York?

Fu Mulan: I’m studying in New York at New York University, and I’m working in Shanghai and also spent a few years in HK before that. So I’m pure Chinese but emerged in the international education system.

TD815: Do you thinking spending time abroad and living in New York changes you as a filmmaker?

FM: Oh it definitely does, I think one of the major things that being an international student definitely gave me was a perspective that I would automatically compare and contrast cultures that I encounter. And whenever I travel or whenever I read about films and scripts, I always see it through the Western lens that I’m taught at NYU, and also through the Chinese perspective that I grew up with. So it really gave me this multicultural dimensional perspective, which I really enjoyed.

TD815: Is that perspective reflected in the film you’re presenting at the festival?

FM: It’s actually interesting, because the film is partially about me going abroad and leaving home. And that mentality is also mixed with this relationship that I have with this animal. So yeah, you’ll definitely see some elements of that.

TD815: And Elaine, you used to work as a reporter, so does that experience play into your film?

Elaine Wong: Definitely. I was a reporter, reporting mainly for politics, immigration and education in the San Francisco Bay area. So I definitely saw a lot of stories, talked to a lot of people, especially in the Chinese community. And what really pushed me to pursue film is that I was writing in Chinese, and I realized that film is much more universal. With film, there can be subtitles and it’s a universal language, which I found it much more broad. You can reach a larger audience and that’s when I started to use film to explore deeper topics, like being an outsider and being an immigrant.

TD815: And the film you're presenting at the film festival speaks about some of these deeper topics?

EW: My film is about a woman who crosses the US-Mexican border to come here to reunite with her husband. And it’s really her first night here, and I just wanted to dive into the topic of immigration and what draws people here. Especially all the way from China, especially for people in China who didn’t have more safe access to come here. They had to be smuggled in through the Mexican boarder, so that route is dangerous and life threatening. The topic being based on true events is what spurred me to explore more of what’s the intention behind their crossing, but also explores my own sentiment as an immigrant, of what it means to live here.

TD815: Given your journalism background, why did you decide to create a fictional story, as opposed to a documentary?

EW: Yeah, it’s more of a selfish reason as an artist. I think I have a lot of emotions that I want to express, so I think art and cinema is the way to express those emotions, especially narrative films. Because in writing this script, I’m able to put in a lot of my own dreams and hopes and fears, so I can share that with the audience and that creates an emotional response.

TD815: Were you two always a fan of watching movies growing up?

FM: For me, both of my parents were in the film industry, so I grew up immersed in that industry and grew up in film sets and actually seeing the painful and realistic parts of how films are made. Usually, audiences will only see what’s on the screen - what’s the fantastic part about it and it’s always a fascinating and imaginary world on screen. But rarely do people, unless you study or actually go to make films, you rarely really think about what’s behind that and all the work that’s put in and I’m really happy to have grown up with that. And on top of that, I also see how much creativity and how much expression is achieved through that process. And I really love storytelling, and I want to let my voice be heard and I think that’s a great way to merge all my interests in art, music and illustration. Everything into one perfect medium that reaches a lot of global audiences. That’s why I picked film.

EW: I grew up in Hong Kong, so my dad and I watched a lot of Hollywood films like Titanic and ET in the theatres. But also at home we watched a lot of Kung Fu movies. Movies never clicked for me when I was young because those movies were in the blockbuster world, and it was during college when I started watching movies by a lot of great master filmmakers, like Wong Kar Wai, Zhang Yimou, those films actually have the artistic elements like cinematography and sound design that really spoke to me in a completely different way. So that’s when I realized I wanted to become a filmmaker like them.

TD815: And do you normally attend film festivals throughout the year?

FM: With the New York film scene, I’m very lucky to be in that city. The indie and underground cinema, as well as the actual Hollywood and main cinemas, they’re all immersed into one peninsula, which is awesome. So I go to a lot of film festivals, but this one is the first one I got invited to officially as a filmmaker so it’s a really exciting opportunity.

EW: Yeah, in USC I was able to attend a lot of more local more artistic and experimental film festivals, which are surprising for me. I've also learned that the sensibilities of Chinese film and American films are different, and for Americans, they often see things as non-linear or non-structured. So I think I view things a bit differently than how USC has taught me, but I think that’s where my Chinese sensibility comes in. We don’t’ have to share the same way of storytelling to be able to have a globalized audience.

TD815: Having originally come from Asia, but now living in North America, what are you views on the topic of Asian representation in Hollywood, or cinema in general?

FM: I think it’s definitely one of the main things that is being discussed in film schools right now and the film business overall. For myself, I definitely see that, but also because I’m an international student and I’m not an American born Asian. I can definitely see that after Crazy Rich Asians, that film proved that if you put more attention into Asian representation, how much more positivity you can bring to the cultural environment itself. Also to me, one of the biggest challenges I have in film school is that whenever I try to make films about my own cultures, people are not too willing to learn about the cultural context and to understand your film. So I felt that barrier, the cultural barrier and the language barrier. I definitely saw that as an obstacle in all of my filmmaking. It’s one of the things that I want to overcome and make films that can be perceived emotionally by audiences everywhere and also try to communicate and translate Chinese culture to a world audience.

EW: Yeah, I think for me, it’s a very complicated topic because I’m not born in America either, so I think the spectrum of Asians is so huge and Crazy Rich Asians represents a small part of the Asian American community. And The Farewell, another example, also represents a particular group of Asian americans who came here or were here for a long time and use English as their first language. But for me, who uses Chinese as their first language, who identifies as an immigrant, that’s another Asian community that we’re not really seeing in Asian American or American cinema. So I think we still need to break a lot of barriers to have our voices heard in Hollywood.

TD815: Last question, what's your favourite Chinese movie of all time?

FM: Farewell My Concubine

EW: In the Mood for Love


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