An Interview with Tony Rayns

Treading on East Asian Cinema

by Mike Archibald Volume 11, Issue 1 / January 2007 39 minutes (9750 words)

The Vancouver International Film Festival holds many benefits for the ardent cinephile. Here on the Left Coast it is tucked away from the rabid media buzz and distribution-mongering of Cannes, Toronto and Sundance, unraveling in two and a half weeks of hysteria-free moviegoing, with quiet venues, a relatively noncommercial atmosphere, and cinematic treats from the all around the world to pick from. This year featured films from Guatemala to Croatia, East Timor to Senegal, Rwanda to Qatar. An especially pleasing branch of the VIFF’s wonderful internationalism comes from the Dragons and Tigers program, which focuses on East Asia. For the past fifteen years, the program, under the guidance of programmer Tony Rayns, has brought us films from mainland China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand, giving many filmmakers their first break on the festival circuit and providing invaluable Western exposure to a generation of first-time filmmakers. One of the leading Western critics and promoters of East Asian cinema, Rayns has worked hard to bring us the films of directors whose current stature in the West might never have been achieved otherwise. Besides big names like Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Wong Kar-Wai, he’s introduced Westerners to talents like Zhu Wen, Cui Zi’en, Uruphong Raksasad, Kim Kyong-Mook, and Amir Muhammad. I took some time out from my festival film-bingeing this October to talk with Rayns about the future of Dragons and Tigers, the South Korean film renaissance, the indie scene in China and other topics.

Offscreen: Well the first question I have is, I guess, a fairly obvious one. You’ve been an extremely important part of the VIFF in past years, programming the Dragons and Tigers section of the festival. Why is this your last year, and what plans do you have that relate to promoting East Asian cinema in the future?

Tony Rayns: It’s my last year in Vancouver because I have been doing it a long time and I feel…I’m always critical of other people who cling to jobs for what seems like too long and don’t give a new generation a chance. We’ve had this program now for fifteen years, and my feeling is that it really is about time for some renewal. If I keep doing it, it’ll be more of the same. I think it’s quite a good idea for me, and more for the festival, to have some fresh ideas and maybe some change of approach, to prevent things from getting stale. That said, for me personally, it’s time, I think, to slow down a bit. I’ve spent a lot of years doing a lot of traveling, a lot of writing, under a lot of pressure, searching for films for the section and particularly searching for interesting debut work or work by young filmmakers for the competition, and to be honest it’s left me very, very tired and I’m somewhat in need of a rest, I think. So, it suits me to step down at this point, and it suits the festival, I think, to have some new thinking, some change of strategy. I think everybody knows that it’ll be very hard for the festival to replicate what I’ve been doing without me, because, without wishing to sound self-aggrandizing or anything, I do have a very…I am kind of unusual in that I spend a lot of time in East Asia every year, and I have the time and energy, or I make the time and energy, to go looking for films. It’s going to be difficult to find somebody else who has the same pattern of movements, the same time availability, the same network of contacts that lead to things. So it’ll be quite difficult for them to reproduce the section in the same way that it has been run for the last fifteen years. I personally don’t know what Dragons and Tigers will look like next year, but I’m quite sure it’ll be somewhat different from what it is now. I think that’s not a bad thing. I’m perfectly cool with it and I think the festival is quite cool with it. I’ve said to the festival that I’m very happy to remain on board as some kind of advisor or consultant, and indeed possibly as a programmer as long as it’s in some small, defined section of the festival, like maybe a tribute or a special event or something like that. I just don’t want to be responsible for a large chunk of the program anymore. What lies in store for me, I’m, to be honest, not completely sure at this point. I work with a number of other festivals and at the moment I have no plans to stop doing work for them, but they are all much less demanding of my time and energies than Vancouver. And I’m hoping that by not doing Dragons and Tigers I will free myself up to do other things. I’m open to offers, basically. I have some involvement in a project to start a new DVD label and that might come to some fruition quite soon; we don’t know yet.

Offscreen: One thing that I noticed in the program notes for this year’s Dragons and Tigers was the prevalence of the word “indie.” Now, “indie” is a label that I am used to, and I think most people are, to being applied to American film. I’m not exactly sure what the term means in the context of East Asian cinema. Does it refer to production and distribution? Does it refer to aesthetics? Is it a mixture of both?

Tony Rayns: As I used it in the catalogue –and you’re exactly right to notice that it crops up more often than perhaps it used to– as I used it in the catalogue it refers to production and distribution, primarily, not really aesthetics. There are a number of East Asian film industries that have reached a kind of crisis: Hong Kong, most famously; Taiwan, pretty famously also; Thailand is looking a bit shaky at this moment; the Philippines is like a rollercoaster constantly, nobody quite knows what’s happening there; Indonesia similarly, there’s a very painful attempt to re-grow to the kind of prominence that it used to have. Indonesia, like Hong Kong, had a hugely successful film industry making hundreds of films a year, which then collapsed in the 1990s and has gone down to like three films a year from two hundred. That’s a pretty catastrophic decline. And Indonesia is in the process of building itself up again, and there are an increasing number of filmmakers who are trying to make films, but it’s somewhat precarious and the revival is by no means secure. So while you have on the one hand a country like Korea which is sensationally successful in its own market, and you have Japan which is at least steady in its own market, and you have China which is kind of a growing market, you have other countries in the region which are facing real trouble. Both of those situations tend to stimulate the growth of new independent filmmaking. In the countries where there’s no film industry anymore to speak of you get by definition indie work, because kids who want to make films see no other option open to them but to just go out and do it, basically. And obviously the new digital technology has made that easier –cheaper, easier, you need smaller crews, and there are far fewer restrictions on you. You can do pretty much what you like. That’s happened in Hong Kong, it’s happened in Taiwan, it’s happened in the Philippines, it’s happened to some degree in Indonesia, it’s happening in Malaysia. So all of those are quite good examples of responses to problems in the film industry, a lack of opening in the film industry, or a complete decline in the film industry, leaving young filmmakers with one option: making films in an indie way and trying to distribute them in an indie way. Conversely, in the more successful countries like Japan and Korea, I think indie filmmakers have come into existence again partly because it’s not that easy to break into the film industry. To persuade a producer to trust you with large amounts of money to make a film is not always that easy if you’re an untried talent, and it’s much easier if you’ve got some work under your belt and you can show what you can do. So a lot of people go into indie filmmaking for that reason, I think. They make what are often called “calling card” movies, I mean work that’s designed to show off their talents so that they can get jobs in the industry. That certainly occurs in both Japan and Korea. Another reason is that the industry is primarily very commercial in its orientation and there are people who find that the kind of things they want to do don’t somehow fit. They can’t find a producer who’s willing to support the particular project they have, or the particular subject they want to deal with. And so those people are forced into indie production simply because there’s no other way. If they tried to do it in a more mainstream way, it wouldn’t get made. And so there’s been a very noticeable growth in indie filmmaking of pretty much the kind of seen in the States, except that I would say a very high percentage of what’s made in the States as indie cinema, and the kind of stuff that’s seen at Sundance every year, is aimed at commercial distribution in some sense. The filmmakers are hoping and expecting that they will be noticed and the film will be picked up, and like Blair Witch Project (1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez) or something like that will be put out into mainstream distribution and will hopefully do well. It’s the Steven Soderbergh story, actually; I suppose that’s the origins of it all, but since Steven Soderbergh popped up there’ve been countless examples of filmmakers who are hoping to follow that path. In East Asia it’s not quite the same. There are indie filmmakers who have exactly those ambitions, and I can think of several examples in Korea, but there are far, far more examples of people who don’t have that ambition and just want to make indie films because they feel it’s the best way to express themselves at this point. Maybe they have ambitions to move into the industry at a later point, perhaps on the back of their indie work, but they’re making indie work as indie work, and they’re looking for alternative ways to show it, distribute it, and try to make money from it, primarily with DVD publishing.

Offscreen: I’m particularly interested in what the term “indie” means in a country like China. Am I right in understanding that “indie” in China means not government-funded and sanctioned?

Tony Rayns: You are, but it’s not quite that simple. I don’t want to go into a long history lesson, but broadly speaking, since the Communists took power in 1949, China has had a state film history, which has been state mandated, state controlled, state financed. The state has controlled every aspect of it, from the censorship of the individual films right through to the distribution, the sales, where the films are shown, when they’re shown, how they’re shown, how they’re exported. It was a state monopoly, in effect. Since Deng Xiaoping in 1987 launched the movement to move state industries into the private sector and make them self-supporting –in other words, to reintroduce capitalism into China– the film industry has been in some disarray. The first stage of this was that the studios were told that they were no longer under direct state control, that they had to take responsibility for their own affairs, but that they could still have an unlimited line of credit at the Bank of China and they didn’t have to worry about the financial side too much just yet. So they kept going to some degree. Knowing that there was unlimited credit available to them, it didn’t really matter what they did. In the early nineties that was further modified: they were told that there was no longer a line of credit for them at the Bank of China, and they basically had to be cast up on their own feet and become financially self-supporting. This actually paralyzed the film industry. Forty years of state control did not produce anybody at all, not a single person that I’m aware of, who had the knowledge, the skill, or even the mindset to produce films cost-effectively, do a budget, do a schedule, etc. And then they were made to figure out how to distribute them, promote them, and sell them overseas. So the film industry in the 1990s went into a kind of paralysis, and nothing happened, I mean really for a long time. The level of official production in China plummeted, because no studio was willing to produce anything at all, for fear of losing money on it, because they were told suddenly: You have to take care of it, you control your own distribution, now you look after it yourself, you control your own sales, your own promotion, all the production aspects, all of it is your business now. And people, suddenly handed these responsibilities, had no idea what to do with them. So it was a catastrophic time, actually, for the film industry. Very, very slowly it has built itself back up again, although nothing like the scale it was on before, and a large number of private film companies have come into being. Until very recently the state law was that a private film company would have to make its films in cooperation with an old state studio. That was mainly to prop up the old state studios; it was to make sure that they had their names on something that was being made. It was a recognition, a very cynical recognition, actually, that the energy to make new films was all coming from the private sector. It was only new companies that were producing films, really, but to save face and to keep the old Shanghai and Beijing film studios alive, films had to be co-produced with them, which in effect meant paying money to them for the use of their name, because the private company was actually doing all the work. That was obviously a very iniquitous system and of course it produced a lot of resentment and complaint. And that’s recently been rescinded, so now it’s possible for private film companies to just make films. They no longer have to bail out anybody else or save anybody’s face; they just make what they want to make. And censorship has loosened up to some degree as well. The society is on the point of introducing a ratings system, so that not all films have to be suitable for all audiences, and that’s obviously going to be a step forward. The filmmakers, particularly the filmmakers that move from the indie sector into the state sector –or into the commercial or mainstream sector– have all reported that censorship has not been too bad. Most of them have had some…tension, but most of them have been reasonably happy with the way things worked out. In the 1990s, when the industry was, as I described, kind of in paralysis, if you wanted to make films, and there was a whole generation of kids graduating from the Beijing Film Academy who did want to make films, there were no openings. It was made doubly difficult by the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, because after that nobody wanted to hire students. Students were seen to be trouble. Few wished to have the wrath of the Communist Party come down on them for allowing these dangerous dissidents, these unstable people, to do anything. People were absolutely paranoid about employing the new generation of students. And what happened was that quite a large number of young people started to make indie films, outside of the system. And if you made a film outside of the system then you really were outside the system; you were an outlaw in Chinese terms. You didn’t submit your script for pre-censorship. You didn’t submit the finished film for censorship. Very often, because there was no opening to show the film in Chinese cinemas, you smuggled the film out of the country and you started showing it in festivals overseas. Vancouver, actually, was one of the first festivals where this type of film was shown. The international premiere of Wang Xiaoshuai’s The Days (1993) was in Vancouver. The international premiere of He Jianjun’s Red Beads (1993) was in Vancouver. I think some of Zhang Yuan’s early films had their international premieres here, or if not their premieres then very early screenings outside China. So I think Vancouver in the early nineties was pretty much in the forefront of introducing this new independent cinema from China, and obviously we’ve remained very faithful to it since. In the last few years since the law changed again and allowed private companies to operate without having to prop up the old state film industry, or what’s left of it, there’s been a shift from the independent sector into the mainstream, and some of the leading filmmakers like Jia Zhangke, Zhang Yuan and some others have been urged by the authorities to make legal films. And they have. So Jia Zhangke’s last two films have both been legal films, after the first three were not. Zhang Yuan’s last four films, five films even, have been legal films, where the early ones were not. I think many people expected, as a result of this shift, that indie filmmaking would kind of disappear in China. The opposite has been the truth; in fact, there’s been an explosion, there’s been ever more of it, and much of it away from the big centers. So, for example, we’re showing in this festival a film called Betelnut ([2006), by Yang Heng. It’s his first feature, it’s made on digital, it’s shot in a town in Hunan, and it’s an indie film. It’s a very low-budget film that could only have been made in that way, I think. I mean, no commercial producer would have invested in it because it’s not commercial enough. It doesn’t have any sex or violence, it has no strong story line, it’s a mood piece, basically. So that kind of filmmaking continues to exist in China, in fact in ever larger numbers. We have several other examples here too; we have Withered in a Blooming Season (Cui Zi’en, 2005), and a number of other Chinese indie films that have no connection with the mainstream. These continue to be made, and I would say if anything the numbers are increasing.

Offscreen: Withered in a Blooming Season is a film I wanted to ask you about. Cui Zi’en is a very interesting filmmaker; in 2004 he came to the festival with The Narrow Path (2004), which was a very allegorical, comical, purposefully unrealistic film, and this year he’s come with what seems to be very much a realist film. Does this trajectory he seems to be following reflect a need, or a desire, to break into mainstream filmmaking, or is it just something that he’s interested in trying for a change?

Tony Rayns: I think it’s more the second. Since Withered in a Blooming Season he’s made another feature called Refrain (2006). I even considered showing both of them here, but when it became clear that he couldn’t come to Vancouver this year, I decided to show only one. I decided to go for the more realistic one –which I think you’re correct to say Withered is– simply because it’s rather different from his other work, and I thought it would be interesting for people here who’ve followed his work to see another side of him. Refrain is not like The Narrow Path, particularly, but it’s closer. It’s unrealistic in the way that Narrow Path is unrealistic, so he’s certainly not making a shift. Cui Zi’en is always going to be marginal, he’s always going to be underground, and he’s never going to be accepted by the mainstream, because of what he talks about. His own personal position is a highly anomalous one. He’s a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, but he’s not allowed to teach, because he refused to promise that he would stay away from gay topics in his classes, and the school said: In that case, you can’t teach. But he remains on the payroll. He remains in their housing. His apartment is in the Film Academy complex, and it’s paid for by the Academy. So he lives, essentially, free, and he’s paid a modest salary by the Academy, and he’s free to pursue his own activities. Ironically –I think it was two years ago– Fudan University in Shanghai launched China’s first Lesbian and Gay Studies course, and it was an overnight sensation. It was absolutely packed; there were hundreds of students clamoring to join this course. There was almost limitless curiosity about the topic. This success was reported nationally, in fact internationally, and since that happened, in other words in the last two years, Cui has been inundated with requests from universities all over China to come and teach Lesbian and Gay Studies courses for them. So he’s not allowed to teach in the Film Academy because he won’t promise to stay away from lesbian and gay issues, and the rest of the country is clamoring to hire him because they want him to talk about that. It’s an irony that’s not lost on him, I think. However, partly because he was not given permission to teach in the Film Academy, he started to make films. He was always writing. He’s published one or two novels and some other fiction. He’s published several volumes of film criticism –the last one was dedicated to me, rather sweetly, so I’m very touched by this. But Cui has found himself becoming increasingly involved with filmmaking. I think now he’s reached the point, from what he’s said to me, where he wants to devote himself almost fulltime to making movies. I’m sure he’ll still write a bit, but he doesn’t really want to teach anymore at this point. He started to make films about four or five years ago, and there’s been a noticeable evolution in his work, particularly a growing sophistication, I think. He started off as a kind of guerrilla filmmaker, wanting to film his own fiction. The first time he came to Vancouver was with a film called Enter the Clowns (2001), which is his first feature, really. That film has great chunks of his fiction literally read out on the soundtrack, and also some scenes that are dramatizations of things that he’s written. This was really Poverty Row filmmaking: not only was it made with no money, it was made with no technical expertise, it was all committedly very rough and unpolished, very raw and unmediated, you could say. What we’ve seen since, and I’d think Withered in a Blooming Season is a very good example of this, is a growing sophistication in his film language, a growing concern with technical issues. He wants his films to be more polished and a bit more easily accessible. He doesn’t want them to have that kind of “guerilla” feeling; he wants them to be easier to watch, more pleasing, potentially, to a large audience. But it’s always going to be a niche audience, it’s always going to be a minority audience, because he has no ambitions to penetrate the mainstream, and he has no expectations of doing so either. His work is always going to be marginal in China. The interesting thing, though, in the last year, is that he has sold three of his films for DVD distribution in China, legally. It turns out that the laws governing film distribution and film censorship are different from the laws governing DVD distribution and censorship. And it’s been quite cool for him to sell three titles in China, since he’s never able to show the films as films in cinemas.

Offscreen: Maybe you could briefly describe in general some of the other ways that indie or marginal Chinese filmmakers are able to subsist while making their films.

Tony Rayns: I think it’s different in any case; I’m not aware of any general pattern in this. Everybody who chooses to do this faces their own challenge of how to live. The same is true of all people in China, not just filmmakers, who choose not to buy into the system. The system used to be the Communist Party system; if you wanted to get ahead in China you absolutely had to be a Party member. There was no alternative, really. Nobody could achieve high office or prominent roles or any kind of promotion, actually, unless you were a Party member and you had the sanction of the Party, the endorsement of the Party. Nowadays, China has become one of the most ruthlessly capitalist countries in the world, and it’s cruelly mercenary. If you’re not extremely business oriented and extremely ruthless, you won’t get ahead very much. Now how people survive in that context I don’t truly understand myself –I wish I did understand. There are a lot of people I meet in China about whom I find myself scratching my head saying “How do these guys survive? What are they living on? What income can they possibly get? What do they do that makes it possible to pay for this meal that we’re having or this film that they’ve made?” On the other hand there’s a lot of money sloshing around and a lot of rich people in China these days. Rich is a relative term, but there’s a large entrepreneurial class which is doing well as never before, right across the country. Many of the independent films we see have been financed by local entrepreneurs who have got money kicking around, nothing much to do with it, and have been persuaded that it might be quite groovy to produce a film. They’re told it won’t cost very much, and they say, “Oh, I can afford that, no problem, I’ll throw money into it.” I’ve met people like this myself. I met one property developer who loved film because he loved actresses, he wanted to chase actresses, and he figured if he could produce films he would get, you know, personal introductions to various actresses, and this would be his…path to bliss. There are any number of stories like this. They cross the spectrum of experience. People have all kinds of different motives for doing these things, but it’s not hard, I guess, to find investment for a film. How individuals live is another question. I can’t really give you a coherent answer to that, I don’t know myself.

P.S. Heading photo is Hou Hsiao-hsien.

Offscreen: Okay, to move to South Korea now. South Korea has experienced a film renaissance recently, and from what I understand, part of the reason for that is the screen time quotas, the rule that forty percent of the screen time in local cinemas has to be dedicated to Korean films. Now I’ve read that the Korean government has capitulated to American interests and reduced these quotas; the percentage now is twenty. Is this true, and what effect do you think this will have on Korean film?

Tony Rayns: Okay, I can’t corroborate the numbers, but you’re right, there has recently been a reduction in the quota. It’s a capitulation to the WTO and specific pressure from the MPAA, the American film producers association which Jack Valenti used to front. He’s just stepped down from it, I’m not sure who heads it now, but anyway, there’s been relentless pressure from him over the years to allow free access to the Korean market for American cinema. I am very sympathetic to all struggles against American cinema dominance. I like Hollywood movies as much as the next person –or some Hollywood movies, anyway– but I’m strongly against American cinema, which has a position of unparalleled strength and economic power, dominating anything else, everything else. And I strongly believe in leaving spaces for other cultures to exist and indeed to prosper. Korea is a very special case. It had this protectionist measure, the quota system –and it was frankly a protectionist measure– that was instituted in the days when Korea still had military government and when there was a lot of protectionism. It wasn’t just movies, there were many, many imports that were prohibited or regulated, and what happened inside Korea was also heavily regulated. It was a time of very strong state control. What’s happened since Korea moved to civilian government is that it’s had administrations led by people who’d been in the old opposition to the government, the military. Things have turned around very dramatically: the country’s economy has surged, the culture has changed beyond recognition, society has changed also in many ways beyond recognition, and Korean cinema has become incredibly successful with the home audience. I don’t think this has been due to the quota, I think it’s been due to the films. This year, for example, Korean cinema is going to end up probably with about seventy percent of the domestic box office, leaving thirty percent for the rest of the world, including Hollywood. And it’s largely because two films, both of which are playing in the Vancouver festival this year, The King and the Clown (Lee Jun-Ik, 2005) and The Host (Bong Joon-Ho, 2006) were unbelievably big hits. Something like a quarter of the entire country saw both of them. There’ve been other hits as well, not on that scale, but there’ve been quite a number of films that have done extremely well. In fact, some of the films we’re showing at the festival, such as My Scary Girl (Sohn Jae-Gon, 2006) and No Mercy for the Rude (Park Chul-Hee, 2006) have also been hits in Korea. So the main reason that Korean cinema is doing so well in Korea is that people want to see the films. It’s not because there’s protectionism that mandates that these cinemas must show these films, it’s because people actually want to go and see them. The most obvious thing you can point out, I suppose, is that you can force people to show films, but you can’t force people to go and see them. They will do that only if they want to. The fact is that the success of Korean cinema is not down to the quota system, it’s down to the appeal of Korean films. Korean film culture has been on a roll, there’s no question –really dynamic things have been happening. What Korea has become in the last ten years or so, is, I would say, the most cinephilic country in the world. People are really crazy about film. Everybody is interested. New film magazines, quite serious film magazines, were launched in Korea at a time when they were closing down everywhere else in the world. New ones are still springing up. They have quite a sophisticated level of talk, and one of them, the first one that launched, Cine 21, became in effect the leading cultural publication of any kind in Korea. Anybody who was remotely interested in Korean culture had to read this magazine, because it was the cutting edge thing. All the most innovative stuff was in it.

Offscreen: I’m aware that the success of South Korean film has to do with the diversity of stuff that is being filmed –thrillers, romances, horror films, as well as more personal art cinema. But without wanting to ignore that diversity, I have noticed a certain trend in a lot of the South Korean films that I have seen. This is a trend of emphasis on sadism and cruelty, particularly as it relates to power dynamics and positions of authority. I’m thinking of, for example, Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-Ho, 2003), the films of Kim Ki-Duk, Save the Green Planet (Joon-Hwan Jang, 2003), and Faceless Things (Kim Kyong-Mook, 2005), which screened at the festival this year. Would you agree that this is a trend worth noting, and what are some of the reasons you think may be behind it?

Tony Rayns: Quite a big question, and I don’t think I can properly answer it, really, at least not briefly. Even if we had all the time in the world I don’t think I could answer it very well. The fact is that for forty years, starting from the Korean War in the early fifties, the country was under military juntas, after a succession of coups. The government was constantly being toppled and constantly being run by new and ever more authoritarian military figures. It was a nation that became, sadly, used to extreme brutality. There had also been extreme brutality before, under the Japanese, who, particularly from the thirties onwards, had been notably vicious in their treatment of the Koreans they were colonizing. And when the Pacific war began in earnest in the late thirties, things got worse. Any Korean seen as not fanatically loyal to Japan was locked up and beaten and tortured, and there are many, many sad histories of people who died in that period in Japanese prisons in Korea, let alone during the warfare and everything that sprang from that. Then you have the Korean War, when Koreans fight Koreans, in the early fifties, which was also famously brutal and very, very destructive, and left not only a divided country, but also countless divided families and endless years of recrimination and bitterness and persecution. For example, families in the South who had a member who had gone to the North and had gone Communist found themselves discriminated against, persecuted, and hounded out of jobs and out of houses. There was an endless unpleasant backlash from the war. And then you have a succession of military juntas taking power in coups and ruling under martial law, with again long histories of students being arrested and tortured and beaten up in the basements of police stations and so on. That’s what Memories of Murder is talking about in many ways. Memories of Murder is set in the 1980s and it’s somehow…Bong Joon-Ho said that when he started out making the film that wasn’t his explicit intention, but he realized what he was making, that in fact the film was a rather close reflection of a general mood that had gripped the country at the time. It doesn’t mean all Koreans were permanently cowering, and the film doesn’t show that anyway –it shows people living more or less ordinary lives much of the time. But it also shows the way the police behaved, that police torture was routine, that interrogating someone was a matter of beating them up more often than not. It shows that there was a climate of fear and persecution. There’s a lot of paranoia in the film. A lot of people were scared of one thing or another; the fact that there are these murders taking place makes it worse, but they were scared anyway. The murders are simply intensifying it, they’re not creating it. So it’s a film that I think became, intentionally or not, a rather sophisticated reflection on what it was like at the time in Korea. I suspect that the kind of macho action violence that you get in a lot of modern Korean films is partly rooted in this history of brutality. I think it’s partly rooted in enthusiasm for John Woo and the like from Hong Kong. Hong Kong doesn’t have a history like Korea’s; it’s a very different history in Hong Kong, but Hong Kong produced some of the most violent films in cinema history, and they did that in the name of entertainment. It was seen as a logical escalation of what they were doing already. They just upped the ante. Someone like Sam Peckinpah did that in Hollywood as well, but he did it with a rather clear moral purpose. He wanted to show…well, I mean, it varies from film to film, but certainly The Wild Bunch (1969), which set a new benchmark, I think, for the realistic depiction of violent death, was clearly tragic in tone, and moralistic in intent…I mean, that’s maybe debatable, but broadly speaking that’s true, and I don’t think Peckinpah would have been able to get away with it if it hadn’t been like that, actually. In Hong Kong screen violence was never subject to such constraints. The Hong Kong film industry, which is largely uncensored, was free to do what it liked, and there was a measurable escalation in the depiction of violence and the realism of it and the bloodiness of it and the extremeness of it. And I think that had a knock-on effect on other film industries. Hong Kong films were among the few things seen in South Korea in the bad old days. The films imported to Korea were only films from Hollywood and Hong Kong; it was hard to see anything else at all. So that would certainly have left some trace on Korean film. Anyway, I think that when Park Chan-Wook or somebody is making some ultra-violent revenge thriller, what he has in mind is partly those Hong Kong movies he grew up with –the type of stuff that probably found its purest expression in John Woo’s films– and more recently Quentin Tarantino, and other American filmmakers who plow those particular genre furrows.

Offscreen: Since you mention Quentin Tarantino, I can’t resist asking, as someone who’s an expert on East Asian cinema, what do you make of his blatant appropriations of East Asian genre tropes?

Tony Rayns: Historically the fact is that the way North America began to consume East Asian films, initially Hong Kong films, was via video stores rather than mainstream distribution, and via…cult-y audiences. Nerds who became specialists. There is a guy in Toronto named John Chow who has a website on Hong Kong cinema and who claims to have seen every Hong Kong film ever made and who reports on it on his website and publishes books of documentation about this stuff…There is a kind of geek mentality towards this material. As far as I can see it’s largely uncritical. It almost never defines any kind of aesthetic criteria or moral criteria; it has no sense of why something might be better than something else –it’s just it works better or it doesn’t work better. There are no other judgments that ever seem to be made. I look on this with some amusement and bemusement, actually. A mixture of the two. Anyway, that’s where Quentin Tarantino comes from –all those years of slogging through his video store days before he became a director was spent consuming this stuff. But it wasn’t just East Asian action films, it was blaxploitation films and all kinds of other things too, things closer to home. I think he responded to Hong Kong cinema in kind of the same way that someone like David Bordwell did– responding to the fact that by comparison with most Hollywood filmmaking, Hong Kong genre cinema at its best, back in the Seventies and Eighties, was dynamic, inventive, extraordinary, exciting, all the things that Hollywood films on the whole were not. I think if you were open to the idea of being interested, you became interested. There was just a lot to get enthusiastic about. It was true for me, too. I became interested in Hong Kong cinema because I was very bored with American and European movies. For me, discovering Hong Kong movies was almost like rediscovering why I got interested in cinema in the first place. There was also the element of discovering a new culture, which was obviously quite exciting and added an extra dimension to it, but part of it was purely cinematic.

Offscreen: The last time I interviewed you, you talked a bit about the collapse of the Hong Kong film industry. I’m wondering if things have improved at all since then.

Tony Rayns: Nope (laughs)! That’s my shortest answer. There’s not much else to say, I mean, what’s happened in Hong Kong has been a hundred and eighty degree turn towards China. China is now seen as the salvation of the Hong Kong film business. So most Hong Kong filmmakers, at all levels from the most ambitious to the least ambitious, are working in China and are aiming at Chinese distribution, because that’s where they think the audience is. Hong Kong audiences basically stopped going to the movies; it’s like Taiwan. So the glory days of mass audience appeal in Hong Kong seem to be over, and I don’t think they’re going to come back quickly. So Hong Kong filmmakers, or people who are trying to revive the film industry in Hong Kong, or keep on going anyway, like Johnnie To for example, have no choice really but to aim at China, where there are 1.2 billion people, quite a large percentage of whom are open to the idea of paying money to see movies at their local shiny new multiplex, just built. So that’s potentially the way forward. Insofar as there’s been any revival in Hong Kong, it’s because of the new attitude to China and the Chinese market. A lot of Hong Kong filmmakers are looking to Chinese investors for financing and are looking to Chinese distribution for profits. Very often they’re not finding them. It’s proved to be quite difficult, quite risky, but sometimes they’ve done well.

Offscreen: I haven’t been able to see the new Tsai Ming-Liang film, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Taiwan, 2006). I’m seeing it later in the week, but I note that it takes place in his home country of Malaysia, and I find that interesting. Is this a return to the homeland for him, or a brief foray?

Tony Rayns: No, it’s not a return to the homeland or anything like that. It’s not where he grew up –the film’s set in Kuala Lumpur; he grew up in Kuching, which is a relatively small country town in Sarawak, so it’s a totally different environment. Tsai Ming-Liang first went to Kuala Lumpur as an adult in 1999, I think he said. This happened to be the time when Mahathir the…I think it’s fair to say fascistic Prime Minister, who’s been in power for such a long time, had suddenly turned on his anointed successor, Anwar Ibrahim. He accused Ibrahim of various things, including corruption and sodomy, and had him placed in jail. Tsai arrived in the middle of all this and was rather fascinated by the salaciousness of the scandal, the sordid details about mattresses that were dragged into court to demonstrate that fucking had taken place with the chauffeur… it was surreal, actually, and at the same time you couldn’t help noticing that there was a kind of economic collapse going on. 1999 was actually the tail end of the economic collapse, but from 1997 on various Asian currencies plummeted; the bubble had burst, basically. It was triggered by currency exchange speculation. Thailand was in trouble, Indonesia was in trouble, Malaysia was in trouble, Korea was in trouble –right across East Asia the economies were in difficulty because of this. And so a lot of people suddenly were out of work, and a lot of buildings that were being put up, rather like here in Vancouver, were suddenly abandoned, and some of them are still standing there now. So, he had the idea, seeing all of this going on, that there was a film here, that he should try and make it. But he failed to make it at the time. He started a script, was unable to raise the money for it, and carried on making movies in Taiwan with his usual French or Japanese financing and continued the path that he’d already started mapping out. The idea came up again because he was approached by the Mozart festival in Vienna. This is Mozart’s 250th Anniversary.

Offscreen: This is the New Crowned Hope program?

Tony Rayns: Exactly it. The New Crowned Hope was designed to mark Mozart’s 250th birthday and the city of Vienna, which is of course where Mozart died, commissioned the American opera and stage director Peter Sellars to be the director of the festival. Sellars is the one who came up with New Crowned Hope and commissioned work across different media to constitute the festival. All this work is supposed to be screened, performed, or shown in Vienna in November-December of this year, and Sellars’ commissions included six films. Various filmmakers, all from so-called developing countries, were commissioned to make them. Taiwan is not a developing country, so they stretched the point a bit with Tsai, but Tsai said he would make it in Malaysia, which is a developing country. He saw this, when the possibility was floated with him, as a chance for reactivating his Malaysian ideas. So he dug up his old script, which had changed enormously in the intervening five-six years, and he made the film with seed money from Vienna. He had to raise other money from his usual people, both in Taiwan and in France, to complete the financing of the film, but he was able to make it because of these rather special production circumstances. So I don’t think it represents anything particular in his career, but the film is interestingly different in some ways from his other work. It has a tone that is quite a lot different from his other films. It’s distinctly more upbeat. Although it presents a pretty gloomy picture of society and human fate, as one has come to expect from Tsai, it’s also funnier than most of his other films, more touching, and has a sort of –how can I put this– a more human warmth about it. There is a more positive depiction of human emotional ties in this movie than there is in most of his other work.

Offscreen: Many people have noticed certain aesthetic trends in art cinema in general but East Asian art cinema in particular, a style consisting of things like minimal soundtrack, long takes, spare or slow camera movement, fixed camera positions….

Tony Rayns: You’re talking about Hou Hsiao-Hsien…

Offscreen: Well, I’m talking about Hou Hsiao-Hsien, I’m talking about Tsai Ming-Liang definitely, I’m talking about quite a few of the films I’ve seen in this year’s program –Betelnut is definitely one of them. Where do you see this trend emerging from and do you worry at all that there’s a risk of uniformity?

Tony Rayns: Well, I don’t worry, because it’s not my worry, I’m simply a consumer of these things. I commentate on them sometimes, but…if people stop making interesting films, or the films become so formulary or locked into some very rigid aesthetic which is not flexible or ceases to be interesting very quickly, then everybody will lose interest, and the films will just die, and nobody will see them. I’m old enough to remember that happening in earlier periods of cinema. There was a movement in the Seventies in Britain and Europe, and to some degree in the States, called Structural film, which promoted what was described at the time as a materialist aesthetic of cinema, and… my god, where is it now? There were books published, there were hundreds of films made, and not one I think is remotely remembered with affection, and the films have long since vanished, and nobody shows them, they’re not on DVD. It was a moment that passed, it was a moment of fashion, essentially, and it had no lasting impact on anything. I don’t think there’s much risk of that happening with East Asian cinema, especially with the more formal kind. But to answer your question properly, one would have to go into, again, a long, long thing, and it’s not possible to do that now. But Hou Hsiao-Hsien is an interesting case because he’s sort of a pioneer in this area. He’s a very good example of someone who was…a very average kid, I think, a borderline delinquent in his teenage years, as he’s been very frank to discuss –I mean he’s showed it in some of his films, they’re autobiographical films, that have shown that he was in knife fights and god knows what. He came into the industry as a writer and then as an assistant director and then as a director. His first two or three films were vehicles for pop stars and were pretty unambitious aesthetically. And then he was invited to make something artier. There was a conscious attempt to renew Taiwanese cinema by the leading production company, which was government owned, and he was one of the directors that they hired to contribute to an omnibus project that was specifically supposed to be arty. He was encouraged for the first time to do something that was considered more artistically ambitious, and he made a film that he now repudiates and says is dreadful –and I sort of see what he means, because it’s very sentimental and full of rather crude emotional manipulation of the audience. The film is called The Sandwich Man (1983); his episode is called “Sun’s Big Doll.” This is not his best work, but it marked a crucial turning point in his career because it forced him for the first time to think more seriously about what he was doing and to actually consider some aesthetic questions, which I think he’d probably rather taken for granted in the earlier work. From that point on he started to make independent films. He formed the first of several of his own companies and went on to make The Boys From Fengkuei (1983) and then Summer at Grandpa’s (1984) and then A Time to Live, a Time to Die (1985), all of which you can see as evidence of a developing interest in aesthetic questions. So, Boys From Fengkuei already has a preponderance of long shots in it, very few close-ups, shots held markedly longer than in average films. And that’s very striking. You’re some distance away from the characters. You’re looking at the characters in long shot, and the shot is held and held and held. And you see them doing something, but you see it from a considerable distance. And when he was asked why he did that, Hou said that he found it was quite interesting, because there was a certain tension in the body language and the movements, there were things he could do with the composition as well that somehow helped to express something of the meaning of the scene, and it worked better if you held things in a long shot like that than if you tried to hammer it home in emotionally loaded close-ups or with all kinds of conventional editing tricks, or that kind of thing. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is a very good example of someone who kind of invented his own film language, progressively did away with the things he’d been taught in the industry and decided to go off on his own doing something different. When Chen Kaige made Yellow Earth (1984) in China a few years later, he and Zhang Yimou rationalized what they were doing in specifically Chinese terms. They said: We wanted to create a Chinese aesthetic, we wanted it to be noticeably different from the movies we saw being imported, we wanted it to be not Hollywood, in other words. I don’t think Hou Hsiao-Hsien ever said that, but he nonetheless did invent, in a more pure way than Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, a very different approach to film form, film structure, and the way the film related to the audience. Basically he stopped being manipulative. He became observational. He provided the audience with everything they needed, all the information they needed, but very minimally. He would cut back, cut back, cut back, until he thought he had the minimum necessary to communicate the essential points. And he would present a film which required a quality of attention that people perhaps were not used to. You don’t have to give the same quality of attention to a Hollywood film, because a Hollywood film tells you every minute what you’re supposed to be thinking and feeling –“Laugh here,” “Cry here,” “Get excited here.” Almost all Hollywood cinema is fundamentally emotionally manipulative. It’s pre-programmed; it tells you how you’re supposed to react, and it doesn’t leave much margin for ambiguity. Hou is all ambiguity. He never tells you anything about how you’re supposed to react, he just provides you with information, and leaves it to you to figure out how you want to react and what to make of it. And most audiences aren’t used to that, and quite a few of them aren’t happy with it, actually. They find it boring, or disturbing in some way which is hard to express, to be confronted with that kind of work. So I think that what you identify as a trend in East Asian cinema –and obviously you’re right that there has been quite a bit of this kind of filmmaking– I think it comes primarily from Hou. I think he was sort of the godfather of all of this, but there have of course been a number of other people like Tsai, like Jia Zhangke, who have veered in the same direction. Their films are nothing particularly like Hou’s, but they also have a preference for longer takes, sometimes static takes, less close-ups, more long shots –some of the characteristics of Hou’s cinema find their way into other filmmakers’ work. And I think you’re right, it obviously does have an influence on younger people and on people generally in the film business. This kind of filmmaking, on the whole, has never been very popular. It hasn’t succeeded in attracting large audiences. And I think that there’s something in the nature of the filmmaking, i.e. the fact that it’s not manipulative emotionally, that actually makes it not very audience-friendly. Some would argue, conversely, that it’s highly audience-friendly, because it trusts the audience more. But in naked commercial terms, it’s not like that. Audiences want to be told what to think most of the time, because that’s what they’re used to. They’ve had it all their life. Anybody who goes against that particular grain is limiting themselves to a minority audience, basically, and I think Hou knows that, Tsai knows that, Jia knows that. They’re quite serious in what they do, and they’re not lusting after big commercial success. They all want their films to be seen by the largest possible audience, and all of them have made efforts, especially in recent years, to broaden their audience. But they remain fundamentally very committed to the kind of work they’ve been doing. And they’re not going to change it, not fundamentally. They’re not going to drastically alter their aesthetic. Some have. There are examples of people who completely turn around and make something radically different from what they’ve done before. There’s a young Chinese filmmaker called Ning Hau, for example, whose films I’ve shown here. His first film was called Incense (2003), his second film was called Mongolian Ping-Pong (2005), both of which were…I suppose the school of Jia Zhangke, at least in the way they were made, the way they were shot, the way they were structured. His film this year, which I chose not to show, is called Crazy Stone (2006). It’s an extremely slick jewel robbery movie, with like five different groups all after the same jewel, double crossing each other, treading on each other’s toes. It’s extremely fast-paced; the whole thing looks like a commercial for hair gel or something. It couldn’t be a more zappy, commercial piece of work. I didn’t invite it to Vancouver because I didn’t like it all that much, although it is quite slick in and of its type, but also because I’d already invited a film called Karmic Mahjong (2006, Wang Guangli), which is kind of like that also, and I thought one of those is enough. But Ning is a very good example of someone who’s come from the kind of aesthetic you’re talking about, and has completely turned around and made an outright commercial movie that’s designed to be a big crowd-pleaser. And it’s worked; the film has been a big hit in China this year.

An Interview with Tony Rayns

Mike Archibald is a graduate of Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. He is based in Vancouver and works as a freelance writer.

Volume 11, Issue 1 / January 2007 Festival Reports   Interviews   asian cinema   chen kaige   chinese cinema   country_asia   film history   gay lesbian   hong kong cinema   hou hsiao hsien   hou hsiao-hsien   korean cinema   taiwan cinema   tony rayns   tsai ming liang   vancouver   zhang yimou