Wayne Wang’s film series opens where his film career began

Throughout his decades-long career, San Francisco filmmaker Wayne Wang has shifted significantly between two starkly different worlds — releasing both box office hits and risk-taking independent films.

While the Hong Kong-born director’s filmography has been repeatedly praised and referenced – perhaps most visibly for his helming of one of the few studio productions to feature an Asian-American cast in an Asian-American story, the beloved adaptation of Amy Tan’s international bestseller “The Joy Luck Club” – it hasn’t always been the cinema world’s toast.

His sexually provocative “Center of the World” with Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker from 2001 comes to mind. The fallout from it even led to a short job drought after its release, he reveals.

Much of the respect and appreciation for Wang’s creative output stems from his intimate, observant portraits that capture the verisimilitude of the Chinese-American experience in the Bay Area and beyond. But San Franciscan’s artwork is seasoned with a spicy assortment of envelope-pushing upstarts, a couple that even ruffled the delicate feathers of the MPAA ratings committee.

This Gemini-like duality in the 73-year-old Wang’s career is well represented at the Berkeley Art Museum and the Pacific Film Archives, a compelling seven-film retrospective titled “Wayne Wang in Person.”

The series will debut on March 11 and will feature the endearing and refreshingly honest filmmaker in person talking about his career. (The March 13 screening of “The Joy Luck Club, in which he will be joined by Tan, is sold out; the film will also screen April 16.)

Even though Wang is credited with directing and co-directing around 20 films, he admits to being worried about being the focus of a retrospective and wonders if his work matters in today’s environment. .

“I was actually really worried that some movies wouldn’t be relevant or wouldn’t resonate as much,” he said during a Zoom interview in which he occasionally punctuates a sentence with happy peals of laughter.

“But they do,” he adds afterwards.

Films that address universal themes of family and family obligations — the mother-daughter dynamic portrayed so clearly and insightfully in 1985’s ‘Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart’ and the ‘Joy Luck Club’ — will persist. of course, He suggests.

The series includes a rare screening of one of its most controversial feature films – the 1989 non-mainstream, “Life is Cheap…But Toilet Paper is Expensive” (March 26). Also included is 1997’s “Chinese Box” (April 2) with Jeremy Irons, Gong Li and Maggie Cheung. Both films passionately deal with the separation of Hong Kong from British control and the takeover of China.

“Life Is Cheap” is a wild, steamy and violent ride in which an unnamed Bay Area handsome man travels to Hong Kong to deliver a suitcase containing mysterious cargo to a gangster. The version that will be shown is a director’s cut and has been restored and remastered by the PFA and Philadelphia’s Lightbox Film Series. It’s aimed at mature, open-minded moviegoers who aren’t easily offended. He takes us on a tour of a bustling Hong Kong.

“For me, ‘Life is cheap’ has always been about authority and the intimidation associated with it,” he said. “When I made this film in Hong Kong, I felt that deeply and I have to say that the ultimate tyrant is Chinese culture, and I can say that because I’m Chinese. I grew up in a family Very typical Chinese and very conservative. But there’s a kind of patriarchy and bullying going on. “Life is cheap,” underneath it all, really speaks to that.

While editing the film in Hong Kong, Wang recalls finding photos of the Tiananmen Square tragedy.

“These images hit me hard and it really helped me find some sort of focus when editing the film.”

The romantic “Box”, on the other hand, was filmed “when change happened and China was very polite, so to speak, to say ‘OK, one country, two cities and two different systems’ and they promised to have democratic freedom for Hong Kong.It is interesting to see how it has started to deteriorate very slowly, as the last few years have shown.

Another “surprise” in the lineup is Wang and Paul Auster’s 1995 ode to Brooklyn, “Blue in the Face” (April 9). An irreverent comedy that’s packed with cameos from celebrities like Michael J. Fox, Lou Reed, Lily Tomlin, RuPaul, Madonna and Roseanne, it’s an addition to Wang’s best-reviewed 1995 cigar shop “Smoke.”

Although there was a structure and a theme for “Blue”, it was more improvised than “Smoke”.

“It wasn’t exactly one thing, but a bunch of different things,” he said. Audiences in Europe, he added, ate it up.

He loved Brooklyn so much that he ended up buying a very small apartment there. Now he’s back in San Francisco full time.

“We loved it when we were there, but New York is a different city now, and we decided to go back to San Francisco. And now San Francisco is changing,” he laughs.

In addition to her work on mostly independent productions, Wang was behind some higher-profile films, including the 2002 romantic comedy “Maid in Manhattan,” starring Jennifer Lopez in a role written especially for her. It is screened on April 17.

Working with a mega-star is different from working with regular actors, he said.

“You have to deal with everything that happens with someone like Jennifer Lopez, who is really, really talented and really good in this role. But even then (earlier in her career) there were a dozen people to deal with,” he recalls.

“Maid” was shot during the first go-around of her very public romance with Ben Affleck, and rehearsals were beset by paparazzi, who showed up in droves whenever the couple went out at night, recalls- he.

What also comes with someone of Lopez’s status, he said, are the star’s own “teachers” – “people behind the scenes who rehearse the scene, talk to them about the scene and really determine how they should play the scene”.

While Wang admits it’s hard to adjust to losing some of that creative control, Lopez “had a really good teacher. So you have to take that and work with it and try to make it the way you think is most relevant.

Wang is happy to have his work shown at the Pacific Film Archive, a film environment that inspired and guided him early in his career.

He moved from Hong Kong to the Bay Area so he could attend the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He fondly remembers seeing great double posters at the PFA, seeing works that broadened the scope of his film education.

“I remember (Jean-Luc) Godard came in and I thought ‘Jesus, I have to meet him'”, he recalls.

But the only director who has influenced Wang to date is the late Serbian filmmaker Dušan Makavejev. He says “Sweet Movie,” a sexually explicit 1974 surreal comedy by Makavejev that delved into controversial issues and was banned in some countries, was particularly impactful.

“I don’t know what struck me or how it changed me, but it changed me a lot,” he said. “I remember spending a lot of time talking to Dušan Makavejev and maintaining that relationship…I think he got really deep into our darker side or a side of ourselves that we don’t deal with habitually. His films tend to get into your soul a lot more, and I really respect that kind of film.

Wang’s 1993 “Joy Luck Club” sparked renewed interest after the resounding success of Palo Alto-born director Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” released in 2018. Asked about the 25-minute interval years between two mainstream Hollywood films with mostly Asian actors, Wang notes “it’s all about the money, how much money you can make”.

“‘Joy Luck Club’ did well because it was pretty cheap, and it did pretty well, not very well,” he added.

Wang pitched other Asian film projects and even adaptations of Tam’s other works, but the studios did not buy.

“I think it’s because they didn’t think it would make money.”

And while he prefers author Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel to the film version, he sees glimmers of light ahead for more Asian productions.

“I think because it made money, it will hopefully help with the next movie.”

Contact Randy Myers at [email protected]


Series of film retrospectives

When: March 11-April 17

Or: Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center St., Berkeley

Tickets: Screenings $10-$14; bampfa.org

Previous A new series of Holocaust films begins Sunday at the Figge
Next SCVNews.com | March 24: Through the Lens Global Film Series to screen 'Mulsai'