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Director and screenwriter Wu Nan talks gender, storytelling and her first feature film “Push and Shove 狗眼看人心”

BY DAISY SINGH-GREAVES

As a Chinese female director and screenwriter, Wu Nan is used to playing the long game.

When discussing competition within China’s film industry, many often point to the story of successful male filmmaker Ang Lee, who took six years to make his first major breakthrough. Yet Wu said such a plight is common for female filmmakers, who may have to struggle for a decade before gaining significant recognition. This, she says, must change.

“Nowadays, industrialization of film production has opened up more opportunities for female storytellers,” Wu said. “I know so many girls who have great tastes in literature and art, delicate sensibilities, enduring characters and excellent executions. I believe there will be more and more female filmmakers.”

A trailblazer for women in the industry, Wu is a director and filmmaker with decades of experience who has worked on high-profile blockbusters in China such as Curse of the Golden Flower and Crazy AlienShe graduated from Beijing Film Academy with a degree in Film Directing, and currently teaches screenwriting and directing at The Central Academy of Drama. Upon graduation, Wu was recruited into renowned director Zhang Yimou’s writing team, and spent 20 years working as a screenwriter before breaking into directing.

This year, Wu made her directorial debut with Push and Shove 狗眼看人心 (2019), a film that begins with a Schnauzer saving its owner from a Tibetan Mastiff and is based on the experience of a friend of Wu’s. Push and Shove shines a light on tensions between dog owners, an issue that has become increasingly relevant in China as more urban families are keeping dogs as pets. The film further touches upon broader social problems through showing how Chinese people tackle obstacles and make compromises in their daily lives. Wu is also known for being one of the four female scriptwriters to work on SoulMate七月与安生 (2016)SoulMate captures the growing pains of two female friends confronting their identities during the rapidly changing period of China’s open reforms. The film’s two female stars, Zhou Dongyu and Ma Sichun, tied for Best Actress Award at the Taiwan Golden Horse festival in 2013.

SoulMate Film Poster. Photo Credit: Cheng Cheng Films.
NüVoices and Cheng Cheng Films had the opportunity to speak to Wu Nan about her creative process, gender issues in the industry and her first feature film, Push and Shove, at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival:
NüVoices:  You’ve been involved in writing lots of mainstream blockbusters like Curse of the Golden Flower and Crazy Aliens. But your directorial debut is a realistic social story. How did you pick your source material? 那您之前您参与的一些片子,例如满城尽带黄金甲》和《疯狂的外星人,给观众的印象都是商业大片,但您自己导演处女作是选择这样一个现实主义题材的故事。为什么会选择这样的题材,从您之前的工作到这个转换有什么体会?
Wu Nan: I value the opportunity to make my first film. So for me, picking a story I have feelings for and confidence with is important. I also needed to win investors’ trust in my ability to tell the story. I obviously can’t make a film like Curse of Golden Flowers for my first feature. I’m also not good with alien stories. So I chose a story that actually happened in my life. It is very realistic. I had feelings for it because I experienced it. All the textures and details behind the incident, the society, culture and sentiment, are within my knowledge. 我自己其实蛮珍惜和重视第一部电影这样一个机会。对我来说我一定会选一个第一我自己很有感触,和相对很有把握的题材。在这个基础上,也要有投资人相信我我能把控这个题材。从故事的角度和导演的角度我是擅长做这个事。我觉得显然我不太擅长做黄金甲那样的电影作为第一部,包括疯狂外星人也不是我擅长的。或者说我自己要做的电影。所以因为这个故事本身就是我身边的故事,就相当于发生在我身上的一件真实事件,是很写实的,你会有一种亲历这种事件的感觉。你对这个事件里每一个细节,他背后的社会,文化,情感的信息你都会有深层的把握。那如果拍一个电影的话,我会选择我完全了解的事件。是我熟悉的事件我有把握去表达的。
NüVoices: For audiences unfamiliar with the environment and culture context of the story, how would you prepare them so they better understand? 向您刚才说的这个故事有一些它本来的社会文化信息在里面。这个故事的社群是一个在北京的编剧发生的故事,他是一个中产的家庭。他里面有些故事会让中国观众会心一笑。例如六环之外怎么会有权贵。对海外不熟悉北京环境或中国社会的观众,这些观众想要理解这个故事时您怎样给他们提供一些这个故事的注脚,让他们更了解这个社会文化?
Wu Nan: There’s culture specificity to the story. It belongs to this culture, this phase of China, this modern society and this social class because it comes from real life. It didn’t stem from a business development concept. It grew from a real seed. It might need some explanation. But I personally feel that I look forward to responses from audiences in North America or from different cultures. I think it neutrally depicts the status quo of Chinese society, the social class, family and legal system. If you don’t have a fixed stereotype about what China is like and watch it with curiosity and an open heart, I think you’ll be able to understand it. 因为其实这个故事的特定性蛮强的。它就是在这个文化里,这个阶段的中国,这个阶段的城市和这个阶层会碰到的事情。因为他是从生活里真实来的。他不是从商业策划或有一个概念性的目的来操作出来的故事。他是有一个活生生的种子长出来的。所以在这个故事里涉及的那些背景其实我觉得在不同文化背景的观众里面是需要一些介绍。这个老太太是一个这个故事里的反派,他是一个反派,为什么别人对他是这样的态度。需要有一些解释一样的东西。但实际上我个人又觉得,我其实蛮期待北美观众或者是不同文化背景的观众的观影反映。因为我个人觉得他很真实很中性的朴实的反应了现在中国社会状况,阶层的规则的家庭的法律的状况,在这个阶层的状况他非常写实,如果你没有一个对中国社会刻板的态度。没有刻板的印象,你去用一个平常心,用一个理解和接纳的态度我觉得是能够看懂的。
NüVoices: As a female creator, have you encountered any discrimination in your career? If so, how did you tackle it? 您作为女性创作者,在这么多年工作生涯,有因为自己性别有遇到不同待遇吗?如果有,您怎么去解决的?
Wu Nan: In my years as a student and a scriptwriter, I’ve been fine. I feel I’m lucky because female screenwriters are in high demand in China. For some genres, producers prefer female screenwriters over male writers, because female writers are better at capturing delicate emotion experiences. The development of the industry, how film crews delegate tasks according to workload and specialization, is more and more advanced. This trend benefits female filmmakers. It hasn’t been as difficult as people think. 我个人学习和工作经验我觉得还好。我觉得女编剧在中国蛮吃香的。很多题材会有专门会有制片人说我们不要男的编剧。我们就要女编剧,因为女性对情感的体验和他们要写的这些东西,尤其在电视剧上。因为整个电影工业的发展,整个电影剧组的分工,包括工作量,包括很多方面都会越来越成熟,其实对女导演是有利的。你可能不见的向别人想的那么痛苦。
NüVoices: You graduated from Beijing Film Academy with a degree in directing, but have been working as a screenwriter for nearly 20 years. Now you are returning to directing. It seems you have been switching roles all the time. Is this a conscious choice? Do your experiences in these two roles help or create challenges? 您是北京电影学院导演系专业毕业,然后做了近20年编剧,最近又转成导演。身份在一直不停的转换。这个不断转换背后的内因和环境是怎样的?这两个身份在转换时是互相帮助的呢还是互相产生一些挑战?
Wu Nan: My education background is in directing. Since graduating from college, I also have been teaching directing at the Central Academy of Drama. Every choice in my career has specific reasons. For example, when I’d just graduated in 2001, there were few films made every year in China. It was an entirely different industry. I didn’t have promising opportunities to make films but I had to move on with a job. I’ve always been very passionate about films. So I wouldn’t choose an unrelated job. The next best option was screenwriting. I was fortunate enough to have a screenwriting job, because I have developed deeper understanding of films by collaborating with great directors and producers. It’s different from learning directing at school. It has given me an entirely different perspective and tremendous help. We all know directors are storytellers. Scriptwriting is the foundation. So I see that as my competitive advantage in directing. 因为我本身的教育背景就是学导演出身的。从学校出来以后我还有一个身份是中央戏曲学院的老师。等于说我导演系本科研究生出来后就去做老师。其实每个人职业和身份的选择是很具体的比如说我刚出来的时候,那时候是2001。中国其实没有几部电影。整一年电影票房可能是10亿人民币,现在是600亿。它是和现在完全不同的。没有电影可以拍,也不会有电影导演的工作的机会或有前景找到你。那你总要选择一个工作。对于我个人来说我是热爱电影的。那我不会选一个离电影远的工作。最近的就是编剧了。所以有了编剧身份。比较幸运的事,在这个做编剧的过程中和很多非常优秀的导演及制片人有合作。这个身份和工作本身让我更深的理解了电影。比在学校里,你就是学导演的,这样的角度会完全不一样。那肯定是对作为导演的工作是有巨大帮助的。我们都知道电影导演本质上是一个讲故事的人。剧作是基础中的基础。所以我觉得是自己做导演的特点或优势吧。
NüVoices: In your transition from a scriptwriter to a director, what did you do to prepare yourself so you could effectively collaborate with diverse teams when translating texts into audio-visual languages? 那您从编剧转向导演时有没有再做更多的功课,包括和团队中不同部门的合作,怎么样从文字实现到图像的转换?
Wu Nan: Preparation is a must. It is also a pressure. Although I studied directing, made films at school, and directed commercials and news features right after I graduated – the scale, workload, and workflow of a narrative feature is entirely different. It takes negotiations and adaptations between my vision and the crew. It is my first feature so we encountered many difficulties due to my scriptwriting mindset and I had to readjust from lots of stubborn ideas. The change indeed was a challenge. 这个是一定要的。这也是一种压力。虽然我是学导演的,在学校里也拍过胶片的片子。刚刚毕业时也拍过很多广告片和专题片的导演工作经验。但毕竟和做一个长片的规模,工作量,和工作的方式完全不一样。需要和团队更深层的磨合,和导演构思本身,毕竟是第一个长片,他会遇到很多问题,很多和编剧思维方式,因为做了很多年编剧,有些很固话的思维方式需要转换。这个转换其实也是一个挑战吧。
NüVoices: What was it like to direct established actors who are household names in China in your first feature? 从幕后肯定是有很多磨合的过程。从我们观众的角度来看,最明显是您是资深的编剧,也是作为新人导演处女作我们看到幕前都是经验丰富的实力派演员。同时也是中国家喻户晓的明星,和他们合作有什么挑战和互相的帮助呢?
Wu Nan: The foundation of our collaboration is their acknowledgment of the script. They trust the script writers’ ability in helming this story. Of course they also had different interpretations, so there was a communication process before we arrived at a result everyone agreed on. People always assume stars can be distracted, but from my personal experience, they care more about the characters they create and whether their work resonates with the director and audience. That’s what’s most important for them. My job was just to communicate the story I had in my mind to them. 他们能够加入这个工作,有一个很重要的前提是他们认同这个故事和剧本。他们知道这个剧本是从我这来的。他们相信我能最好的把握这个故事。这是我们合作的一个基础。当然他们有他们不同的理解。这里面有一个很循序渐进的沟通,来最后达成大家都能接受的合作,工作的完成,角色的塑造。其实说作为明星,大家就觉得好像有很多额外的东西,其实我个人的体会,在工作的过程中并没有额外的东西。其实这些明星他们自己更在乎自己塑造了一个什么样的人物。那么在塑造这个人物这个问题上能不能和导演取得共鸣和共识,这个是更重要的。对我来说,故事我是很清晰的,更多的是一个沟通吧。
NüVoices: You mentioned that scriptwriters must write in their director’s shoes. Now that you’ve made your directorial debut, have you found your style as a director? How do you define your film language? 经过这个拍摄,之前您做编剧时说编剧必须要有导演的思维,导演在创作以后要逐渐形成导演的风格。那经过这个处女座之后,您感觉自己在拍摄前喝拍摄后对自己导演风格有什么认识的变化。您想怎样定义您的导演风格?

Wu Nan: It is a big question. I used to tell my students that there’s only one way to becoming a scriptwriter: “write.” So similarly, as I see it, you have to keep directing films to become a director. Every director’s film language has its distinct DNA. You can spell it out, classify it and make conclusions afterwards, but when you are in the process of making a film, you aren’t aware of your style. I didn’t choose a few filmmakers and copy their styles. For me, I must make my own film. What does it look like? I wasn’t so clear and didn’t think much about it. I think it depends on the story and conditions. My opinion is that it takes an organic growing process. As of how theorists classify my film, it is their concern. 这个问题其实蛮大的。我经常和我学生说你要学编剧,你只有一个方法。就是要写。就是你不断地写,你才能成为一个编剧。那因此我也可以理解,就是你要不断地拍,你才能成为一个真正的导演。每个人的创作最后的风格呈现是长在这个人的血液里的。它能够被说出来的,可以被理性规划的,你可以事后总结,但是你去创作时因为他在之前是不存在的,或者说我选了哪个导演的风格,我去模仿,我去拍出他那样的电影。从我个人的角度,我一定是我拍出我的电影,那么我的电影到底是什么样的,其实我未必那么清晰,那么靠理性的规划。但它可能会根据不同的故事,根据不同的条件他会生长出来,我自己的观点是风格是一个生长的过程。至于理论家怎么去归纳怎么去总结那其实是理论家的事情。

About the author
Daisy Singh-Greaves is a writer and copyeditor for NüStories who also helps coordinate the NüVoices London Chapter. She is a British journalist who has written for Panda Radio, among other China-focused media outlets. Passionate about Chinese literature, community-based storytelling and international development, she holds a dual honours undergraduate degree in Chinese and English from SOAS, University of London. Alongside studying for a year at Beijing Normal University, she volunteered at the Starfish Project—a charity supporting and rehabilitating trafficked women in East Asia. Daisy hopes to elevate the voices of women and other minorities by illuminating their stories through grass-roots journalism. Follow her on Twitter @daisygreaves
About the editor
Jessie Lau is a writer and researcher from Hong Kong analyzing identity, human rights and politics. Her writing has been published by Foreign Policy, The Economist, The Diplomat Magazine and Quartz, among others. She serves as Board Member and Online Editor-in-Chief at NüVoices, a collective supporting women working on China subjects. Formerly a Hong Kong and China reporter with the South China Morning Post, she holds a MSc from the London School of Economics, an LLM from Peking University and a BA from the University of California, Berkeley. Website: www.laujessie.com. Twitter: @_laujessie