Coming off his best actor win at the Berlin International Film Festival for the Wang Xiaoshuai-directed “So Long My Son,” Wang Jingchun is this year acting as a main competition jury member at the Shanghai International Film Festival, which concludes Sunday. He was last a jury member for the shorts selection at the festival five years ago, but this time “the scale is different. There’s a lot more responsibility,” he admits.
Sixth generation director, Wang Xiaoshuai’s brutal, emotional critique of China’s one-child policy, told through the story of a couple who suffer through the death of their only son and a botched abortion that leaves the mother infertile, was chosen to compete for the Golden Bear in February and also netted a best actress win for Wang’s co-star, Yong Mei.
Wang laughs that he himself had almost appeared in “The Eight Hundred” — the hotly anticipated war epic that was abruptly pulled the day before it was set to debut as Shanghai’s opening film — but had to pass because the shoot conflicted with that of “So Long, My Son.” “At the time, [“Eight Hundred” director] Guan Hu was really mad, and kept saying, ‘You refused me!’ But then he saw our film, and said, ‘Oh, it was because of this?’ When I said yes he said, ‘OK, OK, it’s not a problem. I understand.”
As the film prepares to hit theaters in Europe, Wang sat down with Variety to discuss his craft.
Variety: Arthouse films still struggle to get theatrically programmed yet are seeing a growing box office. What do you make of the future of arthouse films in China?
Wang: The rising box office is a really good thing. At its worst, we hardly had a box office to speak of. There also used to be a problem with content: The subjects and perspectives were too old. Now we need new concepts, and young people coming up now are bringing all sorts of new ones to the table, new kinds of cinematic thinking.
Also, foreign and Hollywood films have come in, and everyone’s seen everything. When audiences have seen more things, their taste improves, and they start to realize that they don’t want popcorn films to be the only option. It’s really now just a problem of the cinemas, who just want to make money. But the arthouse box office is higher and higher every year, which proves that audiences have these needs, and that theaters have at least started to provide a platform for them to see this stuff. I feel it’ll only improve.
Do you think that directors like Wang Xiaoshuai, Jia Zhangke or Zhang Yimou have had to compromise in their art to make films that are [able to pass censorship and] receive a theatrical release?
They’re not young anymore; their lives, their attitudes towards society have undergone some changes. Life always comes in stages — in your youth, that’s one period of creation, one stage. It’s your point of departure, and then your artistic perspective slowly undergoes changes.
I met Xiaoshuai when I was very young, and loved his films and that power they had. But perhaps there are many people who prefer how he is today, especially in “So Long, My Son.” I think who he is today is different. His heart is bigger, and he sees the world from a higher vantage point. He has a broader vision, so I think his art, his thinking and the films he’s able to create can move more people.
How did you prepare for your role as a grieving father in “So Long, My Son”? What was challenging about portraying the same character over the course of many years?
Life in 1980s China was very, very hard — not like now, where you can just eat and drink whatever you want. So first I lost weight. In a month, I lost 15kg. I was two totally different people. I had just come back from America where I’d been eating steaks every day, and was sort of fat and sturdy, and then I dropped from 84 kg to 69. My face thinned, my stomach disappeared; I had nothing left.
The way people speak at age 20 is also very different from the way a 40 or 60 year old speaks. The place in the throat where their voice is coming from changes, since as you age, your voice comes from a deeper and deeper place. Most people probably don’t think about this, but I analyze these things carefully.
I felt very strongly about the script when I first received it, because when our generation was studying art and cinema, people from that era were all around us. Their stories were something that we could hear, see, and touch, that were deeply entwined with our lives as something we tried to decipher and understand. When this film came along, I felt, wow… a chemical reaction. Somehow everything was right, and it was very comfortable and easy for me to swim within the world of this film, like it was fated or arranged by the heavens for me to play this role.
China’s undergoing a period of growing censorship, but at the same time more once-controversial topics — like the one-child policy — are able to be portrayed on the big screen. What do you make of this?
I think there’s a really big opening in terms of subject matter right now. Chinese people can acknowledge when a mistake has occurred, but they also have a tendency towards avoidance, where knowing that something was wrong, we prefer not to talk about it and put it to the side. In the 1980s, critique already reached a zenith, and the things we were criticizing then, we’ve criticized. Now, they’ve woken up and they know these other things were wrong, so we can now shoot them.
How can we raise female representation in festivals? Do you believe in quotas?
I don’t think we need quotas. Why would we need that? Why do you have to say it must be 50/50? If you have a quota, there’s a chance you’ll be putting aside some good works in order to execute it, right? I think you definitely can’t use numbers or rules to judge art; it’s too formalist.
Mao once said “women hold up half the sky.” In China, this has already been entirely realized. Chinese women have quite a high position. Hey, there are even many people who are afraid of their wives. I think this issue has already been fully resolved here. Nowadays it should be the men who are complaining.
But there’s only one woman on the main competition jury…
I don’t think there’s a need [to change]. It’s not that a male jury member will say “oh, I don’t like this film because it’s female-themed.” I perhaps don’t follow this issue so much, because I’m still wondering why they keep discussing this in Europe and abroad. Haven’t feminists been actively pushing for things over there? China’s already entered an era where it’s entirely met feminist values. What are they still talking about?