BFI Future Film Festival 2023
A Peking Opera troupe performs in North America for the first time. Xutian, Maomao, and Chengyuan have different feelings about their upcoming performance.
Hi Janelle, it’s great to talk with you, how has everything been going?
Hello! Nice to talk with you too and thank you for this interview opportunity. I’ve been well and am enjoying myself during my exchange right now.
How is your time studying Character Animation at California Institute of the Arts helping to guiding your filmmaking journey?
The biggest growth I’ve experienced comes from having to make a film myself ever year, as was expected by the program. And after doing that for three years now, I’ve definitely learnt a lot about every process, from script to animation to compositing, as well as a lot about myself. Every year at CalArts is a reflection upon the previous year, on what worked and what didn’t. I am realizing the kind of story I want to tell and am tailoring my filmmaking process to be as enjoyable and self-indulgent as possible.
Beyond giving me so much independent filmmaking experience, the CalArts Character Animation also pushed me to higher and higher expectation of myself, especially when I am surrounded by extremely talented classmates. There is a sort of atmosphere in the school where everyone’s work is constantly inspiring everyone else to try harder.
What has the experience been like for you being at the Gobelins L'école de l’image?
It is wonderful and I’m enjoying my time here. The constant growth in CalArts is motivating but the stress level can become straining at times. It is refreshing to step away for a bit and learn at a different pace. I am currently in the Bachelor third year module here and I am helping out on the Annecy opening shorts that the school produces for the film festival every year. Not only is the format much shorter, I have more production time to polish the piece. Most importantly, the work is done in teams rather than individually. The group work really tests and trains the skills that I have not exercised much before.
One more smaller note, it is also more convenient to go around in Paris than in the LA suburb. I will certainly miss the transportation once I return to LA.
Congratulations on having Opera part of the Future Film Festival 2023, how does it feel to be part of such an incredible line-up of short films?
I am really flattered and honoured! It is also a little nerve wrecking to have my film lined up next to other incredible films by filmmakers who probably have many more years of experience than I do. I am genuinely grateful for the selection.
How important are festivals like Future Film Festival in creating a platform for short films?
I believe it is very needed and crucial for the growth of independent films. Especially since independent and student filmmakers have limited resources and budget, it can be difficult to produce longer formats, so a lot of heart and concept are encompassed within the short film format. When festivals like Future Film provide these platforms, it gives opportunities to smaller creators for their work to be seen.
Can you tell me how Opera, came about, what was the inspiration behind your short?
The film actually went through a lot of drastic changes in its development. It all started when I first watched Farwell my Concubine (1993), which inspired me to make a short film involving Peking Opera. The inner message came much later however. At the very beginning I simply wanted to make an epic fighting scene involving characters in Peking Opera costumes. That idea was soon dropped as I continued more research into Peking Opera, and I decided to develop more narrative.
The film was originally going to be set in 1920s Shanghai and about the daughter of a rich patron of Peking Opera troupes. The script for that initial idea struggled a lot with clarity because of the old customs. At some point, the basis of the current film came into my head and I thought of instead making a dialogue-heavy film with three characters, each representing an archetype or viewpoint.
It is also convenient that during my research, I learnt about Mei Lan Fang’s experience when he toured around America as the first Peking Opera performer in 1930. The amount of nervousness and planning that went into the preparation can still be felt and remains relevant today. Having located this feeling, I then begin to construct the conversation surrounding the theme, which became the core of “Opera”.
"I think the filmmaking passion comes from wanting to deliver an experience for the audience and the fact that film as a medium welcomes so much experimentation not just images, but also sound and most importantly time."
What made you want to use the short film format to examine the cultural appreciation and orientalism?
While cultural appreciation and orientalism are very complex topics that could very much benefit from exploration in longer format, “Opera” is best suited for short film because its essential structure is still a three-way dialogue. Each character represents one opinion on the subject of cultural exchanges, and it is through the way different opinions echo and clash with each other that we have a rough idea of the complexity. Ultimately, I don’t have a definitive answer either to what counts cultural appreciation or orientalism. All I have are definite feelings I experience, as well as the ability to pose even more questions. With that, I think it’s best I pose the questions in my short film and leave the answers outside of the screen time.
What was the biggest challenges you faced making Opera?
The script for this film was incredibly challenging to write. It walked a thin line of being too vague and confusing and being too on the nose. It had a unique phenomenon where I was receiving mixed feedbacks from Asian and non-Asian test readers. At times, a same line of dialogue would get comments about being too confusing and purposeless and simultaneously too forced. Through out this process, I asked myself many times for whom am I making this film and who is the audience. It also didn’t help that I was under immense time pressure as I have a lineup of actors already and we are scheduled for a table read, yet I was still in the process of a major rewrite. In summary, when I was pressed for an entire overhaul of the script as well as time, it became really hard to know what is the right decision and when to move forward.
Looking back, what would you say have been the most valuable lessons you’ve taken from making Opera?
It is not necessary a lesson but more of an experience during the making of this film, but “Opera” really gave me the opportunity to reconnect with Mandarin speakers at school and the incentive to learn about this exquisite art. Even though the film is long finished, I am still obsessed with watching Chinese opera and catching performance livestreams.
Where did this passion for filmmaking come from?
I know I’ve always loved drawing and storytelling, but the film part did not occur to me until much later. In fact, childhood me actually wanted to be a comic artist. I think the filmmaking passion comes from wanting to deliver an experience for the audience and the fact that film as a medium welcomes so much experimentation not just images, but also sound and most importantly time. It is essentially an orchestration of the audience’ emotions without explicitly telling them when to cry and what to think. Rather, filmmaking invites and guides the audience to the experience that I’ve curated for them.
What was the first film you saw that made you want to try your hand behind the camera?
I don’t think I remember unfortunately, but I’ve certainly binged enough cartoons as a child, ranging from Krtek (The Little Mole) to Calabash Brothers, to make me want to create spin-offs and animations of my own.
Do you think filmmakers should continue to push the boundaries of the films/stories they want to tell?
Yes absolutely. Films are conversations. If you want to create a statement and something that lasts, then you have to push what you want to tell and move the conversation. You also have to know what has been said before you or you will just end up repeating others’ words.
For someone wanting to experience Chinese Opera are there any productions you would recommend?
Oh yes thank you for asking! I have a lot I want to share in terms of recommendations.
To clarify first, these days I watch Kunqu Opera predominantly, which is older and almost like a predecessor to Peking Opera by about 300-400 years old. A lot of my recommendations therefore are gonna be from this genre. They’re similar, especially in terms of visuals, but the singing and the pacing are drastically different.
The most famous Kunqu play is probably 牡丹亭 aka Peony Pavilion, especially the 青春版 version. It is a combination of all the essential features of Kunqu Opera — young couple in love, melodrama, dream sequence, hence making it a good example of the genre. For Peking Opera, 贵妃醉酒 (Drunken Beauty) and 霸王别姬 (Farewell my Concubine) are probably the most iconic. Though 白蛇传 (White Snake Legend) might be good to start with because it’s got both a strong narrative and a large action sequence in the second act.
You can find full videos of those plays online but I believe most of them do not have English subtitles. Ultimately, if you are able to read Chinese, then you have a much wider selection to go about.
However if you can’t read Chinese, here are some plays that are fully subtitled!
【昆曲】《1699桃花扇》(Peach Blossom Fan)
Another iconic Kunqu play, it’s a play drawing parallel between two lovers and the rise and fall of a dynasty.
【昆曲浮生六记】(Six Chapters of Floating life) (Part 1)
This one is really depressing, it is about a husband losing his wife, being delusional, and remembering her through writing.
【昆曲】白罗衫 (White Silk Shirt)
This one is my absolute favourite play right now. It’s unconventional because rather than a love story, it’s a tragedy involving murder and mystery. The main actor does a wonderful job in portraying the dilemma of the character.
The video is not subtitled, but it doesn’t have many dialogues and focuses on the acting anyway. This version is really spectacular because the main actor, Chen YongLing, was clearly ageing as of time of recording, yet his movements are so agile and perfectly portray the shyness of a young girl’s love at first sight.
There are so many other ones that I wanted to share as well but this already very long list should be a good place to start with!
What top 3 tips would you offer a fellow filmmakers?
1. Having an interest or specialty in fields outside of art helps a lot with writing. After all, film is a medium and a container. Without actual content, a film would feel empty and generic.
2. When I struggle to construct the identity of my film, I like to find films that are similar to my idea. I would first ask myself how I want to be similar, then I ask how I want to be different.
3. Sleep well, eat healthy, exercise. Don’t push yourself to be productive all the time. You don’t need to compromise your health to make good art.
And finally, what message do you hope your audiences will take away from Opera?
I think depending on which audience, they will be taking away different messages from this film. To non-Chinese audiences (especially Western audiences), it doesn’t matter what your reaction might be. I simply wanted to state there is an automatic feeling that comes with sharing one’s culture and it is unavoidable. To Chinese audiences (especially mainland audiences), I think there is a tendency to deny ourselves and what the world thinks even before stepping on stage. It is contradictory to have that distrust yet simultaneously yearning for approval. Some art deserves to be preserved no matter the opinion or popularity.
To be fair, I think it is much more interesting for me to observe the different reactions each person has than for me to give away one single message. The real spectacle of this film happens in the audience.