Chinese Star Vicki Zhao: ‘What We Need Is a Humanist Perspective’ (Q&A)

3:00 AM PST 06/14/2013 by Clarence Tsui
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The actress-turned-director of box-office hit "So Young" talks to THR about shunning the spotlight, fighting her financiers and injecting a dash of cruelty into her coming of age drama.

HONG KONG – Some film students get an A+ for their graduate project; a lucky few might secure a screening in an independent film festival. Chinese director Vicki Zhao Wei went a step better -- a giant step, in fact. Her final project for her master’s degree in directing at the Beijing Film Academy, the feature film So Young, earned $115.8 million during its six-week run in Chinese cinemas, becoming the ninth highest-grossing film ever released in the country.

But of course, Zhao is not your ordinary film school student. The 37-year-old is one of the most well-known and commercially bankable actresses in China, and is counted as one of the “Four Flowers” (alongside Zhang Ziyi, Zhou Xun and Xu Jinglei) who shot to stardom just as the country’s film and television industry took flight in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Having elected to return to her alma mater to add further credentials to her degree in acting, So Young was the result: an adaptation of a novel about a group of disparate university students navigating school life in mid-1990s Beijing, and how their ideals and dreams were realized or denied as real life kicked in.

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Just before the film begins its international rollout -- it opened in Hong Kong, which operates a different distribution and exhibition system from mainland China, on June 14 -- Zhao and her producer, the veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Stanley Kwan, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about bankrolling So Young solo after the production ran out of money, resisting their financiers, and feeling, well, not so young anymore.

The Hollywood Reporter: How was approaching this project as a director rather than an actress different for you?

Vicki Zhao: Oh, it’s so different. Okay, so the film did start its life as kind of a piece of homework, but it’s still a full-fledged production, so it’s great that I got to learn the ropes from [Stanley] Kwan. In fact, I quite like working behind the scenes -- it’s quite a high-pressure job to be there on stage, in front of everyone all the time. The acting is fine -- I’m very comfortable being in front of the camera -- but to travel here and there and meet so many people as a star, it’s not really what I’m made for. By doing So Young, I could get to learn things I haven’t seen before and do things I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

THR: But as a director, I imagine you might feel a new strain: balancing your own vision and what is demanded of you from your financial backers?

Zhao: It’s a film in which very few compromises were made. It’s lucky I have had a career already -- I could see some newcomers being forced into conceding too much and having their film turn into quite a big mess. For example, I invited Li Qiang [who penned Gu Changwei’s award-winning Peacock and And the Spring Comes, and Ann Hui’s The Postmodern Life of My Aunt] to be my screenwriter. He’s brilliant but he has worked mostly in arthouse drama – something that didn’t generate great box office returns. So one of my financiers said it’s too risky – and then proceeded to hire someone to write a screenplay and then tried to get me to make a film out of that. I was like, “Who do you think you are? How can I make something you gave me, just like that?” I didn’t read a single page of it.

FILM REVIEW: So Young

Stanley Kwan: Other people would have made many concessions, yes – but because she’s Zhao Wei she could do something more artistic. It’s difficult for this project to lose money, with the popularity of the original novel and also her name -- some people might come because they’re curious about what she’s like as a director.

Zhao: It’s a very challenging project as it’s difficult to find locations which could match the era we wanted – dorms and corridors that look like those from the 1990s. We have a budget which could stretch to 60 days but I already had an inkling we might be tipping over the line – but the financiers said, well, we’ve given you the money and it’s your problem if you go over-budget. I wouldn’t really bother discussing dollars and cents with them so I just went ahead with the shoot, which actually had 100 sequences spread across four cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Ningbo and Guizhou. And after 20 days we ran out of money.. but it’s like an engine which you can’t stop once you started it, so I just used my own money to bankroll the rest.

Finally, we managed to get to post-production and I delivered a rough cut to the investors -- and this guy who doesn’t know anything about money started pelting me with all these suggestions of how to improve the film. I was so dismayed that I just stormed into their offices a while later and told them to refund me with the production expenses because I’m not doing it anymore, I’m not wasting my own money to make what they like. So they said, okay we’ll reimburse you if the film reaches a certain level at the box office. I demanded that in black and white and they were saying, well, how about setting the bar at 150 million yuan [$24.5 million]? I said, okay, deal. And that worked out quite well [laughs].

THR: What was it about the novel that moved you the most?

Zhao: Well… in fact it didn’t really move me as a 37-year-old. If I were an 18 or 19-year-old I would have loved the book to bits, though: all the romance and dreams and all that. That’s why most fans of the book were those who have barely reached 20, very young kids. That’s why some of them were really furious after watching the film because the book gave them something to fantasize about and I gave them a film which showed them the fantasy could crack. Their lives haven’t begun properly, that I understand, but the creative team behind the film have been through all the tribulations in life and it’s difficult for us to deliver something which is all fairytale and devoid of reality.

THR: So that’s why you’ve added threads which might reflect some deeper strains in the social fabric – like rural students trying to shake off their roots in the city, or poor ones who couldn’t make that leap across the class divide?

Zhao: Yes, Li Qiang has given many more layers to all these characters, and they carry a hint of a lot of people in society these days. These are things I felt for and the screenplay is to tell people that, well, life is cruel. We’d have already taken care of how much the audience could take – so we’ve just given them a little bit of cruelty.

Kwan: I have asked Li Qiang about this, and I suggested how the characters would be only in their 30s in the second part of the film [set in 2003, several years after their graduation] and they should still be very vibrant and propelling themselves forward. Is it really true that they would be at such an impasse? But he reminded me that the actual film itself is being shown in 2013 – and in the intermittent decade mainland China has moved so quick and things changed so much. More people competing more vehemently for fewer opportunities; circumstances had forced these people in their 30s to be more jaded than they should be.

Zhao: We didn’t actually sit down and figure out whether this film is going to match what the market needs, or that kind of thing. It’s just that everybody in the country these days is advocating one to look forward and onward, rather than reflecting on what has passed. A humanist perspective is what we need. Why should we tell everyone that the world is a great place to live in? I remember being asked what my perspective on life is, and I said: while I was small I was told at home that there’s a Snow White out there – and when you grow up and head out, you find witches there instead.

THR: So did you sense a difference between your perspective and those of your classmates in your masters’ degree program? 

Zhao: There were only six of us in my class and the oldest is in his 40s, and the youngest a few years junior to me. So they’re more or less my generation – but I was much more mature than them! We will be discussing what we films we would want to make and they tend to think of things which are more fantastical and surreal. Maybe it’s an old-school way of thinking about the art form. Then again, I am also lucky as I don’t have young kids in my close circle, people who would always be rambling about where to hang out and have fun… people I talk to over a drink would be talking about what kind of films they want to make or what kind of stories they are concerned about.

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