Q&A: Wang Quan'an


Wang Quan'an can certainly lay claim to being a Berliner as winner of the 2007 Golden Bear for "Tuya's Wedding," his moving tale of a family ripped apart by poverty and misfortune. The award made him the third Chinese director to win in Berlin, following Zhang Yimou and Xie Fei. Wang opens this year's festival with his new film, "Apart Together" ("Tuan Yuan"), which he both wrote and directed. Selected for its particular resonance in Berlin, "Apart" tells the story of Liu Yuansheng (played by Taiwan's Ling Feng), who fled his native Shanghai to Taiwan as Nationalist forces were being routed. Decades later, he returns to reunite with Qiao Yu-e (Lisa Lu), a lost love, finding not only her, but her husband (Xu Caigen) and the story of the family Qiao established in his absence. Liu asks Qiao's family permission to take her back to Taiwan with him, but will she go? THR's Steven Schwankert sat down with Wang in Beijing to talk about a film for a formerly divided city, why Chinese directors "die" in Shanghai and what it's like to be born in the heart of revolution.

The Hollywood Reporter: Tell us about "Apart Together," where does the story come from?

Wang Quan'an: I basically make films about things with which I'm fairly familiar. It's hard for me to make a film about something I don't really know. This is a story that should resonate to common people and I make films about common people. It's about how groups of people in Shanghai during the [Chinese Civil] war dealt with being separated. Several hundred thousand families were divided in this way. This kind of story in China is very clear, it's something that we've talked about a lot, and has also been discussed in other countries where it has happened, in the U.S., in Germany, in other places. I think we can overcome geographic separation, but can we overcome 60 years of history? Families should be reunited, but it isn't always easy. We think that being apart is hard, but being together sometimes is even harder.

THR: People in Germany, and especially in Berlin, have had a similar experience, being divided, and then reunified. How do you think they will relate to the film?

Wang: I think that people would agree that families should be united or reunited, but that doesn't mean that those reunions are not without some pain. This doesn't mean they shouldn't be together, that they should stay apart, but some people are very surprised when they encounter these kinds of problems and can't solve them. I think the influence of this kind of division on a people or on a country lasts longer than we would imagine. It takes many years to get past it. I've been to Berlin many times now so I think I have a little understanding of the place. In Germany, in Berlin, even 20 years after reunification, they are still discovering problems with it, and some social problems are emerging. These are caused by differences that came first from being divided, and now being brought back together. They will be hard to resolve simply. The film is shot against that kind of background. I didn't imagine when I shot it that I should take it to Berlin, but when I submitted, they responded to it very quickly. Berlin is a more political festival, they are willing to ponder bigger issues.

THR: What were some of the challenges in making the film?

Wang: I'm a northerner, but I went to Shanghai to shoot a movie, actually, it's quite risky! All of China's famous directors, like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, they've made movies in Shanghai, they're not from there, and they "died" there, their films were not so successful. So I wanted to give it a try, to shoot a bigger story there, something historical. I always wanted to do a story that would involve characters like [famous Shanghai gangster] Du Yuesheng, and just see if I could film there and get the best of it. That's how I chose Shanghai as the setting.

THR: Is making films in China getting easier or becoming more difficult?

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Wang: It should be getting easier. It used to be that everything was about propaganda, now it's all about which films make money. We have only one channel for distribution, so that means that only films that will make money get distribution. Making movies in China now is like real estate, or the stock market, it's really hot right now. If you look at it coldly, things should be getting easier. When you have the world's largest population, then you're going to sell a lot of movie tickets. The situation with "Avatar" in China is really interesting. In a way, it's the Americans showing us, OK, we're still the boss. It's an advance in technology, and the director spent about 10 years working on different parts of it. Here, if a director works on a film for 10 years, people will say forget it, that's stupid. There's a different view about what should go into a film, but also what we should get back.

THR: Is Hollywood putting pressure on China's domestic film industry?

Wang: China's film industry can learn a lot from Hollywood. Look, Hollywood puts pressure on everyone all over the world, that's natural. Our system is rather specialized in the way it works, whereas Hollywood has a well-developed, comprehensive system. We have a lot to learn and a lot we can learn from Hollywood. It's a chance for us to learn what works for us, and to catch up a little bit.

THR: You were born in Yan'an, in north-central China's Shaanxi province, the home of China's communist revolution. What was that like? How has it influenced you?

Wang: Up until I was 10, it had a greater effect on me. Yan'an is a small place but it is also a very famous place. At the time, my father was the head of the Communist Party school there. I would always discuss these ideas with my father -- he was a teacher of Marxist-Leninist Thought. After he retired, when he felt a little differently about his work, I told him he shouldn't be bitter, you did something you believed in. In some ways, we have different problems. We don't know how to talk about these spiritual and philosophical things, where to put them in our lives. Life then wasn't so much about money. In some ways, the time when we felt like we were the greatest was when we really had nothing.