Wang Quan'an on New Drama 'Ondog' and Why His Next Film Is About Trump's Border Wall
The Golden Bear winner discusses his recent filmmaking preoccupations, the challenges of shooting in Mongolia and the current quicksilver moment in American politics.
The Berlin International Film Festival has played an impressively pivotal role in the career of Chinese filmmaker Wang Quan’an. The 54-year-old auteur made his feature debut in the festival’s Forum section in 2002 — with the edgy romance Lunar Eclipse — and just four years later returned to Berlin to win the Golden Bear with Tuya’s Marriage, a tragicomic tale of survival on the Mongolian plains.
In the years since, his work has won the festival’s best screenplay prize and generated a Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution — period drama Apart Together (2010) and the sweeping historical epic White Dear Plane (2012), respectively. Wang is back in Berlin this year with Öndög, his seventh feature, about an 18-year-old Mongolian policeman who is tasked with guarding the naked corpse of a young woman found murdered beside the road.
Wang served on Berlin’s main competition jury in February 2017, when U.S. president Donald Trump was new to office and the whole world was buzzing about his radical early actions. Wang says the conversations he had during that trip inspired his eighth feature, now in preproduction. By all appearances his most audacious film to date, American Wall will be Wang’s first film shot in the U.S. and told in English. The film follows an Iraq veteran-turned-truck driver as he drives across the U.S. southwest to deliver a chunk of Donald Trump’s wall to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Just prior to Berlin, THR connected with Wang to discuss his recent filmmaking preoccupations, the challenges of shooting in Mongolia and the current quicksilver moment in American politics.
Öndög is your first film set in Mongolia since your Golden Bear winner Tuya’s Marriage. What about Mongolia inspires you as a storyteller?
I believe the technological advancement that mankind is so proud of has actually distorted us to some extent. Living in giant, civilized cities makes it easy for us to forget the essential fact that we are just animals and part of the larger natural world. The nomadic way of life in Mongolia leaves people no choice but to maintain a much closer relationship with nature. Making a film in Mongolia provides a point of view for reflecting on the meaning of human civilization from the perspective of nature. I am always longing for nature. In this sense, I’m a Mongolian.
What were the biggest challenges involved in making the film?
In Mongolia, the biggest difficulty of making a movie in winter, of course, is the freezing, subzero weather. Heavy snow inevitably comes every November and blankets the whole landscape until March of the following year. But here was the magical thing: When we arrived to shoot, there was no snow yet within a hundred kilometers of our locations, which is very rare and mysterious. According to the locals, this hadn’t happened since 1936. I felt the god of this place was also hoping to see this film born. We all felt very lucky.
The stars of Öndög don’t seem to have any film background. How did you find them and go about creating these characters together?
The Mongolian actors in this film are all amateurs and true herders. I have developed my own methods and approach for working with them. As much as possible, I ask them to just carry on doing things in their normal, everyday way. As a result, they perform very naturally — I would say excellently.
We have to discuss your next project, American Wall. How did this come about?
The inspiration for this film came when I was on the jury for the Berlin Film Festival in 2017. The hottest subject at that time was what was happening at the U.S. border with Mexico, as well as immigration issues such as the renowned Iranian director Asghar Farhadi not participating in the Oscars because of the United States’ immigration ban targeting several Muslim-majority countries. These things obviously touched me, as I stood at the foot of the Berlin Wall, and being from a country with an even better-known “Great Wall.” Some of these walls have been demolished after several decades, some have been standing for thousands of years. Now new walls are about to be built. These different walls from across time circulated through my mind, and they congealed into an urgent desire to make a movie on this new “American Wall.” After I got back to Beijing, it took me three days to finish the first draft of the script.
How far along is the project?
The storyline changed after I went to the United States on a location scout six months ago. At the moment, we don’t have a cast yet, but the project will be a collaboration between Starlight Film, a company that I recently established in the U.S., and Arclight Films. We’ve been prepping the project for the past eight months and did some trial shooting. We plan to officially start production in May.
Can you tell us more about the story?
It's about a truck driver, a Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, transporting a piece of prefabricated cement border wall to San Diego for a construction company that bid for the Mexican border wall project. It's a typical American road movie in some ways. During the location scout and test shooting I came across eight different models of walls from various bidding companies standing tall already.
Is there anything in particular that you want to say about Donald Trump's proposed wall? What attracts you to the issue?
I subscribe to the idea that a good movie is more about raising a question, not solving a problem. In fact, I know almost nothing about the United States and its politics, and I don't hold any strong personal opinion on this proposed wall. What has drawn my attention is the violent tearing that the wall has caused in the hearts of people in the United States and around the world. Even in American society, which is supposed to be about diversity and the power of cultural fusion, the proposed construction of this wall has forced people to separate themselves on either side of the issue, with no real space for conversation in between — a barrier between the hearts of the American people. This has got me thinking about a seemingly simple question: What is the United States?
Will Trump appear in your film?
Well, American Wall tells the story of a truck driver on the road. So unless the president changes jobs to become a truck driver, or my character encounters the president’s motorcade on the road, Donald Trump probably won’t be in the movie.
What was your location scout in the U.S. like?
We had a great experience on a road when passing by the infamous Area 51 in Nevada. We ate at a UFO-themed restaurant, where the restaurant owner gave me a speech full of esoteric words and ideas. Then I saw a UFO-related poster in the yard with the slogan: "I need to believe..." I've decided my protagonist will definitely pass through this area and I'm going to have this slogan written on a cement wall beside the restaurant. "I need to believe" — it's something that we all need.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 11 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.