The film “Victim(s)” was inspired by true events. Can you tell us more about them and about why you decided to focus your first feature on this story?
It’s “inspired”, not “based on”, so there’s no single event/story that I’m focusing on. I was focusing on the topic itself, researching on multiple stories for inspiration. I wasn’t shadowing any specific event. The film is based on a combination of my research work and things I saw growing up.
The story’s setting is never mentioned directly. Given the fact that all major characters speak Mandarin, the place may be an unidentified Chinese city located anywhere either in mainland China, Taiwan or Malaysia. Was this a deliberate choice?
It’s a Malaysian film, as the story is based in Malaysia; more specifically, it is set in the local Chinese community, which is one of the largest communities in Malaysia. As for the story setup, we deliberately tried to avoid mentioning any specific country, because campus violence and cyber bullying are quite universal themes. I wanted the film to have as much resonation with different cultures as possible. We also tried to implement Malaysia’s diversity in terms of culture in the background settings. So I guess you can say it was a deliberate choice, because what we’re presenting here are issues all humans are facing, not just in one specific country but everywhere.
Is there any particular reason why you chose to shoot the film in Malaysia?
I was very impressed with the diversity in terms of culture when I visited Malaysia. I think it works the best to present a universal topic like this. It was also cheaper to shoot the film there, and the filmmaking system is very efficient and professional. Also, my investors are from Southeast Asia.
Today China is the world’s fastest growing movie industry and is due to surpass the USA as the largest market in terms of box office by 2025. Do you think this can give new Chinese directors more opportunities to let their own voice be heard?
Certainly. China has one of the largest movie markets in the world and it’s growing rapidly every day. Many people of my same age have been able to study abroad and have become multilingual, so I think it’s only a matter of time for more young Chinese directors to emerge and become successful. I also think there will be more and more Chinese directors who are going to break the language barrier and make films overseas, even in other languages. Film is a language itself, in that sense we all speak the same language, regardless where we are from. All voices should be heard.
In the past decades, many Chinese directors used to move to the USA to direct their films and have the freedom to create the stories they wanted. Now, many Chinese directors opt for studying in the USA but then they return to China because they want to start a proper career there. You yourself have studied in the USA and, after shooting your debut film in Malaysia, are now planning to shoot your next flick in China. How would you say the USA and China differ in terms of opportunities, approach to creativity and attitude towards art?
Personally, I definitely think China has way more opportunities than the U.S., as it has a fast growing market and a stronger demand in general, but especially for new directors and writers. While I was in the U.S, I realized you have to be able to gain some kind of recognition, such as festival spotlights, or big agency, in order to be taken seriously, but in China, today there are more opportunities and more help is provided to support young filmmakers through pitching contests and festival markets. Many Chinese companies are willing to take risks to give young filmmakers a chance to prove themselves, or even to make mistakes and thus be able to grow. This is very rare in the U.S., because bigger companies normally do not take those same risks. As for the difference in the approach to creativity and attitude towards art, I think different cultures will provide “diversity” to things, but diversity does not necessarily imply “difference”, if you know what I mean… I think every artist or storyteller feels the urge to express themselves, we all devote ourselves to whatever art format we work on, so there really shouldn’t be a ranking tag to any form of art-making.
Do you think China today offers more opportunities to women directors if compared to the past? In your opinion, are there any forms of discriminations women directors still have to face in the world cinematic industry in general and in the Chinese one in particular?
There are many legendary female directors in China. It’s true female directors are still considered very rare in terms of percentage, but I think that’s a worldwide industry diversity problem in general. Yet, there’re many opportunities for new directors in China; sometimes companies recognize the emotional sensitivity of female directors, so they might want them to tell the stories, but it’s not like in the U.S., where there are many political reasons involved, and choosing a female director is considered like a trend. I think as females working in a male-driven industry, we are constantly facing challenges of any kind. I think it might be even harder for female cinematographers, because they are rarer than female directors. For example, in my team we are a female director, a female cinematographer and two female producers, but we also work with brilliant male producers and investors and we all mutually respect one another. I’ve heard that in some places in Asia (not sure exactly where or whether it’s true), females are not supposed to sit on an apple box, because they think it would bring disaster to the set (like a curse to the equipment safety or something like that), and I remember thinking “Hmm, if I ever get to film in an area like that, I will for sure give every female on my set an apple box to sit on.”
Homosexuality and LGBTQ+ issues are strongly debated today and although Taiwan passed a law legalizing same-sex marriages in 2019, this topic is still a taboo subject in many Asian countries (and in many Western ones as well). Would you say the inner conflict on sexual orientation described in the film is typical of many Chinese teenagers today?
I wouldn’t address this answer to Chinese teenagers only. Gangzi’s character in my film is a teenager living a confused stage in terms of sexual orientation. I think that applies to many teenagers growing up all over the world: the struggle, the pretending, the denial… In Malaysia it’s even harder, because it’s a religious country, so Gangzi is dealing with a heavier load of chaos in his head. I do believe many teenagers live a confused stage regarding their sexual orientation, so it is a typical situation, therefore it’s important we adults build a proper welcoming society that helps teenagers reduce that anxiety of feeling unwelcomed or troubled.
Do you think your film can stimulate a public discussion on sexism and homophobia in Mandarin-speaking countries, encouraging both artists and the general public to speak openly about these topics? Was this your original intention while creating the story?
I certainly do hope my film could trigger some public discussion about campus violence and cyber bullying, and the reasons behind them. To me, film is a language, so it communicates, but it shouldn’t “educate” people. I think if the film can either trigger some awareness on the issues discussed in the film, stir up some discussions, or influence people to take a second look about things, then my mission is accomplished, and I’d be quite proud about it.
Are there any directors you took direct inspiration from to write and shoot your film? Are there any specific films or directors you would like to mention as a major influence on your work?
I love Clint Eastwood, I find it hard to predict where his story will end whenever I watch his films. I love how he just basically ignores a lot of the “rules” like he was telling us: “here is what I wanna say and how I wanna say it, that’s it.” I think I was encouraged by him when I structured my film. I also love Ang Lee, for the way he can jump from one genre to the other. I think I would love to try that someday. Growing up I was influenced by a lot of films; for social issues I think I would mention “The Cove”, but also South Korean films, such as “Silenced(Do-Ga-Ni)”, or films like “Spotlight”. They are definitely the ones that remind me why I wanted to be a filmmaker.
Are you currently working on a new project? What is it about?
Yes, I’ve been working on a couple stories, but they are taking forever to write. I’m also going to direct a commercial romance film that’s an adaptation of a Chinese novel.
Do you think you’ll shoot another story in Malaysia or somewhere out of China in the future or was Victim(s) a one-off event?
Yes, definitely. For me, filming all over the world is a bonus I can never resist. I speak three languages, so it’s really not too difficult in terms of communication. I just go wherever the story goes.
What would you say to a young Chinese woman wishing to become a director as a piece of advice?
“Don’t try to fit in, try to stand out.” An executive at UTA gave me that piece of advice years ago, I really appreciate it and would like to pass it on.