Wayne Wang was born and raised in the former British colony of Hong Kong in 1949. He came to America as a young man and went to film school to pursue his passion. With the 1982 film Chan Is Missing, a realistic depiction of immigrant lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Wang became a pioneer by depicting Chinese-American stories on screen. The film won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Independent/Experimental Film Award that year. In 1993, Wang adapted Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club, a landmark achievement as it touts a mostly Chinese-American cast in a feature released by a Hollywood studio. It would be 25 years until another such production, Crazy Rich Asians, released into mainstream entertainment.
Since The Joy Luck Club, Wang has adapted literary works by other Asian American writers, including Lisa See’s novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2011), two of Yiyun Li’s short stories — A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Princess of Nebraska — and now his latest film, Coming Home Again, based on acclaimed Korean-American writer Chang-rae Lee’s 1995 personal essay published in The New Yorker.
While bringing to the forefront culturally-specific features, Wang is also known for his contribution to mainstream filmmaking. In 1995, he adapted Paul Auster’s screenplay Smoke, which won the Silver Berlin Bear Special Jury Prize and was a nominee for the prestigious César Awards in France (1996), among other accolades. Smoke was also studied in academia as “a film worthy of analysis in the tenets of André Bazin’s theories.”
Wayne Wang’s latest feature Coming Home Again had its world premiere at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival on September 7, 2019. I had the pleasure to sit down with Wang and conducted the following interview during TIFF.
First off, congratulations on a successful world premiere of Coming Home Again, a nuanced and thoughtful piece. What elements in Chang-rae Lee’s personal essay particularly drew you to this project?
I think because it’s autobiographical and very authentic. It has a lot of details and a lot of nuances. For me, it is about no matter how close you’re to something and how much you want to protect something, life changes and things are impermanent. You have to accept it. Those are the things that always stay with me. My own mother was sick with Parkinson’s for many years. Towards the end, it was difficult as usual. A lot of that story came back to me. Finally, in 2018, I said to Chang-rae Lee, “Let’s just make this movie. Let’s just put a small group of people together and do it.”
So, part of it is you can identify with the son from your personal experience.
Definitely, I can. Although I have to say my wife took care of [my mother] quite a bit. She was in a retirement home by the time she had Parkinson’s, and my wife took care of her a lot. But you know, still, her being sick and getting old became part of the change in our relationship.
In the adaptation process, for this one or in your previous films you’d like to speak on, how do you decide what to keep in the literary source and what to add for your movie? Do you collaborate with Chang-rae Lee this time? What criteria do you use to say “Ok, we’ll take this, but we’ll leave these,” and how to decide what to add to the movie?
I remember a very long time ago, I was in the office of Francis Ford Coppola and he told me it’s always better to adapt a short story or a shorter novel than anything that’s complicated. I have found, through the years, that’s very true, because with short stories, shorter novels or essays, or whatever, you can try to use as much as you can. Everything is kind of important and not too long. With Coming Home Again, I pretty much used everything. For the stories that bounce back and forth in time and lots of nuances and details, I just organized and arranged them so that it made more sense. I pretty much used everything. I tried to be more visual with it and didn’t use a lot of dialogues until after we shot for a while, both Chang-rae and I found that we needed more dialogue scenes. The two of us sat down and wrote six scenes that were appropriate.
That makes Joy Luck Club a major task.
Joy Luck Club was a huge task. I can’t even begin to understand how that process was. We started with Ron Bass writing a detailed scene breakdown of the whole book and Amy wrote a draft of it, and then Ron saw it and rewrote it. So, it was a very complicated process. The book is complicated. It has three different time zones and three different generations. But this [Coming Home Again] is very simple, it’s very, very simple.
Two things stand out in Coming Home Again that’s a change in style from your previous works: the slow pace and silence. Can you comment on these and their intended effects on the audience?
The slower pace. I went through many years with these studio movies where often times the producers or the studio would say, “oh, this scene isn’t doing anything. Just cut it out. This moment isn’t doing anything, just cut it out. This moment the character is just breathing, cut it out. So, after a while, I found, you know, the film is just being pushed along. And then my doctor was saying, “you aren’t breathing right,” because I was under so much stress making these films. I really wanted this film to breathe. At the beginning, especially, I wanted to take the time for someone to get up in the morning, make his coffee, sit there and think. And you’re not quite sure what he’s thinking about, and I’m not telling you what he’s thinking about. I want the audience to not get bored but think about what’s in their own heads. I remember doing meditation when I do yoga — a lot of times I have to examine what my own thoughts are when I’m meditating, and then slowly clear out that. Anyway, what was the second one?
I love silence. Again, films don’t deal with silence. Films always want to fill with sound, music and manipulate all your feelings. Joy Luck Club, to a certain degree, did that. I wanted the silence, and I wanted the audience to think their own thoughts. And in this case also, the things in the house are also very important. The house itself, the things in the house, and as [Yasujirō] Ozu once said, These were things that are filled with stories and emotions of the characters, and in the end, they are the tears of these things that matter, not the tears of the actors. The actors never cry. Very Japanese.
The mise en scène — that’s more important.
Yes, the mise en scène is more important. I’m not saying Joy Luck Club is not good. It’s a very powerful, very strong film. But at the same time, this is equally strong for its silence, for its pacing, for its acceptance of things and acceptance of change in life.
Actually, watching Coming Home Again made me think of Chantal Akerman’s work. You just put a stationary camera there and let life go on.
Yes, I’m a huge fan. And I feel bad that I didn’t hold as long as she did. [Laughs] And the essence of her films actually inspires the essence of this one. Almost nothing happens and then it builds to something very dramatic.
And then there’s one with her mother, frail and dying too.
Yes, she did. And then there’s Michael Haneke’s Amour, which is very similar; almost nothing happens, the wife gets sick.
You’re successful in telling Asian American stories from as early as 1982 with Chan Is Missing, as well as making mainstream features like Smoke, Maid in Manhattan, Last Holiday. We talk about representation a lot these days — in your view, which direction do you like to see representation take: more Asian American or other ethnic minority stories on screen, or would you like to see them pursuing more mainstream participation?
Maybe a combination of the two. In many ways, Coming Home Again is very specific and very Korean, so to speak. But at the same time, it’s very universal. I mean, everyone probably has an older relative or parent who’s sick or dying. It’s a common experience. And everyone probably deals with food, and the food the mother has cooked. A lot of the elements are very universal, and — at the same time — the specifics and the Korean parts are also there.
So, you think Asian American movies can actually become mainstream?
I think so. I’m saying something like The Farewell. The emotions are very human and very universal. My film is probably more difficult because it’s slower and there’s not as much drama, but — again — it has a very common emotion. So, I would like Asian films to be as specific and authentic in the details more than anything else and not try to bastardize that. For example, if I have one criticism of Crazy Rich Asians, it’s kind of a little bit too bastardized and a little too general — too easy to get a laugh and emotion. But it’s still a great success for us.
Do you think food is the language of love for Asians only, or… ?
I think it’s for everyone. Again, as for me with my mother. My mother was not a very deep person but a very loving person. The only way she could express her love to me was to talk about food. So, it was always, “What would you like to eat?” “I can make that for you.” “How was it? Did you like it?” “I’m sorry I didn’t make enough.” It was always about food.
Or, a general greeting among Chinese, they like to ask, “Have you eaten yet?”
Have you eaten yet? That’s the big, general greeting.
In 1997, you made Chinese Box with Jeremy Irons, Gong Li and Maggie Cheung. That’s a story with the prominent backdrop of the historic handover of Hong Kong back to China. Looking at the current turmoil in Hong Kong, your birth place and where you grew up, what are your thoughts?
First of all, I feel really sad watching a lot of this stuff. I mean, I think there are mistakes made from both sides, and I’m not sure I condone the violence. But the violence of the police is unforgiveable. I feel sad because young kids are basically giving up their lives and putting their lives on the line to fight for something they believe in. You know, that’s really rare. That’s really important, and that’s really valuable. And that’s the main thing I care about. At this point, nobody has tried to get to a point where they could figure out some kind of ways to at least stop that, because I still believe strongly on peaceful, rational and non-violent ways to some solutions about this. It really pains me to see cops running into subway cars and beating up sometimes innocent people who aren’t part of the protests.
What about your own future film projects?
I don’t know. Like I said, I’m semi-retired. If something hits me and I get obsessed by it, I’ll just do it, and I don’t know exactly what that is. I have a project with Netflix, which is based on a teenager novel called Front Desk, a very good novel. I may do that, or I may do something else.
Front Desk? Who’s the writer?
Kelly Yang. She’s from China. It’s about a Chinese family who works in a motel. She’s 12 years old and she works at the front desk.
We look forward to that. Thank you very much for the interview.