“I Never Want To Be Someone Who’s Just In a Film So They Can Sell It”: Sylvia Chang on Driving Scenes, First-Time Directors and Her New Film Love Education
As a singer, actress, writer, and director, Sylvia Chang has been at the forefront of Asian culture since the 1970s. She has worked with directors like King Hu, Tsui Hark, Johnnie To and Jia Zhangke, and directed several of her own features. Chang is the subject of a 15-movie retrospective at the Metrograph running May 18–27. Along with films she directed, including Murmur of the Heart and 20 30 40, the series includes Shanghai Blues; That Day, on the Beach; Mountains May Depart, and Office, a musical based on her stage play Design for Living. Chang spoke with Filmmaker Magazine after the New York premiere of her latest feature, Love Education.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about how for Love Education came together?
Chang: The script was originally from a young girl in China, based on her family story. I always thought this would be the last film I would act and direct at the same time—it just takes up too much time to do both. But I was tempted to perform in this because it’s such a good character.
Filmmaker: You play Huiying, who’s mourning the recent death of her mother when she learns her father had another wife in a rural village. Veteran actress Wu Yanshu plays the other woman, Lang Yueting is your daughter Weiwei, and Song Ning Feng is Da, her musician boyfriend. For your husband you cast Tian Zhuangzhuang, better known as the director of films like The Blue Kite.
Chang: I spent a lot of time on casting. It was very difficult to find Nana, the grandmother role. At first Wu Yanshu refused the part. She was very concerned about a scene where they dig up a coffin. There’s also a coffin in her house, so I think she was a little scared. I almost gave up, but after two or three days she called and said she liked the character so much, she would give it a try.
Tian Zhuangzhuang was even more difficult. I tracked him down in Beijing; we played golf, had dinner. He read the script, and I asked him to play the part. I told him, “I don’t want an actor, I want you.” He was nervous on the first day, but after that he was brilliant. He was who he was. And because of that, we all became who we were. He set the pace for everyone.
Filmmaker: Tian and Lang share a crucial scene over lunch in his office in which he talks about your marriage.
Chang: He was very nervous because he cannot remember lines, especially long stretches of dialogue which I like to do in one take. I told him, “Say it the way you feel it should be said. You have gone through those years, you know what it was like more than I do because you’re from China. Just say it the way you think it should be said.” I don’t know whether you have noticed, but I often like to interrupt scenes like this. A worker comes in to get something, which is the kind of thing that happens in real life. If that happens, it will help Tian feel more relaxed. So it’s not like, “We’re concentrating, the camera’s on you now, you have to perform.”
Filmmaker: Do you work scenes like this out beforehand with your director of photography Mark Lee Ping-Bing?
Chang: I don’t usually storyboard, especially not for this film, because things happen in it you can’t prepare for that way. I tell Ping-Bing what the scene is about. We’ve been working together a long time so he sort of knows what I want. I block for the camera’s sake. Ping-Bing usually has the camera on a track—this time with a zoom lens, which not many DPs would do. So he has to know more or less what is going on. But I give a lot of allowances to the performers. I tell them if they feel like they want to stand up, we can follow you.
Filmmaker: Do scenes evolve as you are blocking and rehearsing?
Chang: If performers don’t feel comfortable with dialogue, we’ll work on that. Sometimes I’ll shorten the lines; I’ll edit during the acting. I don’t like too much dialogue. Lee Ping-Bing is very experienced, and he is always very much drama-driven. He knows where the emotion should be. He has two eyes open, he knew exactly what’s going on. He would spot something and slowly move to where the true emotion is. Sometimes you think it should be on the person who’s talking. No, it should be on the person who’s listening. So he would switch to that person. I’ve tried this with a few young DPs, but sometimes I just get frustrated. Because they’re more concerned with technical things—lighting, this and that.
Filmmaker: One scene is an almost uninterrupted take of Tian and you driving down a city road at sunset. You’re having a long, intimate conversation that more or less sums up their entire relationship. How did you set that up?
Chang: That’s my very last shot. I couldn’t make up my mind how to shoot it, because it’s such an important scene. In the script, there’s a lot of description of how the windows of the car reflect the lights of the apartment—too many descriptions, in fact. I’m beginning to stop writing like that.
The city I’ve chosen, you don’t have to know what it is, but I intentionally have chosen a city that doesn’t have any significance. I didn’t choose Beijing, I didn’t choose Shanghai, nor some famous place that has landmarks. I deliberately choose Zhengzhou, which is like center of China. It’s developing so fast that you can’t imagine. All these second-tier cities begin to look alike—very much like America—and the traffic in those cities is really bad. So I had the problem of, “Maybe they’re having this intimate talk while sitting in a traffic jam? No, that’s stupid. Maybe he pulls to the side because he wants to tell me something—but again, that’s too dramatic. Maybe the car got stuck? No, that’s stupid.” Also, I didn’t want to have a camera on the front or side of the car. I didn’t want to shoot through the windshield or roll down the side window. No, this is a very intimate conversation, so the only place you can put the camera is in the back seat.
We chose a side road, to be away from the traffic; there are a few turns and we can go a good distance and finish our dialogue. But I was very worried [about placing] the camera in the back, because Tian is driving and you can’t see his face, and I can’t turn my head. But Ping-Bing and I decided it was the only way to shoot it. We started driving, and it was a perfect sunset. There’s this moment when the sun comes through the window and I heard Lee Ping Bing in the back with his camera gasping because it’s so beautiful, the light going right into the lens. Everything [is] going so well, and I want Tian to drive further down this long stretch of road, and then he almost runs into an old woman on a bike. [laughs] After we checked the gate, Lee Ping-Bing told me we couldn’t get another take. We did get a side shot of Tian, but when we switched to my side, the sun had already gone down.
Filmmaker: There’s a scene between Lang Yueting and Song Ning Feng that takes place on a train which must have been difficult to shoot.
Chang: That’s a real train they’re on, plus Ping-Bing has got his camera on a track as usual. And the train journey’s not so long, so we didn’t have much time. That’s the only scene I rehearsed. I told them, “There are certain moments I cannot teach you, but that have to be there. Sometimes it’s a silent moment, sometimes you are close to each other.”
If I have to adjust their performance, if I see something is off, I can ask them questions: Do you think he’s lying? Does he really know whether that’s his kid or not? Why does he want to be so helpful to his old girlfriend? I ask them questions, and then I tell them you have to be very, very familiar with the dialogue, so you can focus on your feelings.
Song Ning Feng has another scene in which he climbs into a coffin. I told him, “I don’t know what that feels like, what that emotion would be, so I wouldn’t rehearse it. Just give me what you feel.” When he got in, all of a sudden he wanted to cry. You see it in the movie. Everybody was very touched, because he had no idea what it was like. You just can’t rehearse that.
Filmmaker: How do you respond to other factors, like the weather?
Chang: There was a scene with Geng Le where he has to sing in a sort of community theater production. His wife just ran away, he has to take care of his son, and he is not doing well as an actor, he has to take whatever job comes. I wanted to show how sad his life is, but he’s still trying very hard; there’s still some dignity to him.
It’s not very easy to sing this this song where he is crying. He was very nervous. So I gave him a bottle of wine to drink—hard liquor, actually. He thought I was crazy. I said, “No, let yourself go.” But after two takes I just felt it was not good enough. I was hoping he would drink more, and then pouring rain started during a season when it wasn’t supposed to rain like that. Lee Ping-Bing and I took one look at each other, and we started shooting and got the scene.
Filmmaker: You recently starred in A Shuttle Life by first-time Malaysian director Tan Seng Kiat, playing a mentally unstable mother.
Chang: It was a difficult role, also experimental in some ways. I had to change the way I talk. It’s some English, broken Malaysian, Chinese—totally different pronunciations and intonations. So I had to learn that, and at the same time the character’s mental disorder. One day before shooting I was walking around a shopping mall. I saw people chasing a girl, and I knew immediately this girl was mentally disturbed. The way she behaves is to hide in a corner. She keeps running to find corners, where she would turn her back to hide. When they tried to catch her, she turned around and she smiled and laughed. Nervous laughter. I thought “Yes, this is how I do it. She doesn’t cry, she laughs. That’s another way to present it.”
Filmmaker: You also perform in Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, which just played at Cannes.
Chang: I helped him a bit with Kaili Blues. He was a first-time director, and he didn’t clear any music rights for his movie. It’s funny, Bi Gan and also Jia Zhangke [Mountains May Depart] love to use the Taiwanese songs which influenced them a lot. Bi Gan used many songs that belonged to Rock Records. When he tried to clear the rights, they charged him a lot. It so happens that I’m very close to Rock Records, so I was able to help him a bit. Then he said that he wanted me to be in his film, Long Day’s Journey into Night. I said, “Me? In your film? I’m very interested, but it’s like two different worlds, you know?” He was very insistent. It was such a challenge, because I had to use a totally different dialect. Different province, different pronunciation, everything different. And then when I got to the set, he has a new script, he changed all the dialogue, which I had to learn on the set, immediately. We did the long 3D take. I think the first time we shot it over two or three days. But he didn’t like it very much. So we went back after two, three months and we reshot it. That was also a three-day shoot. The take he used, I think, was the very last take. He was very happy.
Filmmaker: Do you like working with first-time directors?
Chang: It’s something where I don’t know what’s going to happen. Of course we go through the script, I have to like the script, I have to like the character I’m doing, but I also have to know what I can offer them, because I never want to be someone who’s just in a film so they can sell it. Nowadays nobody can really guarantee box-office success anyway. I always tell directors, “Don’t believe my name will be a guarantee of anything. No. You have to tell my why you want me.”
Many young directors today like to take very sensitive issues and make films out of them, sometimes just to draw attention, to say how sad society is. Of course a lot is happening, more and more crimes. But too many directors only [show] the dark side [of] issues, they only criticize.
Filmmaker: In your films you’ve addressed generational problems as well as problems women face. And you’ve consistently been sympathetic towards all types of characters, even those who make bad choices.
Chang: When you reach a certain age, you’ve been young, and now you know what old is, and you want to be the bridge between different generations.
We’re born with the ability of love, but we never really practice it. This is something I want to remind people. I don’t want to educate anybody, I just want to express my generation and how I look at a younger generation and how I respect the elder generation. I want to link them together. Yes, nobody’s perfect—that’s why I’m saying I would like to be a bridge, showing that everybody has his or her own difficulties. Every generation has their own fears. But I think people can change, they can get better, as long as you allow yourself to be open. You have to get to know people, you have to forgive, to love.