Chen Shi-Zheng is a China-born, New York-based director, choreographer, singer, and actor. As a child in Changsha, Hunan during the Cultural Revolution, he was taken under the wing of traditional funeral singers, who were among some of the great masters of Chinese opera. He became a leading young opera actor, performing until his mid-20s in many productions throughout China, and simultaneously recorded albums of folksongs and contemporary pop music. He emigrated to the United States in 1987, and was soon tapped by Meredith Monk for a principal role in Atlas for Houston Grand Opera. This began a crossover career in which he explores his own artistic expression that transcends an East/West divide and erases the boundaries between music, theatre, dance and film. In 2000, Mr. Chen was awarded the title "Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres" by the French Ministry of Culture.
In 1999, his landmark 19-hour production of The Peony Pavilion was hailed as one of the most important theatrical events of the 20th century. Mr. Chen's current projects include The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan with music by Stewart Wallace slated for the 2008 San Francisco Opera. Dark Matter, his first feature film, was the closing night film at the 2007 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, where he and I had the chance to sit down and discuss the film. Although Mr. Chen has an expressive command of English, it is not always exact and, therefore, I have paraphrased his statements for conversational flow.
Michael Guillén: Congratulations on breaking out of the four walls of the theatre to accomplish your first feature film and also for winning the Alfred Sloan Award at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
I hope it isn't too much of a cliché, and certainly I hope it's not any kind of stereotype, to observe that—as an amateur student of cosmology—Dark Matter harkens back to the ancient Asian truism "as above, so below" or what mythologist Joseph Campbell used to term "the microcosmic/macrocosmic correspondence."
Now that you've accomplished your first feature film—which I understand you wanted to do precisely to break out of some of the strictures of theater—can you comment upon the difference between working in theater and working in film? Did you find new limitations working in film?
Chen Shi-Zheng: It's very hard to put into general terms the differences. You're always working with actors; that's the bottom line. You hope they can translate your intentions. With the theater, when you come to the end, you actually see the result. With film, it's broken into different steps. You shoot the film and you edit later. What you protract from the shooting is very small. That was my first adjustment. What you see in the camera is a tiny image. In the end, when you project it, it's a huge image. You go through a compressed image into a large image. It was an adjustment for me to look at a monitor for so long because the power of size makes a huge difference. I found editing difficult because it was such an isolated activity. In the theater it might start small but it grows bigger and bigger with more and more people as it goes along. In film it starts with a lot of people and then you end up sitting there alone with the sound editor. It's an isolated exercise on your own. That's very different from how you collaborate with other artists in the theater.
Guillén: Was it a favorable enough experience that you would want to do it again?
Chen: It is a favorable experience. It's unforgettable. It requires such a large amount of time in duration. I could do three operas a year, three months in different cities, record a CD, and that would be considered productive in the theater-opera world. In film, it requires years to develop the script and then find the financing. It's a much longer process, especially for an independent film like mine. Finding the money to shoot it takes more time than anything else. Once the money's in place, well, we shot in June 2006 and now it's March 2007 and we're here in San Francisco.
Guillén: I understand it was a five-six year process to create Dark Matter?
Chen: Yes, just to get the money. It was an on-off thing. Some investors fell through. Finally Janet Yang brought the investor who actually wrote the check. Then making the film went fairly fast. From the first day of shooting to taking it around to festivals was eight months. Very fast. Inbetween I was doing a lot of operas.
It's a profit business. Normally what I do is non-profit where nobody requests a constant accounting. That took a period of adjustment. When you're making a film, many people are constantly reminding you that it's to make money; it's not for the sake of how good the film should be. With most operas, you make it as good as you can as an artistic achievement. But if I wanted to make a film, I had to accept the financial consequences.
Guillén: Unfortunately. You've spoken about how your eye had to adjust from directing a large scale image on a theatrical stage to something you had to see through a small monitor that was eventually projected large. What would you say—having come from the realm of opera—have you infused from that art form into cinema?
Chen: The musicality of the film. Not necessarily the sound, but the rhythm. I always tried to find the relationship between the pictures and the music to see how they depict human emotion through different kinds of musical motifs. When I shoot a scene, I have the music playing already. I know what the music should be in the scene, why the scene exists, and what kind of mood should be present. A lot of times it's like working in opera, where you know the score, and you know the music before you begin the staging. For me that was a part of my preparation. I listened to a lot of music and I put it down in almost every location. I knew what type of music should be played, what kind of mood, and I would go to a location and shoot it. So that's a bit like working with opera where the music score is complete and you go on stage and rehearse it with singers to move the action around with the sound.
Guillén: That's precisely—I would argue—one of the film's strengths. In depicting the East-West correspondence, you used Western ballads like "Red River Valley", which I wasn't expecting. It was a sly comment.
Chen: [Laughs.] Thank you for catching that.
Guillén: So you chose your music first before even starting to shoot?
Chen: Yes. Because for me it expressed a kind of naïvete; a love song to America. If you go to Japan or anywhere in Asia there are many American songs that are sung differently from the way they were originally sung. They're amazingly misinterpreted in a charming innocent way that I find moving. It's the lack of the knowledge of what America really is that makes this misinterpretation beautiful. When I first came to America, it was because I saw a picture of New York and I thought, "I want to go to New York." I had no idea what America was. That's the kind of expectation of a place that can be based on a sound or a song, basically an image. People love the image or they love the sound of the song and they say, "I want to go and see this place." It's a journey. When you travel somewhere distant, you start with something that fascinates you, which serves as a springboard, and the journey becomes something you didn't predict. I wanted to keep a light motif in the film. It is a dark, difficult journey in a way; but, I like to make comedy out of tragedy.
Guillén: You do cull out the comedy in this tragic situation. I would say three quarters of the film has a comic texture, which serves to emphasize the tragedy of the film's final spin. You're saying this is something you frequently do in your theatrical productions as well?
Chen: Yes. I believe the whole comic/tragic split is ridiculous; it's best when it's in combination. Comedy has a tragic dimension; tragedy has a comic dimension. In opera you're always trying to find the humor in the unspeakable tragedy. You're always trying to find the tragic dimension in what is considered a comedy. It's how I feel about this whole play between yin and yang, positive and negative; they're inseparable. They're both always a part of life. The example I like to make is that, among the Chinese, you serve the whole fish. You don't fillet it. You serve it with head and tail. You get the wholeness of life instead of trying to cut it. That way you get nuances.
This was the reason I finally had to go to China to find the lead actor for the role of Liu Xing. It was a huge journey. It took me half a year to find him. I was auditioning everywhere—in L.A., in Canada, in New York—trying to find him. There are a lot of actors who become very hard. They want to be tough male actors and I couldn't find the type of humor and vulnerability I wanted, nor the compelling nuances. This story has a little bit more power because you become sympathetic with the person who struggles through it even though the events in the end are appalling.
Guillén: You selected wisely. Liu Ye mastered this role. His sweetness, his vulnerability, his initial enthusiasm and his subsequent disillusionment were beautifully nuanced. He was the perfect choice for this character.
Returning to the playful tension between East and West, you prefigure the film's final tragedy through a playful gun fighting sequence early on in the film when the Chinese students arrive in the United States and are taken by their sponsor to a western-themed park. As you were saying, I imagine many Chinese come to the United States with preconceived images derived from old movies, like the Hollywood westerns. The tragedy of that misconception in Liu Xing's life was characterized by the sadness of a song like "Shenandoah". In essence, his life became tragic because he enacted the western gunfight. That was a brilliant touch.
Chen: Thanks. There's a certain stereotype you get in your head watching an old western with John Wayne. For a Chinese person, the idea of a gun fight in a pioneer town comes into play when you come to the United States. You feel like a pioneer who comes to a western town who in the end might get shot. The idea came when I was in Utah on location and heard about this theme park where you could dress up like cowboys. I thought it would be a great metaphor for the movie. So we found this place outside Park City.
Guillén: It's my understanding this story was originally your idea? You had read the news coverage of Chinese student Gang Lu who went on a shooting spree at the University of Iowa and you wanted to work with it. Billy Shebar joined you to work on the script. How did you feel when Billy suggested the astrophysics metaphor of dark matter?
Chen: I immediately liked it. We were talking about unreachable goals, about expectations and reality and the gap between, and how far it was between what Liu Xing imagined for himself and what he actually experienced when he was so low. When Billy talked to me about dark matter, how there is something you cannot see that influences what you can see, I thought it was a perfect metaphor. Not only as an external cosmology, but internally as the heart of darkness. When I read in the newspaper about what happened in Iowa, all the witnesses said they never imagined this could happen in their quiet, laid-back Iowa City. No one had a clue. So I felt the metaphor of dark matter worked in the personal realm the same way it worked scientifically. There was a link between the two realms that allowed putting them together through the one metaphor.
Guillén: As story formats go, it's a solid one. Cosmology is frequently expressed through narrative structures that revolve around invisible truths. If you study the cosmologies of various cultures, they usually understand the manifestation of reality as emanating from a dark, invisible source that often cannot be named or given form, even as it creates and influences form. Dark Matter's parallel structure places the image of spiral galaxies and the invisible source of their movement against spiraling, escalating emotions from within; the motion within emotion, you might say. It reminded me of the poet who said the world is not made of atoms; the world is made of stories. In Dark Matter, cosmology serves as the story and the film becomes an exploration of how we communicate story and—more specifically in this case—how failed communication saddens the story.
Chen: When I brought the story to Meryl Streep, she said something comparable to what you just said. She felt that Americans look through a window that offers a limited view, and she felt the story was important because it wasn't about a poor, struggling immigrant; it was about a brilliant mind that could potentially contribute to society. It wasn't a story about teenage rampage. It was about an intelligent person compelled to tragic circumstance. I was shocked and moved by the story because—at the time that the story broke—I had so many friends who had good starts but then ended up with nowhere to go. And it's not just about their academic life as students, but that the mission of life becomes the subject you end up studying. That's something that can't be foreseen. Once their studies were over, friends of mine didn't want to go back to China. Sometimes they had to change their professions in order to remain in the United States. Several who did go back, felt a certain kind of loss. At that time, the propaganda from the Chinese point of view was such that to come to America was everything. It's a naïve point of view. No one prepares these students for any kind of reality once they arrive in America. The only emphasis is on economic skills and many of these Chinese students lack basic skills for communication and learning. They focus on specialized fields, which makes their individual lives somewhat more difficult because they can't break out into a new life in society. I've seen so many people who couldn't find a way to enter American society or to find a life here. They don't understand. They've always known another life where they study chemistry, they study physics, and their studies have no relation to a life off campus and outside academics.
Guillén: It's obviously a difficult quandary because you would have hoped that Liu Xing would have been offered tools to help him adapt better to American life and yet his adversary Lawrence—who did have the adaptive skills—was somehow not as authentic as Liu Xing, which underscores the quandary if not the hypocrisy of adaptation and assimilation. It's not just about having the skills to economically survive, it's about having the skills to authentically survive and still be able to express yourself, express your mind, and retain the roots of culture. Ambition should serve the fully-realized human being, and not just to become a commercial American.
Chen: Yes. Instead of surviving as a genuine human being, you survive as a copy of someone else. That's very clear in this story. Lawrence survives in his original form. I had a friend who called himself Lawrence. Many of the characters are based on the actual experiences of friends.
Guillén: And their different strategies of survival?
Chen: Yes, different strategies. I stopped and looked around me at how we all wanted to come to New York and how we each found our way to different places even as we strove to not be too different from each other. Even the way you choose a pet reveals patterns of conformity. So much adaptation robs people of their dignity. The mind itself is trained to believe that economic survival alone is the key to success, and yet such survival creates huge emotional and psychological problems.
Guillén: It creates inauthentic lives.
Chen: Yes. It's very sad that it has to take that form and that the meaning of so-called transformation or adaptation to American life is not fully understood.
Guillén: Speaking of Meryl Streep—a wonderful coup to get her involved in Dark Matter—her character was problematic for me. Again, she seemed to personify failed communication. Despite being so earnest in wanting to communicate, she seemed relatively clueless. When Liu Xing came to her with the cosmetics and she realized this horrible situation he was in, she didn't even buy any cosmetics from him! She didn't even help him out in the most basic way that he needed right then. She seemed paralyzed and unable to help him in any meaningful way. Then at film's end when she's practicing her tai chi, she has an abrupt realization or premonition of what is about to happen and breaks her tai chi concentration to run off. Can you explain to me what you were trying to say about her character?
Chen: I lived in New York for a long time. There's an Asian Society where I met a lot of Caucasian ladies who dressed Chinese, studied the Chinese language, studied tai chi, and who basically had very romanticized perceptions of China. Occasionally, they would take one or two Chinese students under their wing and they….
Guillén: They don't get it.
Chen: [Laughter.] Exactly! For me Meryl's character Joanna is similar to the Liu Xing character. They really don't "get" each other or each others' cultures. They both want to eagerly participate in each other's culture but what they know is quite shallow. Too often people think Chinese culture relies on tai chi or one cultural artifact or another. I know a lot of people who have studied Chinese and try to speak Chinese to me by discussing with me how they should find a tai chi instructor or an acupuncturist. This type of relationship is never meaningful or significant and it certainly doesn't help.
Guillén: It's dangerously naïve and presumptive. Joanna's encouragement of Liu Xing to follow his own path was terrible advice to give him at that juncture. It was, in fact, dismissive; a way of not being responsible to him in any way.
Chen: It was a dangerous naïvete on both sides. That's the beautiful flaw. Each character is beautifully flawed. That's what interests me. At the very beginning when I started working on the story, I struggled with how to reveal everyone in this society as flawed without making them pathetic. I tried to create characters where every one of them had some kind of flaw without degrading them. For me it was interesting to depict this as the story unfolds so that the flaws in each character contribute to the failed communication in unnoticed ways. Usually in a drama you have to have a turning point, but I wanted the story to continue and to continue and not have the realization register until it was too late. The scene with the skin cream was purposely ambiguous. It was not necessarily that he was trying to earn money. In his desperation, he was trying to reach out. He was confused and looking for comfort; looking for love in a way. Perhaps his touching her was a way to approach her. In this confused situation, you don't know if it's about a money exchange, an emotional exchange, or a physical exchange. I let it be a little bit muddy. I had the choice to do it differently; but, I decided not to do that when we were shooting. Everyone on the set was crying to see this evidence of this brilliant boy reduced to this needy character. He was so hopeful at the beginning. I watched as my DP was crying and I talked to Meryl and said, "Perhaps it's enough. Maybe he just wants to touch you for a moment and then go."
Guillén: For a moment he didn't feel isolated?
Chen: Yes. And I told her, "At least you let him get close to you. You feel it's okay. Then there's no more to say. Maybe he doesn't need more."
Guillén: Do you feel that the recognition and acceptance of these beautiful flaws that you're speaking of might help people communicate better?
Shi-Zeng: I really don't know what the answer is. It's not as if—as time goes along—we understand each other more. Every day when I'm on the road and reading the Herald Tribune, the news is always about these huge issues between our two countries. In China it's about who's bigger, who's the superpower? These big issues get in the way of people understanding each other. In both countries we talk too much about the big issues and not enough about the human issues and the personal experience of relationship. We emphasize categories of experience too much and not enough about personal experience. Personal experience is what is revealing. As we've discussed, it's flawed, but nevertheless it's interesting. Everyone has an interesting personal story to tell you. Everyone I've encountered from China has had a story about how they've started out coming to this country. Even my American friends have incredible stories about how they've encountered China or Cuba as well. I was hoping the film could propose the question to a general audience that the need to understand requires an even deeper communication in order to avoid further tragedy.
Guillén: The political representation that we get so caught up in to define dialogue actually projects shadows that aren't our personal shadows. The tragedy is that we then identify with those cultural shadows and never really learn about the darkness within ourselves, which is really what we need to do.
Southwest Indian weavers place in their weavings what they call the conscious flaw. By consciously doing this, they acknowledge that we are flawed as humans. In modern times we're more oriented to being perfect and are subject to the danger of not recognizing personal shadows.
Chen: It's a great danger. What's amazing is to think we're immune to this harm because we're perfect. We have this naïve notion that, because we're so strong, we should be able to prevent any disaster or any illness that comes to us. Economic well-being is mistaken for internal well-being. The world of profit does not cover human needs. It's not enough to have a refridgerator!
Guillén: That's reminding me of a comment Ken Loach made recently in Film Comment that—until we handle our bloodthirst for big business—nothing else will resolve. This belief that everything has to revolve around money and multinational corporations is incorrect.
Professor Rizer, played by Aidan Quinn, is an equally complex role handled quite deftly by Aidan. Originally you had considered Val Kilmer for the role and for one reason or another he backed out of the project. I'm glad, however, that Aidan ended up with the role. In terms again of the charming flaw, from the beginning of the film you could see that this guy—as well-intentioned as he might have been—was actually ruthless. Yet he's not a villain really. He's just flawed, as you said.
Chen: But also, as you say, it's a business-oriented, selfish world, especially at this time, where everyone is in it for themselves. This ambition can be shown without being necessarily villainous. When Aidan first came on set, I talked to him about how his character would think, "I run this place. I'm the king of the castle. If someone challenges me, I throw them out a window. Anybody. It's an animal instinct. It's my turn." He's great-looking but very underhanded in the way he plays things out. But as you say, I didn't want him to be a villain. It's more interesting if you remember the interesting relationship with your professors. A son could think his father is a villain. There's more to it than just black and white.
Guillén: There's a point where mentors can become your worst enemy. You captured that in this film. Also the idea that—for a minority—education is the way to access the American dream and that even though you might actually achieve the American dream of education, you might still have nothing. Your film emphasized the invisibility of these brilliant Asian students whose achievements have been co-opted by their advisors.
Chen: That's true in every university and yet no one can raise a finger to stop it.
Guillén: Which, in a way, makes the process the villain?
Chen: Yes. As an assistant professor you're paid a marginal amount of money for the long hours you put in every day of the week to research your advisor's thesis. In exchange for a scholarship with a mere $800 a month stipend, you're required to put in 40 hours of lab work a week, along with the classes, and out of the $800 you have to pay your food and expenses. So you end up most of the time in the lab. At first they thought it was a dream that they got their tuition paid and received a monthly stipend for working at school.
Guillén: And then it just becomes another form of indentured slavery.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.