New York Asian 2019 Interview: WUSHU ORPHAN Director Huang Huang on Mixing Martial Arts and Bullying

Featured Contributor; New York City, New York (@TheDivaReview)
New York Asian 2019 Interview: WUSHU ORPHAN Director Huang Huang on Mixing Martial Arts and Bullying
A movie a decade in the making, director Huang Huang’s Wushu Orphan, is a darkly comic tale of misfits in a martial arts academy.  At the New York Asian Film Festival, director Huang sat exclusively with LMD to talk about mixing martial arts, gallows humor, and the eternal hierarchy of bullying.
The Lady Miz Diva:  I understand WUSHU ORPHAN is a project that was 10 years in the making.  What was it about the subject of the students in these wushu academies that fascinated you?
Huang Huang:  You can say that it took 10 years to prepare, but, actually, the filming took one month.  Basically, the 10 years had to do with development:  I developed and planned the script, and that was the beginning.  It took until many years later that I actually got the funding to shoot it.
During that time, I kept on revising and revising the script.  If, for example, it took another five years before I got the funding to make this film, I think it would actually have ended up as a different film.  The first draft was actually about one kid -- no teacher -- it was just about a kid.
LMD:  I did not see the short film that gave birth to the feature.  Besides the running time, what are the differences between the two?
HH:  The short film was called No Country for Chickens.  It was actually about the time during the chicken flu, and how a family was evicted by it.  And in this family that actually bred chickens, the eldest son was actually a teacher in the main wushu academy.  
To me, I just thought that any teacher in a wushu academy that teaches languages, or teaches culture and civilisation, it would be so sort of wishy-washy and embarrassing, and they would not quite know where they are, and they would have absolutely no power, whatsoever, in a school.
LMD:  Why does the film take place in the 1990s?  
HH:  I personally like the 1990s.  I look back at the 1990s, and I just felt that was a time when China was kind of open, and pretty civilised.  It was just very special.
LMD:  Placing it in the past made me wonder if those wushu academies still existed today?
HH:  When we were shooting the film, they were still having class.  The school was still operational.  Actually, sometimes we would shoot them when the students were out of class.  If you go visit the Shaolin Temple today, all you have to do is walk east for 200 meters and you will get to the school.
LMD:  Since you shot this near the Shaolin Temple and used actual students in the production, was there was any hesitation by the school that perhaps the film does not picture wushu academies in the best light? 
HH:  The school asked for a synopsis, so we gave them a synopsis.  Perhaps the synopsis we provided was slightly more neutral, but we still gave them a synopsis.  
There is the scene in which the teacher basically explodes, and he swears, and he has a whole breakdown before somebody goes in and hits him.  So, I prepped the students by saying, this is the scenario; our teacher had just lost his girlfriend, and so he was very, very unhappy, so he needed to basically let off steam. 
So, this teacher is going to suddenly go at it and burst into all sorts of profanities, and then somebody will come and hit him.  I told the students to be prepared for that, and then after the teacher was hit, they should clap, and the students followed.
LMD:  You are telling an important story about bullying and the value of education, yet you lace it with humour.  Was that an intentional way to make the message accepted more easily, or is it more your natural tendency?
HH:  If you put a very serious problem in a very serious way in a film, it just might not appeal to as many people who are willing to come in and watch the film.  Basically, we teach through a fun activity.  We are educating while they are having fun the same time.  Yes, you can say perhaps on the surface it is humorous, but actually, we call it, “in the bone,” it is actually something quite pessimistic.
In the end, the teacher gets on the train, and he’s leaving for Zhenjiang, so that maybe is a good thing?  He is leaving a place that is so remote, going to Zhenjiang, which is clearly open and means a good future. 
But at the same time, if you really notice the details, he was actually sitting facing the back.  He was sitting backwards.  So, in many ways, it was a message; that the teacher had basically given up on saving the children.  So, then what is there to him that is actually a future that he would create for himself?
LMD:  I know the grown actors are meant to be the leads, but I can’t get the image of the bullied boy, Cuishan {Hou Yunxiao} out of my mind.  Please tell us how you discovered him? 
HH:  I picked the school because of the scenery:  The setting of it is so amazing.  I went into the school to look around.  Actually, I had seen and already picked a smaller, weaker kid, but when I was actually going through casting, I saw this kid being bullied by others, and so I said, ‘Aha!’  Then I found that, indeed, the face is so unusual and beautiful at the same time, but the thing was that the face itself was so memorable.
You have to think of it this way; it’s a Chinese audience, if you think of the western movie audience, how are they going to remember faces?  They look at all Chinese faces, all Chinese kids, their faces are the same.  With this kid, the face is so very memorable. 
Remember, this is a film without much of a budget -- no stars.  So, that is why we would have a kung fu master with an eye patch, because there are so many other old people roaming around in this film.  The eyepatch -- you would remember the eyepatch. 
LMD:  Hou Yunxiao’s face is like a living tragedy mask.  
HH:  I think, actually, Hou Yunxiao’s face, you could find it in a French movie, too.
LMD:  What is interesting about the school is that it seems like a home for misfits; people who are not acclimated to anything but a life of martial arts, yet it doesn’t accept a true misfit like Cuishan.  Is there a sense that even in the smallest societies, there is a pecking order?
HH:  Bullying exists high and low, and everywhere.  Remember that martial arts really was a major cultural symbol of Asia that entered into the Western mindset; remember Bruce Lee. 
Also, through martial arts, there was a way of bridging different cultures, that actually had them communicating with and acknowledging each other.  That era is gone, but what I wanted to do is to show the diversity that is in Asia, and that is actually why I made this film
LMD:  On his first day, Youhong the teacher, is told by the school’s dean, who is his uncle, that he wants Youhong to be a “catfish,” to stir up the school a bit.  What does he mean by that?  What is the uncle looking for by stirring up the school?
HH:  The dean is a standard, very typical Chinese-style number two guy in an organisation.  He certainly wants to be somehow doing something against Mr. Number One.  So, remember when the headmaster at the end of the film got hit by the master with the eyepatch, there was a little smile on the dean’s face. 
It’s very difficult when you want to laugh, but you don’t; to smirk or not smirk, that took many takes. {Laughs}  About a dozen takes on the smile, alone!  {Laughs}
LMD:  Since we are discussing that character, I wondered what the kung fu master with the eyepatch represented?  He comes out of a long prison sentence and immediately goes all over the countryside challenging other elderly masters.
HH:  This is kind of a fable and legend in the sense that he represents outside forces that comes in to somehow smash up the feudalism of whatever was there.  Maybe it’s not a very appropriate metaphor, because for example, there is a country that always pretends it is the world’s police, but they need to find some other people to come in to define its existence. 
The master needs someone to actually define his existence.
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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BullyingChinese CinemaHuang HuangNew York Asian Film FestivalNYAFFWushuWushu Orphan

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