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AN INTERVIEW WITH Miao Chen, DIRECTOR
As a filmmaker, please introduce yourself.
My name is Miao Chen. I come from Chengdu, a southwestern city in China. I am a current USC graduate film student.
Why you became a filmmaker as director?
I guess it is the “blocking magic”, say working together with actors, that draws me onto the track of directing. It is a part that film shares the same with theatre, and the essence of all performance art. Thanks to my experience in theatre rehearsal rooms, I feel that natural connection with actors
whenever I step onto a film set, and that feeling speaks to me as the confirmation of becoming a director.
Give some more information about yourself and the films you have made so far, about your experience?
I come from a literature and theatre background. In undergrad I majored in Chinese Language and Literature at Beijing Normal University, meanwhile became a theatre participant - some of the plays I wrote got selected to perform in festivals, or went on tours in China. Filmmaking has been a new
exploration for me, so far all the film productions I participated in are student productions.
This is the first time that a film written-directed by me got chosen by a festival.
What are the films or people that had impacts on you and deeply inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Narrative wise, Underground (1995) by Serbian director Emir Kusturica. Style wise, Hanagatami (2017) by Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi.
These two films serve as the vertical and longitudinal axis for the kind of film I want to go for. Ming Hui, a Chinese filmmaker and translator of Allen Ginsberg, used to give me guidance on what films to watch when I was a beginner. I knew him through family alumni connections and I would
deeply appreciate his help. I also want to mention that the city of Beijing, where I did my undergrad, has provided me with a great many opportunities to watch many of the greatest films ever on big screen: Ingmar Bergman, Kurosawa Akira... with its annual Beijing International Film Festival, and China Film Archive right beside my undergrad school. I was nurtured by the city’s film resource.
You have made your film which got official selection in the
"American Golden Picture International Film Festival".
As a filmmaker, why you decided to make it?
I want to bring confidence to the audience that no matter what era or power structure they fall in, love can strengthen them and with their beloved ones, they can defend themselves from all evil. I want to introduce a genre (wartime espionage love story) developed in China to western audience.
I want to bring attention to history of Japanese occupation in China and crime done by Unit 731.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this specific film?
As an international filmmaker, the first and biggest challenge is, to figure out a storytelling framework that is truly “universal”.
To me, that specifically means a narrative which works for my home audience - Chinese people, and meanwhile works for western audience.
The evolvement of the script shows the traces of such exploration. In the beginning, the story was structured by a set of dialogues between the protagonist and the antagonist. Without any obvious actions, and merely with the undercurrent going between them, the story begins and ends.
While it is a way of unfolding a story under this genre, which I should call it familiar to Chinese audience, it remains to be “mystery” to my professors.
So I changed my direction and tried hard to explore what kind of narrative can arouse broadest resonance.
The second challenge can be, how to address history - in my case, East Asian history - to people from all over the world. History can be heavy and dark, easily left behind by the fast-rotating and hedonistic contemporary world; but forgetting history can result in retrogression back to some most
terrible mistakes made by human beings. Probably because the earliest narrative in Chinese culture is the writing of history, Chinese people are rather stick to keeping an eye on the history behind; but how to deliver this beneficial perspective to audience from other cultural backgrounds? I then need
a relatable, vivid story. The third challenge is rather specific to this story itself. “White Coat” is actually a short film inspired by and adapted from an original full-length play of mine, The Lost Gaze. While creating a story through this path can be inspirational, given that you have so much to use,
it also highlights your ability of making choices and finding new balance.
Let us know more about your experience in this film?
Externalized and visualized action is the universal grammar of film. It is not true that historical stories are hard to interest people nowadays. If you tell a good story of history, people will be interested to the story AND the history. Because, quoting my USC professor, “people care about people”
there is no reason why people do not care about human beings just like them in the past.
While adapting a story from a different art form, it is good to treat the different versions of that same story as mutually independent works, and to always stay tightly close to the core of this independent one you are now working on. Sound is crucial to a film.
An essential layer of this film’s narrative is constructed by sound.
What was it like to work with your team?
My team offered me great help. Every second of this film speaks to their unique creativity and effort. Aziz Anderson, our producer, secured our location from one accident after another - without that location, this period piece can never come out in this proper shape.
Aziz is also the editor of this film. Editing a foreign language film can be of tremendous difficulty, but he did it well.
Lizzie Green is our DP and production designer. As someone completely new to that period of history and that certain genre,
her research into the look of this film turned out to be so in-depth and creative that, all my Chinese classmates would agree the film is culture-wise genuine and visual-wise convincing. Our sound faculty and sound mixer Jalen Conway got so obsessed with the sound mix that, the sound became a stunning part of this film. Not to mention the impressing music composed by our composer, Hanxiu Zhang.
The Chinese calligraphy by Ruifeng Qiu and graphic design by Chenchen Zhou, without that the film won’t have its symbolic power. I want to thank Yiwen Zhang, our Japanese translator, who enabled me to take my first step on creating a third language piece.
And I want to thank our costume designer Xuan Luo - her aesthetics and craftsmanship filled our historical characters with the soul of era.
I want to give great applause to our cast - Bruce Zhang Hu as Akira, Eve Zhao as Ning, and Jonathan Huynh-Mast as Horibe.
As a director, the most important quality I look for in an actor is that, they speak for their characters; that they are their characters. I did see this happen on my set and felt great happiness from that. Eve actually flew from NYC to LA to perform for us; her dedication and talent were greatly appreciated by our whole team. (We actually became friends now filmmaking is a true bond that binds people together with friendship.)
Last but not least, I want to give my special thanks to our leading professors, Eric Freiser and James Savoca.
They pushed me hard and gave me real help on the phase-by-phase development of this film, and left long-lasting impact on me as a filmmaker. Being chosen by your festival also makes me feel that, my professors could be proud of this student they once instructed.
For you what was the biggest lesson you had to learn after making this film?
Cross-culture communication is enabled by effective universal narrative.
What keeps you inspired to continue filmmaking?
Content wise, uncovered pages in Asian history continues to supply me with ideas and motivation. Form wise, I am inspired by those unique images that have “burned” the narrative power into them.
Set the butterfly lamp in this film as an example. In the beginning it was just a pretty prop; with the shooting going on, the burning butterfly becomes one of the most powerful icons - a core motif of the story.
The most important part is distributing the film. What did you do for distributing this film?
Honestly distributing is brand new knowledge to me. I have submitted the film to a couple of festivals. I might consider putting the film online in future.
I want more people to see this film that speaks for the silent history.
What are your filmmaking goals?
Do some good short films while I am in film school, and wait for a possible chance of feature film production to naturally come to me.
What is your next project?
A hundred of years ago, a beautiful Chinese woman used a rose bouquet to fake as a gun threat, and prevented a national delegate from signing an unequal treaty with the imperialist power. I got so obsessed with the visual and textual power grown in this historical anecdote, and want to make a
strongly stylized experimental short film from it.
This would be the next project I go for.
GOOD LUCK Miao
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