We speak with the man behind the whip-smart, original, and effortlessly funny Wushu Orphan…
Huang Huang’s polite, unassuming, and somewhat shy demeanour hides an intensely original filmmaking mind. After graduating from the prestigious Beijing Film Academy in 2008, he has spent the decade shaping a personal style that first gained widespread attention with No Country for Chicken, the short on which his feature debut is based. That debut, Wushu Orphan, is not to be missed. Beautiful, smart, and a masterclass in deadpan humour, it completely blindsided its audience at its North American premiere at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, and with good reason.
Wushu Orphan centres on a boys’ boarding school that focuses on kung fu education (to the detriment of all other subjects). A young teacher, Lu Youhong, is enlisted to help teach the students Chinese (and then English, and then math, and so on), but quickly finds that the administration is less than eager for the kids to be distracted by actual learning. Lu soon sparks a bond with Zhang Cuishan, a booksmart outcast in the school of jocks, and together the pair try to make it through the schoolyear unscathed.
The film is packed with incredibly detailed and painterly shots, vibrant colours, and spot-on visual comedy – in a word, it’s sharp. The New York audience quickly tuned into Huang’s sense of comedic timing, which along with his brilliant setup and payoff, had them hooked from start to finish. We had the opportunity to sit down with the director about his stunning debut…
With Wushu Orphan being your big feature debut, how did it feel to win the Spirit of Asia Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival?
Technically, it’s my second feature film. The first feature, halfway through filming, we ran out of funds. That one had a star, everything – a very big production – but it didn’t work out. So, technically, this is my second film, but it’s the first completed film! At Tokyo, the Spirit of Asia Awards’ qualifying terms were that it could be your first or second feature film, so it fit! I thought that in Tokyo they were all very serious and I was quite concerned about it. But then I realized, “Maybe not.” Actually, one of the Japanese film directors is also featured in NYAFF (Yamashita Nobuhiro with Hard-Core), who it turns out is a very, very relaxed type of guy and I thought, “Ah, great, I have hope!”
How did you get started in the film industry and get to the point of directing?
The only way, for a long time, to enter the film industry was to get into the Beijing Film Academy, because that is the only one in the top. But that was at a certain period, now is very different. Now, with online access and everything, it’s a very different case.
You wrote, directed, and even edited this film – where does this story come from?
When I was a kid, my dad sent me to a sports academy to learn soccer, so I’ve had that experience. From the beginning, when I started writing this script and through that entire first round of scriptwriting, the story was all about the kids – no teacher. But it was nine years between the finishing of the first draft of the script to actually making the film. Lots and lots of revisions, and the revisions were based on my own experience, what I have seen, how I saw the world, how world affairs changed me. The script itself chronicled my own change from a twenty-year-old to a thirty-year-old. I’m thirty-four now.
Something that really captivated me is the film’s distinct visual style, almost a painterly quality, and a love of motion. And also, I’d say it’s used a lot for comedic effect. Where did you find inspiration for the cinematography and the camera direction?
The cinematographer is an old classmate from the Beijing Film Academy (Liu Yong). But that person, my dear friend, was studying photography. So, that’s a photographer turned cinematographer, thanks to my encouragement. They are a very good photographer. The composition is him, and I helped in making it cinematic – mise-en-scène.
Related question to that – you said that the short that the film is based on was shot on film, and this movie has a very filmic look to it, kind of vintage. How did you achieve that look?
Your question is very difficult! Film is not just about the actual technical medium – whether it is film or whatever. But what we have to look at it is composition, aesthetics, and how we create the atmosphere. That is more than the actual technical medium.
Transitioning more to the directing side of things with the cast – a lot of these child actors are non-actors, and there’s a lot of them. Did you find it difficult working with them?
These kids are from a wushu academy, which is, in many ways, military. So, the high discipline is way above normal kids. And Chinese kids are much better at following orders than Western kids, anyways!
I’m not going to argue that.
I also have an executive director who helps me, and that person actually came from wushu training. He is himself a movement director, a choreographer, in film. In many ways, he is already in the know and could inspire them.
That’s a wonderful resource to have! Could you speak a bit about your major filmmaking influences?
Kurosawa. In Japan, they asked me, and I said, “It’s not just because I’m in Japan, it really is Kurosawa.” Then, the Japanese asked, “What do you like most about Kurosawa?” I said, “I love Kurosawa most because of his status!” Think of the status, because Kurosawa is a film director of a status that affects the world, that has the ability to be looked at by the entire world. And just think, an entire generation, or fifth generation, of Chinese directors – they all want to be Kurosawa!
I think everybody wants to be Kurosawa.
In Tokyo, the citation when I won my award was that they saw in my film the American modern film influence. Then the Japanese reporters at the banquet that night just grabbed me and asked, “You like the Coen brothers? You like Wes Anderson?” And I just said, “Yes, yes, yes, whatever.”
I had a feeling they would have done that, because I think, to me, the comedic timing of the movie really fits with Wes Anderson, which Americans love. Last question, what’s next for you? Do you have an upcoming project?
I have a script, it was sent to the censors, revised, and twice turned down. I don’t know yet, maybe an online series.
Wushu Orphan made its North American premiere at the 18th New York Asian Film Festival 2019.
Interview conducted by Ryan Charland, with translation by Joanna C. Lee. Main image © Ryan Ng / NYAFF.