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‘Stranger’ Director Interview on China, U.S., Loneliness

‘Stranger’ Director Interview on China, U.S., Loneliness

‘Stranger’ Director Interview on China, U.S., Loneliness

Chicago-based, China-born writer, director, producer and visual artist Zhengfan Yang knows what it feels like to be a stranger in a strange land — but also back home. If there is such a thing as “home.” His episodic feature Stranger, which had its world premiere in the Proxima competition section of the 58th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF), explores this along with such themes as loneliness and identity. Each episode is set in a different hotel room, “a place where everybody is a stranger.”

The result: seven scenes that, as KVIFF organizers put it, tell “absurd, darkly humorous, poignant, and mysterious stories set in a seemingly confined space that nevertheless opens up new and surprising dimensions.”

After graduating from law school, Yang started making films with Shengze Zhu (Present. Perfect), establishing production company Burn the Film with her. Yang has made four feature-length films – Distant (2013, Locarno Film Festival), Where Are You Going (2016, Rotterdam), Down There (2018, Venice), Footnote (2022, Rotterdam) – and several shorts.

The filmmaker talked to THR global business editor about his experiences in China and the U.S., his love for long continuous camera shots, why you shouldn’t expect him to direct a Marvel movie and the importance of space and time in film.

How did you come up with the idea to set this film in hotel rooms?

I started conceiving this concept back in 2016, one year after I moved to the U.S. I’m based in Chicago right now. My experience of living between China and the U.S. gradually shaped the concept of this film. As an immigrant in the U.S., I’m an outsider in terms of language and culture. But the interesting thing is, every time I go back to China, the rapid changes in the country make it almost unrecognizable to me, leaving me feeling like a stranger in my own country, in my home country as much as in a foreign land.

How do you see the U.S. and China now?

This experience allows me to view and see both countries from a different perspective. It’s the perspective of an outsider. So it is in this context that I see the hotel room as a device that signifies the state of a stranger — the loneliness, isolation and alienation. Living between two countries where I don’t feel at home feels exactly like staying in a hotel room. Like in a hotel room in Paris, where people are coming and going, people stay for only a brief moment. We see somebody in a hotel room and start wondering who are they, where are they from, and where are they going? It is from here that I decided to make a film using hotel rooms as a cinematic space to, on one hand, [deal with] my own personal feelings, but also a universal experience of loneliness and isolation and alienation.

Did you move to the U.S. to study film? Or how did you end up in Chicago and making movies?

I almost became a lawyer. I was in law school. That was when I started watching films — three or four films a day. And gradually on my way to graduation, I started realizing I’m not going to do anything related to law, but to cinema. So I just searched online and found a retired professor from the Beijing Film Academy. He was 70-something back then. It was 2007 when I graduated from law school, and I just went to study cinema. And he basically taught me everything I know about cinema. It was very intensive. It’s like a workshop, a training workshop. So we didn’t study film theory or watch movies but just made moving images. We had homework every day, and we just finished the homework and then went to his apartment and he would give us some advice and then the homework for that day.

That workshop lasted for about a year. It was very intense. Then I went to Hong Kong first for an MFA program. And that’s where I met my producer, Shengze Zhu. After graduation, we started making films together and founded the Burn the Film production company. Before we moved to Chicago, we produced some feature films. So we came to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s an art school, but I wasn’t in the film program. I was in another program called Visual & Critical Studies. Because I had been making films, I tried to learn something new and be a thinker as well, alongside being a filmmaker. That’s something important for me. That opens a new perspective. That’s how we ended up in Chicago and then we stayed.

And how did you end up on the film festival circuit?

We started screening our films in 2013 with my feature debut, Distant, at the Locarno Film Festival. We started producing each other’s films and our films have been shown at festivals since then, almost every year since 2013, with some breaks during the pandemic. This is our eighth film screening at international film festivals.

How do you see your experience living in different countries reflected in your film work, especially Stranger?

Identity issues follow, more or less, everyone who now lives in another country. I always ask myself to what extent should I consider myself as Chinese American or whatever. For my first 30 years, I was living in China, with four years in Hong Kong. But then I have been living in the U.S. for almost 10 years now. So, people can still say, “Okay, you are a Chinese immigrant.” But in another 20 years, I will have already lived in the U.S. for 30 years, the same amount as the time that I spent in China. So what will my identity be? Chinese, American or 50/50?

But I’m not trying to find the answer to that. Because I think the answer to this question constantly changes. What matters is that it gives me a perspective, which is also in constant change — a perspective that’s different from either one of the countries. It allows me to see the U.S. from the perspective of a Chinese because I am an outsider, but it also gives me the perspective to see China from the outside as well. That is what matters to me – to observe and to experience and to think about the world around me.

And this perception is also, unconsciously, in the film. Especially towards the end of the film, the story and the characters are no longer strictly Chinese people living in China. For example, there is a [Chinese] couple trying to give birth in the U.S., which is very common nowadays.

And very soon after that, it becomes the perspective of a Chinese immigrant who is supposed to be a street performer staying in a motel in the U.S. That’s the only scene that was made in the U.S. All the other scenes are made in China. That’s my personal experience and perspective.

Tell me more about where you shot the film and how you found different hotels as locations.

The film started financing back in 2017. We almost started production in 2020. And that’s when the pandemic hit. So, we had no choice but to wait until 2022, when we started looking for locations online through some crew members back in China who went to see the locations for us. Then we traveled back to China, which was so difficult because it was before the last peak of the pandemic.

I decided at the very beginning that I wanted to make this film in real hotel rooms. But we also needed a bigger space for the movement of the actors, [and] also for some scenes where the camera movement was so complicated that we needed space to put up all the equipment. So it took us about a month to find the ideal locations. Then we started shooting in November. Everything went very well, the other crew members and the actors and actresses doing so well. It was going very smoothly until after we had made all but one scene. And we’re about to make that last scene, and then the entire city went into lockdown.

So we had no choice but to dismiss the crew and that last scene, that was supposed to shoot in China in the presidential suite of a five-star hotel room, was suspended. So we waited in China for a little bit to see if there was any possibility to just do it. [But there wasn’t.]

So my producer and I went back to the U.S. with the idea to make the one last scene, not the last in the film but the second to last scene in the film, in the U.S. instead, because I wanted to make it personal. It is the most personal scene in the film. So we went back to the U.S. where it was much easier because there was no more pandemic in the U.S., but then we had to start over again to find the actor and everything.

How experienced are the actors in Stranger?

They have different experience levels. Some of them are quite experienced professional actors and actresses, especially towards the end of the film, such as the second-to-last scenes. But there are also scenes, especially a wedding scene and the last scene with people in multiple windows, [they] are not professional artists, because I didn’t really need them to act. I just told them, “You are invited to a wedding of a family member. I’m sure you have done this before, so just to do what you do.”

But the second scene of the film, the room inspection [by police], and a scene with a girl doing live streaming, those are professional actors.

‘Stranger’

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Courtesy of Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

Do you think the movie could end up screening in China as well?

Of course, as filmmakers, especially with films we make in China, we do hope that the film will be screened in China. But things are kind of difficult, because you have to screen the film and then pass the censorship after a lot of modification.

But we didn’t submit the film at the very beginning because our background is that we are independent filmmakers. We didn’t want to go through a lot of censorship, as well as self-censorship. We do not want to sacrifice our artistic integrity. So, if some non-official venues want to screen the film, that’s fine. But if not, we don’t mind because it’s not just a film about China. It’s about a universal experience of loneliness and isolation.

You mentioned you like to think through things, and the film also has a Sisyphus reference and other philosophical lines. Does that come naturally in your writing?

I’m so happy that this kind of stuff resonates with you because I think that was kind of unconscious. I like to think and I like to be a thinker, not just a filmmaker. But I also realize that it could be a challenge, or maybe too risky or too challenging for a movie’s audience if I intentionally deliver very serious philosophical discussions in the film.

But especially in that second-to-last scene that we made in the U.S. and that’s a personal one, I decided to just go with it. I just wanted to express what I was honestly thinking about my own experience, about my own feeling, and also my predicament — living as an outsider in different countries. So I organized my thoughts and decided to deliver it in the form of a voiceover. And then I didn’t even ask the actor who plays in that scene to do the voiceover. I decided to do the voiceover myself.

Do you expect future projects to be similar in any way to Stranger or do you want to do something completely different?

No matter what, I think there’s something that won’t change because it’s inside me. For example, I care about space and time in cinema. Also, I like the use of long takes to portray the atmosphere. And how I treat a story because it doesn’t have to be a story told in three acts and that kind of stuff. So even if I want to make the next film very, very different, I think there’ll still be something that is me.

I have been thinking if Stranger will be my last film made in China because I have been away for almost 10 years. And although I go back every year, visiting family and friends on a regular basis, I have started thinking I would start making films in the U.S. instead, to talk about this country where I live. I observe people here, people from the same or similar background as immigrants or different people. I think that’s probably where my next movie will be coming from.

Is there anything else that you would like to highlight?

People often ask why I want to make a film in single long takes because it seems really risky and challenging for them. That’s something very important to me throughout my filmmaking career because I have been using long takes since the very beginning. It’s such an important approach for me personally. It’s also a way for me to observe, to experience and to think about the world around me. I think life itself is a long take.

It’s also particularly important for this film because space is such an important element in this film. In cinema, space is not perceived in three dimensions, it is perceived through 24 frames per second. So if acting is the rhythm of the heartbeat, I think the long take is the rhythm of breath.

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