By Carmel Yang
Soft-spoken and bespectacled, Shui-Bo Wang looks every bit like an artist. In Hong Kong for a seminar at the University of Hong Kong, curated by Oscar-winning filmmaker Ruby Yang as part of the Hong Kong Documentary Initiative, Wang shared the creative process of his colourful film projects.
During the Q&A session, Wang speaks fondly of the punks he encountered while filming his documentary Never Release My Fist (2015). Looking at Wang’s wide trajectory as an artist and filmmaker, it becomes clear why he admires the punks’ fighting, restless spirit.
Wang was born in Jinan, Shandong Province, and grew up during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. His artistic talents were discovered at an early age, and Wang attended the Central Academy of Fine Arts, one of the most prestigious arts universities in China.
He later left for Canada to pursue further studies, and shortly after arriving in Montreal, Wang assisted the French-Canadian director Frédéric Back with his Academy Award-nominated animated film, The Mighty River (1993). Wang was responsible for painstakingly hand drawing the thousands of paintings featured in the 22-minute piece, an ordeal that almost turned him off future animation projects.
Instead, Wang turned his focus to directing. His directorial debut, Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square (1998), was an autobiographical short documentary about his childhood as an artistic member of Mao’s Red Guards.
When asked about modern-day China compared with the homeland remembered in Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square, Wang is bittersweet. He is pleased with China’s economic success, but finds it painful that monetary gains result in cultural losses.
“And I would prefer the so-called Chinese socialism with Chinese characteristics. Suddenly. most of the character of old Chinese culture is lost. That’s the kind of painful experience for me.”
Culture is an essential component of Wang’s work, and is the most consistently featured theme throughout his movies. The concerns raised in his documentaries that directly address Chinese society, Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square, They Chose China (2006) and Never Release My Fist, are more about cultural exchange rather than anti-patriotism.
When asked about his feelings towards Maoist China, Wang emphasises the natural beauty of his childhood home in those days. According to Wang, people only realise the importance of landmarks when they disappear. A famous example is the Tianjin-Pukou Railway Jinan Station, a grand edifice designed by a German architect, Hermann Fischer, and completed in 1912. The historic station was demolished in 1991 to create space for a modern transport hub. Then in 2013, the city announced plans to reconstruct Fischer’s train station, a project that would cost at least 1.5 billion yuan (HK$1.77 billion).
“You build a fake antique,” Wang smiles wryly. “So the war didn’t destroy China. Natural disaster didn’t destroy China. But fast economic development destroyed Chinese traditional character. The country.”
Another theme that runs throughout his work is the intricate long-standing relationship between China and the West. This is unsurprising as Wang, who splits his time between Beijing, Shanghai and Montreal, considers both China and Canada to be home. Most of his earlier films were funded by the National Film Board of Canada and, although he has been working more in China recently, Wang still hopes to appeal to an international audience.
“It’s about the culture and the history and the political conflict between the West and the East,” Wang says. “So all my films can be called ‘in-betweens’ – in between the two cultures. The confrontation between the two worlds.”
One of his more tendentious films, They Chose China, traces the lives of American soldiers who defected to China after their release from a North Korean prisoners-of-war camp. Wang says it was difficult to secure funding for the film, and even more difficult to convince surviving POWs to appear in it. He was successful, and the 52-minute documentary discusses the complicated thought processes of several soldiers on why they chose to stay in China and why several ultimately returned to the U.S.
He returns to the discussion of Western diaspora in his most recent documentary, Who is David Bloch?, which immortalises a love story between a deaf German-Jewish artist who fled Nazi-controlled Europe and a deaf Shanghainese young woman. Bloch, the central character, was a talented woodblock artist who lived in China during World War II. The documentary describes the star-crossed lovers and includes interviews with Bloch’s children. Wang plans to develop the story into a feature film. Although most of his works have been animations or documentaries, Wang seems keen to stretch his directorial chops.
When he is not shooting, Wang teaches film at the Central Fine Arts Academy in Beijing, where he founded the Film and Media Art department. He accepts one to two students a year and helps his thesis students to produce experimental, animated and documentary films. He encourages most of his students to create projects based on their own experiences.
Wang believes in the power of ordinary people to tell extraordinary stories. “If you watch the street and close your eyes, if you grab someone – anyone – then you can open your eyes [and] realise that this person has a lot of stories to tell. And the story of his family can write a big novel,” Wang says.
Despite his active role in the Chinese film industry, Wang has reservations about the current Chinese blockbusters, which he believes are visually stimulating but lacking in plot. This could partly be due to Chinese censorship laws, which prevents filmmakers from showing sensitive political and social topics.
Wang also believes that more movies are catering to a younger generation, forgoing complex plotlines for action. “They forgot that cinema is a form of art,” says Wang. “Cinema should have an idealism to inspire society, to change the country. Cinema has a mission too. For most of the filmmakers they are aiming to make money rather than to think of the bigger picture.”
Carmel Yang is a student in the Master of Journalism programme at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre.
Photography by Ayaka McGill (MJ 2018).