Creation of the Film “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”-Interview with Ning Hao and Wen Shipei

The New Chinese film ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT? is shortlisted for the Special Screenings Section of the 74th Festival de Cannes. The panicky and blurry audio-visual effect of this film leaves a deep impression on its audience.

Production supervisor Ning Hao highly praised this film. In his mind, “a good film should be poetic”, that is to say its audio-visual language should be poetic, and ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT? is such a film. Director of the film Wen Shipei who made the panicky elements in the story poetic is incredible.

This film is Wen’s first long-length film. For him, this film is also the one from which he began to establish his own aesthetic system for creation. He believes that to be aesthetic, a work should be consistent and systematic. Arrangement of the story content, audio-visual design, and actor/actress of a film are all for customizing a set of exclusive language for the film.

However, when he was integrating his thinking about creation and memory about the city into this film, he was also not sure whether it’s right to do so as most young directors do. As the more unique your style is, the more wanking you’ll be in others’ eyes, so how to manage your desire of personalized creation and deal with other people’s comments are issues worth repeated thinking.


Characteristics of the Director and Aesthetic System

Since the establishment of the Dirty Monkey 72 Transformations Film Project, Ning has repeatedly stressed “Director plays a decisive role in a film”. He believes that the key to this project is not to select many films but to select several directors so that they can carry China’s film industry on. Therefore, what he cares most about a film is the director. And the first time he met Wen, he was impressed by his simple but tasteful clothes. “(at the set) His was well dressed that day, small collar shirt and a T-shirt inside, which impressed me a lot.” However, Wen had already forgot what he wore that day, what he remembered is Ning’s amiable respectable teacher image. In their later cooperation, Ning Hao kept encouraging and assisting him and giving him suggestions.

When creating and directing the shooting of ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT? what Wen first need to do is to make the abstractive story concrete. According to Wen and Ning, what a director needs to do is to extract mysterious and poetic elements and information from the story, create their own film language and style in the process of shooting based on such elements and information, and thus keep them in the film.

Wen also had his own considerations for the geographical selection of the story background and the speed of the film’s pace. He was born and raised in Guangdong province, and the story is based on a piece of local news, so what he wanted to do in this film was to recreate the people, things and the atmosphere of the time, rather than recreate the cityscape. As for how to control the narrative pace of the story, Wen had more thinking, and even before the release of the film, he was still wondering if it was “too slow”.

The story of ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT? if seen from the normal single-line timing sequence, is a murder case caused by a car accident. However, Wen artfully disorganized the time and space, and then reorganized it by using iconic sounds, pictures and music to link them up, which made the film full of poetic sense.

Wen now think that his first film has met the standards he set before and through which he has found his position and direction as a director. And the audience think director Wen’s work which is said to be personalized, stylish, and has strong audio-visual effect has indeed become concrete.

In general, ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT? is an anti-genre work. According to Wen, the so called “anti-genre work” means a work created under a genre framework but during the creation, some different elements are added, so the language of the work created thereby is unique and uncopiable.

In this regard, Ning agrees with Wen as he also believes anti-genre work will allow a director go further in terms of his career. Like in crime films, Ning believes the emergence of young director Wen is inevitable.

To apply this idea, What did Wen do?

First, Wen set tone for the film.

What is “tone setting”? Wen said it is to find the most appropriate direction for the theme, characters and story of the script. In this regard, the production supervisor Ning didn’t give specific requirements for modification, but provided suggestions and references to Wen. Ning was well prepared to accept what Wen would create. “This is also what I would specially discuss with supervisor Ning.” From the perspective of a young director, Wen believes that these suggestions and references in terms of direction from the supervisor are crucial.

Seen from the perspective of the “anti-genre crime film”, ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT? is full of both poetry and tension. In this regard, Ning commended “Scenes of the completed film are full of artistic conception”, while Wen said “The film leaves its audience a lot of room to interpret based on their own experience”.

Secondly, to shoot better scenes, apart from suggesting actors/actresses about how to best play their roles, he also encouraged them to push beyond their acting boundaries.

Let’s take Eddie Peng who in this film changed his usual sunny images for example. Wen did all he could before the shooting to understand Peng’s acting characteristics. In addition, to better present the role of “Wang Xueming”, Wen and Peng decided that the later need to lose weight. As a result, the dedicated Peng showed us a slender image which is closer to the image of “Wang Xueming” and slenderer than Wen expected.

In terms of actors/actresses, Wen expressed his surprise and appreciation to be able to cooperate with excellent actors/actresses such as Eddie Peng, Sylvia Chang, Wang Yanhui, Zhang Yu, and Jiang Peiyao in his first film.

Eddie Peng was chosen by supervisor Ning, and there was an interesting reason. According to Ning, it happened on a day Peng having dinner with him for some other things he was thinking about the cast of ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT? Amid his thinking, he suddenly realized that Peng might be able to play the role of “Wang Xueming”, so he gave the project information and the script to Peng. And later, Ning introduced Peng to Wen, which led to their cooperation on this movie.

As for the relationship between Wang Xueming and Mother Liang, some audience think it is simply the relationship between a perpetrator and a victim’s family; some think their relationship is between a pair of mother and son, and bosom friends; some think they are just travelers in each other’s lives… Each person has his own understanding and the more you think about it, the more interesting you think it is. The effect what Wen wanted for his “anti-genre film” maybe has realized in general with the audience’s such response.


Expression of Young Directors Creation Desire and the Market Demand

No matter how advanced, unique, and stylish a director’s idea about creation is, the film he created will finally be sold in the market and the comprehensive growth of a young director is inseparable with their consideration and knowledge of market factors.

Therefore, Wen said “I was more concerned than Ning with marketing issues” while Ning said “Instead of paying much attention to marketing issues, directors like Wen should think more about how to make the film greater though some directors don’t.”

Both Wen and Ning expressed their views about the current situation of the film market from the perspective of young director and mature supervisor respectively. But if we see it from the perspectives of all Chinese young directors and supervisors, we will get a more comprehensive picture.

On the one hand, we can see an issue from Wen’s “concern” about how should Chinese young directors respond in the current film market, i.e., there are many talented directors, channels and platforms supporting young directors, but does every young director clearly know balance their personal desire for creation and market demand?

Ideally speaking, every filmmaker’s entering this industry is due to their love for films. As Ning said, “The environment now including channels is much better than in the past for young directors, the only thing left for them to do is creating films.” At the SIFF PROJECT, senior film critics pointed out the issue that green-hand young directors don’t know how to choose between their personal desire for creation and market demand, thus they may feel panic and be afraid to lose on both aspects.

On the other hand, we can see from Ning’s perspective that China’s environment for young directors to create films is getting better; trainings for creation and marketing support is balanced; and sectors along the film industry chain are well connected.

This positive change should be attributed to the creation model “senior directors mentoring newcomers” innovated by Ning and his team. In 2016 when the “Dirty Monkey 72 Transformations Film Project” was officially launched, career paths for young directors hasn’t yet been established, and there are only a few domestic programs or venture capital associations supporting young directors. But now there are various platforms, competitions, and supportive programs mushroomed, providing young directors a great deal of opportunities to be discovered, trained and recognized.


After directing ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT? Wen has known how to make trade-offs as a director. For the future, he doesn’t define himself as a typical author director, but finds a way to keep his personal style and concentrate his efforts on story telling. “The genre of my next film is drama, but I will continue to add anti-genre moves in it.” Wen said.

By / Baoyi