Film Giant Wu Tianming and His Last Masterpiece Song of the Phoenix
- Wu Yanyan, Interview of Producer and President of Wu Tianming Film Fund for Young Talents

Song of the Phoenix is the last film directed by Wu Tianming. The editing of the film was completed in January, 2014. One month later, the director passed away. This last masterpiece of Wu Tianming is scheduled to be released to the public on May 6. The film, which embodies the painstaking efforts of the director, is arousing wide attention as the promotion goes on.

The film Song of the Phoenix depicts the deep feelings between master and apprentice, father and son as well as brothers. It expresses Wu’s profound understanding of life and film, of the fine traditional Chinese culture and its inheritance, as well as his care for the common people. Before long, the film won the Grand Jury Prize of the 29th China Golden Rooster Film Awards, Favorite Film of the Audience of the Tours Film Festival, Best Feature Film of the 1st Silk Road International Film Festival and other awards. It was also included in the official film panorama of Busan International Film Festival, Hong Kong International Film Festival and Tokyo International Film Festival.

As the leading figure of the fourth generation Chinese film directors, Wu Tianming represents the glorious days of Chinese films, who cultivated the backbone directors including Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Huang Jianxin and He Ping. Huang Jianxin, who received generous support of Wu Tianming at the earlier days of his career, made such remarks, “From The River without Buoys, Life, Old Well, The King of Masks, to the Song of the Phoenix, Wu Tianming put all his understanding of life into his films. He only accomplished one thing in his life, which is film. Film and his life are integrated as a whole. He is a great film director in my mind.”

To know more about the film, we interviewed Wu Yanyan, daughter of Wu Tianming and famous producer; she is also the president of China Film Foundation – Wu Tianming Film Fund for Young Talents.


Q: Could you briefly introduce Wu’s last masterpiece, Song of the Phoenix?


Wu Yanyan: Song of the Phoenix is about to be released to the public. It was well received in previous trial screenings. Without the clamor and exciting scenes and plots of commercial films, it is a high quality film with great artistic value.

As his daughter, I was initially opposed to his idea of shooting such a film. I knew that he would spend tremendous efforts on each film, paying attention to every detail from the screenplay to postproduction. I asked, if you worked hard and finished the film, but the audience wouldn’t watch it, what shall you do? Isn’t it a waste of time? I remembered he flied into a temper and punched on the table, saying, “I must shoot it! I make it not for the contemporary audience, but for the future!” I didn’t quite understand him at that moment. But after he passed away, I realized that the film was intended for the future audiences. With the rapid change in the Chinese film market, the audience’s requirements and level of appreciation grow higher and higher. This kind of film can be more easily understood and accepted by them. Perhaps in another ten years, the feeling of the audience changes again in watching such a film.

As far as I know, my father spent several years on the screenplay, offering a lot of advice on revision. The film is adapted from a novel entitled Song of the Phoenix, which is set in Guizhou. However, after reading it, the director felt that he was not familiar with the local conditions and customs of Guizhou. So he decided to set the film in Shaanxi, a much more familiar place to him. Initially, he considered Wang Xueqi as the protagonist. And Wang went to see the director three times to discuss the screenplay, expressing his willingness to play the role. Yet he didn’t get the role for many reasons.

My father spent over half a year on the screenplay, which he took over from other editors. After the first two month, he made revisions for the second time. The preparatory work took over a year, and the shooting took two or three months. After the postproduction of several months, the film was completed in 2014. My father decided on the final version one month before his death.

It never occurred to my father that this is his last film. As a film artist, he wanted to express his ideas with the film on the future direction of traditional Chinese art and culture, as well as Chinese films. The technique of expression is unadorned. He was just trying to tell a story.

I think the value of the film is not reflected by box office, but by word of mouth. My father intended to convey some ideas to the audience through this film and hoped more audiences would go to watch it. Now, the Chinese film market is over commercialized, with few high quality films to build word-of-mouth referrals. He hoped this film can make some difference. We are not under much pressure to recover the investment, as the awards have already covered half of the investment. Box office is not our major consideration. More importantly, as the last work of Wu Tianming, we hope to promote the film and let more people know about it.


Q: Why chose Suona as the main theme? Are there any special purposes?

Wu Yanyan: Suona is also the main theme in the original novel. Wu Tianming was touched by the novel. Before then, he had mentioned his intention to film such themes, as they are associated with the declining traditional Chinese culture. Suona is just a means of expression. Against the backdrop of globalization, China is absorbing a lot of western culture. After several generations, we almost lost memory of much traditional culture. If we don’t attach importance to traditions, our spiritual world will grow empty. It is very likely that in the future, we will no longer see Suona, which is really sad. I think those born in the 1980s and 1990s will also be touched by the film, which will trigger their thinking on traditions and film itself.

Despite the updated technological means, films are after all telling stories. Content matters. In his last days, my father was dissatisfied with the status quo of Chinese films. He just couldn’t figure out why some entertainment programs can be made into films.


Q: I heard that director Wu made a lot of efforts on the music. What are the highlights of the music in the film?

Wu Yanyan: The theme song, Song of the Phoenix, is adapted from an old Suona tune. It was initially with a joyful melody, but was changed into a song of sorrow in the film. There is a lot of bird singing at the end, as Suona can make the sound of a singing bird. To make the music impressive and dynamic, my father invited famous composer Zhang Dalong, who went to Shaanxi to collect folk songs and made the new Shaanxi version of Song of the Phoenix. The theme song, together with more than 20 other Suona songs, which are combined with western symphony orchestra, add to the charm of the film.

Mr. Zhang also received the Best Music nomination of the China Golden Rooster Film Awards. They spent a lot time on every detail of music. He initially used a lot of western orchestra music, but later removed them from the film, which are deemed as disruptive of the atmosphere of the film.


Q: What cultural values does the film express?

Wu Yanyan: I think the film reflects my father’s understanding of how to be a man and the faith of man. In the premiere press conference, the young actress Wang Luodan said, “The film is epoch-making, as it shows the collision between new and traditional Chinese culture. Without this film, we won’t be able to realize that a generation of artists is fading away before our eyes, which actually happens every moment. If we realize such a fact 10 or 20 years later, that will be too late. The film tells us how to be a person. You can become the kind of person you want.” For the young people, the film talks about many issues in life, like how to make the choice when your pursuit and morality collide with each other.

I think the film is also telling the story of my father. It expresses his ideas in the pursuit of filmmaking. Why didn’t he shoot the so-called commercial films? Investors came to invite him to shoot such films. He refused, for he insisted on shooting what he wanted. As is said in the promotion campaign, “I play Suona for myself, not for others.” There is a line in the film, “Don’t stare at the money in your hand, but on what is in your mind.” I think this is what he intended to express.

After watching the film, Fang Li, a famous producer, said, “Without the persistence of Wu Tianming, there can be no glory of Chinese films at that time.” Fang said, he shared the opinion with my father and refused to shoot junk films. “I follow my heart in shooting films and I would only invest for directors I appreciate. We should freely pursue our ideals instead of blindly following others. He thought the film was a reflection of our inner world. Shall we cling to our ideals or follow others?


Q: What are the most striking parts of the film? Will the young people today find it attractive?

Wu Yanyan: My father spared no effort in making every film. This film is a bit different from The King of Masks and Old Well. After watching the film, you will be lingering in the scenes for a long time. Now, many international film festivals are inviting it to be shown in the film panorama. Each time watching this film on the silver screen, especially IMAX, I feel touched by it each time.

We arranged some previews in 2015, and many of our audiences were born after 1985 or in the 1990s. I was surprised that quite a number of them said they hadn’t seen such a high quality Chinese film for a long time, with excellent director, screenwriter, actors and actresses, who made painstaking efforts to create the film. They were deeply moved by the film. Besides, the film not only talks about the status quo of Suona and its inheritance, but also touches on the issue of how urban and rural life, and eastern and western culture can co-exist with each other as well as how folk arts can survive. Many people were deeply moved by the film and I believe my father really aroused strong feelings in the young people.

On April 20, we held a premier in Xi’an for Song of the Phoenix, where famous producer Fang Li and actress Wang Luodan were present. Fang Li said, “I think a film that can move the audience into tears can be seen as a successful commercial film.” Many audiences applauded for his words. One friend, after watching the film, sent a message to me, “The Suona in the film is only a means of expression. What matters are the rules to be a man. The film talks about human dignity and attitude towards life in an unadorned yet sincere way. I believe people want to watch such a film.”


Q: What are the plans and activities for the marketing, promotion and distribution of the film?

Wu Yanyan: In fact, after the shooting was finished, we didn’t have the money to do marketing or distribution. Then I started to solicit investment until I met with the famous producer, Fang Li. After watching the film, he turned around without saying anything. When he turned back, his eyes were full of tears. He asked me what help I need, and I answered I was lack of fund for marketing and distribution. Then he said he would offer the capital I needed and found more people to help me.

After Fang Li joined us, the situation was soon improved. With his guidance, we found other supporters, including United Entertainment Partners. The CEO of the company, Jiang Wusheng, also has sympathy with the film. He once said, “We might not make money by investing on such a film, but I still want to do it.” Now, the co-producers of the film have reached an agreement. After the cost is recovered, they will donate all the profits to the Dandelion Foundation. Therefore, the distribution and screening of the film is charity in nature.

Apart from channels of investment and distribution, we mobilized more than 100 “volunteers”, who were actually industry elites with a lot of resources. They were willing to contribute to the film made by my father. I was deeply moved by them. Now, the team of Tsui Hark is responsible for the promotion. A couple of days ago, someone called me to offering fund for the film, who remitted the money the next day after our meeting. Another billboard advertising company volunteered to promote the film. With so many people support the film and its promotion and public release, I am deeply moved and determined to show it to the audiences.

We figured out many ways to promote and distribute the film. We organized fans of Wu Tianming and targeted the audience and young people who love culture and arts so as to attract more audiences. In terms of screening, we have gained the support of many large cinemas. In Xi’an, where the film is set, we have received generous support, as the audiences there have great sympathy with the film. We will also arrange for roadshows in some cities and invite celebrities and famous directors. For example, in the promotion in Beijing, we invite Tsui Hark and Huang Jianxin; in Shanghai, we invite Han Han and Jia Zhangke; in Chongqing, we invite Yuan Li. We are contacting other film stars and directors at present.

We have also prepared many video materials and put them on major websites. For example, the hits of the news of the press conference in Xi’an exceeded three million. We also invited Zhang Yimou, leading figure of the fifth generation of directors who received the support of my father in his earlier days, to make a video clip and show it to the audience before the film starts. In this way, the audiences can have a better understanding of the director and deeper understanding of the film. We also spread our promotion videos through the Internet. Martin Scorsese, prestigious American director, made a video clip for the film, during which he said, “Wu Tianming, a real giant in the film world.” Our promotion is gaining momentum recently.


Q: Wu Tianming is recognized for his delicate filming techniques and unique aesthetic expressions. What parts of the film reflect his artistic style?

Wu Yanyan: This is definitely a masterpiece, unadorned yet exquisite, from the director’s storytelling, the performance of the actors and actresses to the photography. As his daughter, I am not flattering him, but the sentiments of the film are really touching. He is highly skilled in telling stories and there is not a single error in his film, which is smooth and consistent from the beginning to the end.

The film The King of Masks directed by my father was one of the Chinese films most widely promoted and best received overseas. It won over 50 film awards in the world. US production company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the film. The CEO of the company told my father, when he decided to buy the film, it didn’t have any English subtitles, yet the audiences present were all moved into tears. He said that my father was one of the best storytellers of the directors in the world.

However, different from The King of Masks, the story of Song of the Phoenix is told in a calm way. Yet as a masterpiece, it can touch the heartstring of the audience all the same. It was also included in the official film panorama of Busan International Film Festival, Hong Kong International Film Festival and Tokyo International Film Festival. Some of our partners hope that the film can be distributed in the US market. However, in my opinion, the film is different from The King of Masks in that it mainly finds sympathy with the Chinese audience. The western audiences might have to overcome many cultural barriers in understanding it. That’s why the film is invited to the film panorama mostly at the Asian film festivals. We will also bring a trailer of the film to the upcoming Cannes Film Festival in the hope to raise the attention of more people.


Q: The award-winning producers of Wu Tianming Film Fund for Young Talents will attend the Producers’ Workshop at Cannes Film Festival for exchanges and mutual learning. What are the major development plans and events in the future?

Wu Yanyan: China Film Foundation – Wu Tianming Film Fund for Young Talents was founded in 2014. It is a non-profit fund. In fact, I regard the charity work as closely associated with my father and the development of Chinese films. It reflects the dream and ideals of father for films. The staff of the fund is part-time, and I am of no exception. My full time job is film production. We gather together out of the dreams and enthusiasm for films, and work toward the common goals. I feel inspired when working with these young and promising filmmakers.

Wu Tianming Film Fund for Young Talents is aimed at support young directors. We will select five young directors to help them in making their films. Some of their works might just take shape, with huge potential. Among the five young directors we funded in 2015, two are at the preparatory stage of their films. We build the platform for their creation, including financing, marketing and distribution, selecting of actors and actresses and post-production. From this year, we will set a post-production award in the venture project of Hong Kong International Film Festival.

We also send young producers to participate in the workshop at Cannes Film Festival to open up their eyes. Last year, we sent two directors to the Venice International Film Festival. Next, we will launch the Screenwriters’ Workshop. We plan to invite supervisors to work with young screenwriters for one month and help refine 15 to 20 screenplay projects. We will also organize a project pitches summit by inviting investors and film studios and arousing their attention to these projects.

In addition, we have planned a “master class”, which includes directors, producers and screenwriters. The implementation of the project depends on the schedule. Another priority is the “Dandelion Action”. We invite elites in the film industry to participate in the plan, who will take out at least one day in a year to communicate with young talents. They can take advantage of their resources and experience to help the young people; for example, offering lectures, taking the young talents to the shooting sites for field study, or serving as supervisors of the young directors. Our colleagues support this plan with great enthusiasm. Wang Luodan has joined the plan, and other filmmakers including Zhang Yimou, Huang Xiaoming, Feng Shaofeng and Zhang Jizhong also expressed their willingness to join the “Dandelion Action”.

With the support of the government, we also have to raise funds and organize various activities by ourselves. Over the past two years, we have gained the support of many people. We are committed to such a charity cause based on the principle of transparency. We release the financing and use of funds every year to let the society supervise our operation.

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