The documentary, Movie Chaser, produced by Nicefilm, focuses on the contemporary filmmakers and unveils their real-life facet. In Season One, the documentary chooses 10 most stylized genre film directors in the Chinese film industry today, and in the form of interview and tracking shots, it documents the daily life outside of the camera of the directors and depicts the stories between their films and themselves, so as to present a real picture of them.
Movie Chaser has invited Wuershan as the protagonist of the first episode. The episode marks a good start of the documentary as it films the story of this Eastern genre film director and tells the unknown journey of his career by interviewing 12 of his closest friends, and conducting a three-hour in-depth interview with him, as well as 30 hours’ tracking shot.
Some define him as a successful commercial director; some position him as one of the most prominent commercial movie directors; some say he is a pioneer of the Chinese film industry. He directed four films over the past 11 years, which doesn’t quite qualify as productiveness, yet all four teem with sincerity, earnestness and brilliance.
Currently, he is preparing for his latest work Fengshen Trilogy, with a total investment of RMB 3 billion and 4 years of pre-production. Such math is hard to imagine even for the fast-expanding Chinese film market. Yet Wuershan chose to rise to the challenge.
Explorer of Eastern Genre Film, with High Attainment in Art and Aesthetics
As early as in 2011, Wuershan’s name is not familiar to the Chinese cinema. Yet back then he was awarded the Best New Director of the 48th Golden Horse Award with a small-budget martial arts comedy The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman. Timmy Yip (art director of Fengshen Trilogy) was attracted at first sight of this film: “The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman was a surprise for me. Beauty is achieved through ugliness, such aesthetics is rare to see in China. ”
The distinctive visuals of The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman derive from the director’s study and obsession with art over the past years. Although focusing on commericials after graduation, when it came to personal creation, he preferred installation art, behavioral art and video art; he even experimented with music album. His works of installation art were programmed in exhibitions in the UK, Italy, Germany, South Korea and Japan. One of his representative works is the Nomadic Plan in Outer Space.
Yet it was after thorough thinking that he decided to make such a martial arts comedy, The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman. Martial arts film is a relatively mature genre with distinctive features in the Chinese film industry. More importantly, the costs of such films can be strategically reduced.
“I think the hard part is to gain the trust of the capital.” A-list commercial director as Wuershan was, he was still a tenderfoot in cinema. It was by sheer luck that he could secure an investment of RMB 5.5 million.
It was a budget too small for a martial arts film and Wuershan started in other’s disbelief so as to not cast to the winds the screenplay he devoted two years’ efforts in. He signed the agreement with his producer with a special term in it: all over-budget expense will be covered by Wuershan himself. “I went back to check my bank account. The balance was enough to cover it. It is affordable for me.” Wuershan said it with a sense of humor, “I have come this far, I couldn’t just let go. ”
Coupled with the over-budget RMB 1 million, the total budget of the film is only RMB 6.6 million. Little had been foreseen that such a wild and brash film could be made out of the limited budget.
The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman had a clear purpose. Wuershan had but one goal in mind, which was to challenge certain patterns of existing martial arts films, instead of an entirely personalized presentation—as some might say. Yet as martial arts film is the most classic film genre in China, he needed go to extremes to re-present the charm of the genre.
The film was thus made into a three intertwining stories alongside the underlying metaphor of “desire, vengeance and greed”. All three stories came full circle linked with karma and retribution.Wuershan found such derailing narrative more like film critics where he put his ideas of martial arts film with a collage film language, like remix in the music.
However, in his later films, he never played with such storytelling again. The stylized narrative of The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman was largely determined by budget concerns. With so many situations and characters, Wuershan felt compelled to use bold and novel means to turn constrains into creative, for example the use of video game, animation and recombination of old film clips were all to break from the limits of fund. “The limited budget forced me to think wildly and brashly. I had no way back. I can only go forward.” Yet he won the reputation for the stylized film language and capability of budget control.
The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman lead to full recognition of Wuershan’s high attainment in aesthetics. Saturated colors and striking visuals give full play to his artistic attainment, while it is also a successful exploration in martial arts genre film. At the same time, he got the opportunity to direct the film, Painted Skin: The Resurrection.
A Perfect Combination of Arts and Business: A New Wave of Eastern Fantasy
It is rare for a film like Painted Skin: The Resurrection, with a production cost of RMB 120 million, 20 times of that of The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman, to be directed by a new director who has only made one low-budget film.
Ran Ping (screenwriter of Painted Skin: The Resurrection and Fengshen Trilogy) showed his support for Wuershan after he was informed. He told Wuershan, “By directing Painted Skin: The Resurrection, you can realize your pursuit to package artistic contents commercially.. ”
Yet before he agreed to take the job, Wuershan made a requirement: he wanted to have Chen Kuofu as the executive producer. He knew full well that he needed someone to go through the thistles and thorns together in such a big project.
The first time Wuershan got to know Chen went all the way back to his college years,, when he would go to the library to read a magazine named Influence. Chen was the editor in chief of that magazine. Later, Chen switched from a film critic to a director and later producer of films, and made sure all the titles he worked on were top-of-the-line…Wuershan believed he was the right partner. By coincidence, Yang Zhenjian, art and marketing director of the film, also had such an intention for cooperation. So he arranged the meeting of the two.
“In late April, 2010, at Element Fresh” that meeting with Chen Kuofu left such a deep impression on Wuershan that he could still recall the date and place till now. They exchanged ideas on the step outline of the first draft script. Chen suggested that Wuershan write down his ideas. Back home, Wuershan wrote a five-page paper, analyzing the reasons for the success of the Painted Skin I and the direction of screenwriting of Painted Skin: The Resurrection.
Wuershan once discussed with Chen on if they could make Painted Skin: The Resurrection an artistic film like Tales of a Pale and Mysterious Moon After the Rain by Kenji Mizoguchi or Kaidan by Masaki Kobayashi, so that they can give full play to the traditional Chinese aesthetics. The idea was denied by Chen decisively, for it flares up market risks. Wu thought it over and agreed.
“Wuershan leaves the impression that he is a person who can endure bitterness for the mission. He knows exactly what he wants. All he thinks is how to make a film that betters his last one. Everything else is secondary and gives way to this. This is one of reasons why I like him.” said Chen Kuofu.
Thus, Wuershan had a precise market positioning of Painted Skin: The Resurrection to target the female audience. He had a slogan by then: Women will love the film, so do those who love women. As expected, after the release, it won the hearts of a lot of female audience. On June 28, 2012, Painted Skin: The Resurrection was released to the public in Mainland China, stirring up a wave of Eastern Fantasy in the Chinese film market. It broke 12 records of Chinese film box office with revenue of RMB 726 million.
The unprecedented market success of the film testified the ability of Wuershan in commercial films, and this was the first time that he had embarked on the path of genre film in the real sense.
Make the Bold Attempt with Adventure Films to Set New Standards for Chinese Film Industry
When a lot of people are talking about how to combine artistic and commercial elements of films, The Ghouls offers new possibilities. The production of the film took four years, and the screenplay itself took two. It seems that in the process of film creation, Wuershan always follows the principle of patience, temperance and endurance. It is a luxury for the restless and fast-growing Chinese film business, especially for a director like him, who started his third film in his 40s.
However, Sun Ye, the 1st assistant director of The Ghouls, thought otherwise. He recalled that when he made commercials with Wuershan, for one commercial, it took them two to three months to make preparations, while the actual shooting took only two to three days. They would spend one month for pre-production, discussing about the creatives and details. “Proportionately, the time to prepare for a film is too short, with so much more to do than a 30 seconds commercial.” said Sun, “Nowadays in the film industry, people are used to seeking quick wins. They would like to minimize pre-production, go straight to production and then immediately into the market for returns. However, it is not our mindset in filmmaking. ”
When refining the screenplay, he summarized the storytelling rules of adventure films to learn about their recipe for success. He even wrote a paper entitled The Practice of Creating The Ghouls and Genre Films. Just as Du Yang (producer of Fengshen Trilogy) said, the biggest merit of Wuershan lies in that he can turn himself into an expert of any field very fast.
After several rounds of deliberation, he decided to adopt a simple story and a single-line storytelling. Wang Yu, director of photography of Fengshen Trilogy, said, “He balances storytelling and grand spectacles well. He tells a clear story and knows what values to put in the film. ”
Wuershan tries to walk a fine line between industry norms and his artistic pursuits. He said, “The Mongolian culture reveres the nature, life and hero. I hope my works also have such touches.”
In the end, The Ghouls won both box office and word of mouth. It is reputed as the model and used as a gauge in the Chinese film market. Combining business and art, it is one of the most successful work of Wuershan, another milestone achievement of his career in genre films.
Decade of Hard Work, Fengshen Trilogy Continuing to Write the Legend
The preparation of Fengshen Trilogy began in 2014, which is probably the biggest challenge faced by Wuershan since the beginning of his filmmaking career. It can be a tremendous success or a total disaster. Yet he knew he could only succeed.
“It is very hard. I cannot do it by myself. I don’t know what awaits ahead for me.” said Chen Kuofu frankly, who has rich experience in filmmaking.
Like The Ghouls, Wuershan took the screenwriting and concept design teams to other cities for inspiration, including Douglas Hans Smith, VFX Supervisor, Four Season Team and Tianhua. They went to Henan, Shanxi and Shaanxi to visit the best preserved Taoism murals, sculptures and archeological sites of Shang and Zhou Dynasties.
On his return, Wuershan contacted the experts, scholars and artists to give lectures on Chinese metaphysics, landscape, ancient architecture and costumes. The Four Season (special concept design team of Wuershan), who cooperated with him on The Ghouls, understands it fully, “The concept design of Fengshen Trilogy is even more perplexing, not to mention the workload and aesthetics. ”
Yet the core issue for Fengshen Trilogy is ultimately the development of screenplay. The original novel with 100 chapters was written 500 years ago, with numerous characters, complicated relationships and intertwined elements of mortal, immortal and demons. Thus, Wuershan began to study the screenplay as early as in 2012, in order to re-interpret The Investiture of the Gods, the original novel. In the process, he surprisingly found that the story of the original novel can be divided into three parts: From Chapter 1 to Chapter 34, the story ends with the tyrant King Zhou’s cruelty and the return of Huang Feihu to Zhou Dynasty. From Chapter 35 to 66, the story ends with the conquest of Xiqi by 36 armies. From Chapter 67 on, it tells the story of Jiang Ziya assuming the post of military general and conquering the despotic ruler Zhou. Wuershan got the inspiration that he could deconstruct the story with the classic storytelling of ancient Greek trilogy.
Despite the direction, it is still very difficult to transform the Western form of trilogy into Chinese films. Therefore, Wuershan made a special visit to script supervisor James Schamus and director Ang Lee in the US. He also visited many veteran producers in the US with Du Yang (producer of Fengshen Trilogy), and invited one of the producers of The Lord Of the Rings, Barrie M. Osborne, to work as the production consultant of the whole project, soliciting advice from him on the filming of trilogy.
As the filming could last from 12 to 15 months, combined with the pre-filming closed training, it would take two years of the actors, which is impossible for well-established actors. Therefore, Wuershan came up with the alternative to find qualified new actors. His eight casting teams looked for the right actors and actresses all around the world, which lasted until the official beginning of shooting.
To better understand the thinking of the actors and actresses and cast the best ones, Wuershan made a special visit to Liu Tianchi (performance supervisor of The Ghouls and Fengshen Trilogy) to learn acting, who helped him in casting. Liu was also impressed by him: “Wuershan became more aware of what kind of actors he was looking for. That is to say, he and the actors can communicate in a better way. ”
Three years, over 1000 days and nights, traveling over 10,000 miles across the world, and revising the screenplay numerous times, and that is only the pre-production. It is rare to see so many young people participating in the audition for one film, even in the whole film world. It is undeniable that Eastern genre film will usher in a new future with great prospects in the history of film in the world. Though the way ahead is long, we still believe that Wuershan will create a legendary film of Fengshen Trilogy with his artistic attainment and pursuit for films.
CFM: What are the experience drawn from the US when making Painted Skin: The Resurrection and The Ghouls?
A: First is the scientific development of the screenplay and the summary of rules that govern the development of the screenplay. I believe the biggest difficulty faced by Chinese films is the screenplay. People are looking for effective ways and rules governing the develolpment of films, yet as far as I know, the foreign books on screenwriting summarize a large amount of theoretical knowledge, and most of them derive from the ancient Greek and modern Western drama history, namely the classic storytelling and three act drama, which is revered as the most classic model of storytelling by the Hollywood as a whole.
However, we haven’t realized the value of such a model of filmmaking, and deem it as out-of-date. I want to tell people that it is not true. More than 90% of the top-grossing and most popular films in the world adopt the way of classic storytelling and the structure of three acts. In fact, it is a model summarized on the basis of thousands of years of dramas and films, i.e., how to tell a good story with the three-act structure and put it into a two-hour film. It takes time and effort to study and figure it out.
The other is the genre of storytelling. Be it Painted Skin: The Resurrection or The Ghouls, they have a clearly defined genre. Painted Skin: The Resurrection is a romance and fantasy film, while The Ghouls is a fantasy and adventure film. As genre films, they have their own rules and we can find the rules through studying the works of the same genre.
Therefore, I only did some genre study and meet the basic requirements for genre together with the screenwriter in screenwriting. On this basis, I will add individual expression and topics we are interested in. Therefore, I draw great inspiration from the Hollywood films in terms of film planning and screenwriting.
CFM: Each of your films made greater progress in terms of box office revenue compared with the previous one. Do you gauge your works against box office revenue?
W: Yes. I think these films are all popular entertainment films targeted at the mass audience. Box office revenue is their basic attribute and I have high expectations for it. The audience will show their support for you by buying the tickets. I think it is very realistic. This is also my attitude towards popular entertainment films. As an entertainment film director, I have to balance the entertainment effect, cost recovery and quality of the film.
Thus, I always think that the audience is the one who pays the bill for us, the investor is the one who pays us to realize our ideas and we ourselves try to express our attitude and prove our value through our work. The presentation of a film has to balance the three aspects in order to have a happy ending. Thus, high box office revenue is the goal that I pursue.
In the process, you have to make the trade-off, as we have to come back to our common goal, which you must be clear of. For example, the goal of The Ghouls is to become a qualified fantasy and adventure film with Chinese characteristics. It has to pass the test of genre and strive for higher box office revenue. People have high expectations for The Ghouls, whose cost is very high, with RMB 250 million of production cost. Combined with the cost of P&A and distribution, the total cost is RMB 310 million. I think I am responsible for such a high cost. In the process of filmmaking, the director is not only an artist, but also a manager, even a market expert. He or she has to balance the different needs, for filmmaking is not individual creation, nor is it purely meant to cater to the audience or serving as a tool for making money by the investors. Thus, I think the director is the one who walk on the wire. I would stress the word of balance.
CFM: The theme of Fengshen Trilogy is so familiar with the Chinese people. People say everyone has his or her own understanding of the novel, and people will make judgments from their own perspectives. Does it put any pressure on you?
W: I think it is not bad to have critical comments. What’s really bad is that no one pays attention to your works. The Ghouls, as Candle in the Tomb is a novel whose popularity has lasted for a decade. It is the similar case with The Investiture of the Gods, yet its popularity has lasted for 500 years.
I think we should conduct a discussion on how to modernize and picturize traditional oriental culture, which has always been the focus of my work. The Investiture of the Gods integrates traditional Chinese culture. Previously, the market capacity was not big enough and as a director, I was not capable enough to do it, nor was the capital confident in it. In 2012, I announced the project of Fengshen Trilogy, yet the timing is not mature so I chose The Ghouls. Now I think it is the right time and I am willing to spend eight or ten years on the project. I want to bet on it. Sooner or later, someone will make a film of The Investiture of the Gods. Now I am presented with the opportunity and I love fantasy and action epic, so I want to make a try.
CFM: There are few precedents of trilogy in the history of Chinese films, even in the world.
W: Yes, there are two: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. When I watched The Lord of the Rings, I was shocked, jealous and humiliated, and as I thought we should have made such films in China, yet we didn’t. China has a rich history and highly imaginative traditional culture, yet we lag behind others in the film industry. It is a shame that our filmmaking and film quality isn’t adequate enough. At that time, I thought to myself, if I was asked to make such a film, what themes I should choose. I thought about it and the first choice is The Investiture of the Gods. It is the No.1 popular legend in China. I have no other choice. The Investiture of the Gods enjoys the same popularity as Journey to the West. There are many films and TV productions adapted from Journey to the West, and many of them are successful. The Investiture of the Gods was adapted several times into films and TV dramas, yet it is weak in quality. Comparing the two, I think The Investiture of the Gods can better represent the authentic Chinese traditional culture. The Investiture of the Gods derives from real Chinese history of the conquest of King Zhou by King Wu 3,000 years ago and the founding of the Zhou Dynasty. We all know that the roots of Chinese culture are in the Zhou Dynasty. It is the foundation of Chinese classic culture, including the feudal system, the system of rites and music, the patriarchal system and the farmland system. The social form and cultural ideas of the feudal period of China can be traced back to the Zhou Dynasty and it has a close relationship with the spiritual world of the Chinese people today. The Investiture of the Gods was written in the Ming Dynasty. It is a highly integration of the Taoism and folklores as well as legends. There are history, Taoism and folk tales in it. For example, it combines the widely known story of Nv Wa and Fu Xi into an integrated work. The Investiture of the Gods is highly representative of the holistic Chinese classics, thus it deserves to be made into a film. The director shall be a Chinese so that the core of the whole story can be captured. I am in my prime years and I am willing to make a try and spend time on it.
CFM: Is there any clear definition of the career as a director? How would you describe it?
W: There is no specific definition and I think it is more of an attitude. I would describe it as treading on thin ice. You know you are walking on ice and you might pass it or fall into the water. Yet you have to try, and it not only needs courage, but also skills. Actually, the process of making every film is like walking on ice. I cannot promise you that I can pass it, yet I know I cannot just stand still. I cannot just stay put.