Wayne Wang: "In my career I've been avoiding being put inside a box"

by Gabriel Lerman October 23, 2020
Wayne Wang

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Wayne Wang is one of the pioneers of Asian-American cinema and had a huge hit with The Joy Luck Club, the film that showed Hollywood studios that audiences were not afraid of an Asian cast if the story was good. But he was just as good adapting Paul Auster's complex New York stories to the screen in the memorable Smoke (and its companion, piece Blue in the Face, co-directed with Auster). Wang has directed films in China and Japan, and also Hollywood films such as Maid in Manhattan and Because of Winn-Dixie. If his goal as a filmmaker has been to avoid typecasting, as he says in this interview, certainly the 71-year-old Hong-Kong native who moved to the US at 17 to study photography, can say that he has achieved it. Always experimenting, Wang started to plan Coming Home Again, his latest venture, as a virtual reality film. Shot entirely in an apartment in San Francisco where he currently lives, the movie tells the story of a man (Justin Chon) trying to cook a perfect Korean meal for his dying mother (Jackie Chung), exactly as she always prepared it for him while he was growing up.

Justin Chon in “Coming Home Again” (2019)

Justin Chon in Coming Home Again (2019)


Is the title of the film, Coming Home Again, also referring to your filmmaking? It seems like it’s a return to your origins in a way.

Yes, I think that’s about right, although I have made a few very small independent films. I did a documentary a few years ago about food. But this one is more a storytelling film, going back to the sort of films I used to make in the beginning – it’s very independent, it was made with fewer than 15 people, shot over 3 weeks, on a very low budget, but with me having the complete control to do what I like to do.

It sounds like you have a few scars from your studio film experiences...

No matter what you do, even with complete control, you have to compromise. With studio movies, I would have to say that you have different compromises, sometimes more than you want. Sometimes you can kind of work through it, and I don’t mind some of them, but sometimes it’s really hard, although I don’t see those as 100 percent negative, because I made the choice to make those films, and to learn through them how to reach a larger audience while still keeping my authenticity. 

But it seems that in the last few years, you have stayed away from them like independent films are closer to your heart. 

They’re definitely closer to my heart. And also making a studio film is very, very draining. And I’m getting too old for that. (laughs)

In that sense, this was a perfect kind of film, because I know that you filmed it in only one location, three blocks from your house. Was it the perfect setting?

It was the perfect setting. I walked to work every morning. I brought my own little sandwiches – I did that on Smoke too. I have a small crew, I know everyone, I like to talk to everyone, it’s really a dream come true. And like I said, I can do anything: I can say to the producer, “I don’t feel like in the right headspace today to shoot,” and then we don’t shoot. (laughs)

Wayne Wang on the set of “Coming Home Again” (2019)

Wayne Wang on the set of Coming Home Again (2019)


Why did you want to tell this story about a man caring for his dying mother?

Well, I read the short story in The New Yorker quite a while ago, and I sort of put it in the back of my head, because I was very moved by it. And then my own mother passed away maybe 6 or 7 years ago, and the last part of her journey was difficult. She was already in a home, and I had to slowly watch her kind of deteriorate. My wife also took care of her a lot of times. I remember reading a book by Atul Gawande, writing about his own father’s eventually dying of cancer, but not wanting to go through more chemo and whatnot. So all those things kind of came together, and then Don Young, the producer, and I were trying to make a virtual reality film, with a VR camera and I could not figure out how to tell a story by seeing the back of my head at the same time all the time. (laughs) Then Don said, “My grandmother passed away a couple of years ago at a nice old San Francisco apartment near my house, we can shoot in that.” And I just said, “Let’s do it.”

For a while, you held a position in Hollywood that could have made you really, really rich.  But now it seems that you are going for experimentation more than anything. Why?

I don’t know that it would have made me very, very rich. (laughs) But profitable enough that I could make a living and be able to do what I want to do. I came out of art college, and I came out of teachers who were into experimenting with things, being truly independent in that way. And as far as this film goes, I was very influenced many, many years ago when I was a student and I saw Jeanne Dielman by Chantal Akerman. That film has always stayed with me, and I really wanted to make a film where the narrative and the storytelling are very different from the standard: it’s not like Hollywood where it’s more about cause and effect, where it’s always about drama, and it’s Act One, Act Two, Act Three. This film is more about the process, the process of preparing a dinner for your dying mother, the same kind of dinner that she cooked for her family every year on New Year’s Eve. 

Now in the film, there is a theme that you have touched before in other movies, which is “food is love.” Is that connected with your own experiences as a kid?

Yeah, I was a very fat boy when I was young because I loved to eat. (laughs). And my grandmother and my mother have always made beautiful, delicious food that I enjoy eating. With both Koreans and Chinese, the family dinner is very important – it’s not just weekends or whatever, it’s every night – and everything always happens around food.  So in that sense, food is pretty much the key element in those cultures. Also, my mother did not know how to show affection, so even later on when she was getting old, when I saw her, she would just shake my hand. That’s how she was brought up and that’s how she was. But she would make me these very special kinds of dumplings which I loved, which were very, very difficult and took a long time to make, but she made them because she knew that I really liked them. But meanwhile, she would only shake my hand. Towards the end of our relationship, we had nothing to say to each other, but there was a lot of emotion. I remember sitting in the courtyard where she sat in the sun when it was nice, and we just sat for an hour without saying anything. The silence was very, very emotional.

I think silence is something you enjoy in films...

Yeah, I enjoy it a lot. It’s related to not wanting to have something happening all the time. I think my character is very anxious. I remember, during the Hollywood studio years, I was going to a doctor because I wasn’t feeling well all the time, not seriously ill, but just always never having any energy, tiredness, headaches. And he said, “You know, you are not breathing right, you have to breathe from your stomach; take your time to breathe, you are not breathing right.” And I know where that comes from, it’s from the stress, and the films too, because in the Hollywood films, usually at a certain point of the editing process, the producer will usually come over and say “Oh, this character isn’t doing anything or saying anything here, just cut it out.” If you do that to all these scenes, the film doesn’t breathe, in the same way, that I wasn’t breathing. And I really wanted now to just let the image breathe.

Do you think Asian-American cinema is finally taking the place it deserves?

I don’t think so. Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, they were romantic comedies that were quite good, but they are still in that sort of Hollywood mode. I would rather see more authentic Asian-Americans portrayed in a really realistic way, not in a way that tries to please an audience. That’s just me – I think it’s more important. I think the same thing with Black American films or Latino films, I think that I wish there were more films that were almost like authentic documentaries, but also interesting about the characters’ lives, that’s what people need to see and understand. 

It’s interesting that you did a Latino film, Maid in Manhattan, and you also did an African-American one. Do you see similarities between the Asian-American experience and the other ones?

No. (laughs) I think in my whole career, I was trying to avoid being put inside a box. In the film industry, and especially in Hollywood, they keep putting you back into that box in a certain way. Maid in Manhattan, it’s about a Latina maid, Last Holiday was about a Black woman – it’s how I got boxed into working with ethnic leading ladies in romantic comedies, and that was the box that I got put in. I couldn’t get out of it at that time, so one of the ways was I just got out. I simply just got out of making the studio films that were out there after Last Holiday

Do you think that when your father named you Wayne, he started your Asian-American connection?

My father was really into American films and he loved John Wayne. And the interesting thing about my name is that I got my Chinese name first because you have to get the Chinese name so that it fits into the family tree and the family tradition of names. My father was King of the Forest so there was a theme of wood, my brother was Prince of the Forest, and I had to have a name that was part of the family tradition, so he found a word that means “the young bud,” the young beginning of a tree. That word sounds like Wayne. And so when he had to give me an English name, he said “Oh yeah, give him Wayne, because it sounds like a Chinese word too.” So that is how it came about. Maybe what is more influential is that when I was young, he used to take me to movies. And I just remember the experience of sitting there eating popcorn, which is sweet in Hong Kong, it’s not salty, and the lights go out and you sit there in the darkness and something comes on the screen and you begin to have a dream, so to speak, and that experience of movie going, that is why I love the cinema so much. 

When people check your name on IMDB, they still put Smoke next to it, even though you have done so many films. What are your memories of your years with Paul Auster and making that special film and the other one, Blue in the Face?

That was a very special experience. It was right after The Joy Luck Club came out, which was the first film that was very popular to a wider audience. It goes back to not being boxed in with a stereotype because I knew that they would box me in with Asian-American films. So I jumped out of the box, and I made a film that’s really about Black and Jewish and Caucasians, who are separate and yet kind of connection as a family. I enjoyed working with Paul Auster, who walked with me all over Brooklyn to show me all the different places that he wrote about. I really enjoyed that kind of building process of understanding a place of culture and people. I made a very interesting film. It was a very difficult film, every actor in that film was difficult, but we made it. (laughs)