Friday, March 22, 2013
AGI recently sat down to talk with Director Midi Z and Main Actress Wu Ke-xi about their new film ‘Poor Folk’ (a Taiwan/Myanmar co-production), a drama which focuses on the plight of Burmese refugees and smugglers along the border in Thailand. ‘Poor Folk’ was chosen to be the closing film at the 2013 Pan-Asia Film Festival in London, supported by Asia House, and has also been screened at international film festivals around the world, including Busan, Hawaii, Rotterdam and Vancouver.
AGI: I heard that you were born in Burma but you trained as an artist in Taiwan. Could you tell AGI’s readers a little more about your background and how you got started as a filmmaker?
Z: Yes, I was born in Burma. When I was 16, I remember I went to Taiwan for studying Chinese because my father, my grandfather are Chinese. They moved to Burma after the Second World War and the Taiwanese government had a policy for overseas Chinese. They held an examination for those who were obviously Chinese. If you passed the examination, you got a chance to go to Taiwan for studying Chinese. That’s how I ended up going to Taiwan at 16.
Years after that, I went to university [in Taiwan]. Actually, I didn’t major in filmmaking. I majored in visual design, like fine arts. But when I was in senior high school I had a very rich friendd in Burma. He wanted me to buy a DV camera for him to record his wedding party. He sent money to me to buy the DV camera. I bought it for him, but it was difficult to send it back to Myanmar at that time because the situation was not good. Even a small camera, you couldn’t bring it into the country, so that’s how I got that camera. So I was very familiar with using a camera for shooting. I was just interested.
When I did my graduation work at my university, if you wanted to get a diploma in visual design, you needed to finish a work by yourself, so I started to shoot a short movie in 2005. So my graduation work was a short film about raising pigeons. It was a very experimental film. That film was very lucky because it was chosen by several film festivals like Berlin, London, Busan, in competitions. At that time I started to imagine, okay, maybe I could be a filmmaker. Because for someone like me who came from Burma, the background is very different from Taiwan so in my childhood we didn’t dare to imagine ‘Okay, I want to make a film or I want to be an artist.’ Just, ‘I want to make money.’ That’s all. So after the graduation work, I started to imagine, okay I want to make a film. So, I started learning filmmaking by myself.
Until 2009, there was an academy hosted by [directors] Hou Hsiao-hsien and Ang Lee. It was a short-time workshop [called the Golden Horse Academy]. They choose maybe 16 young directors who had already made a short film. You sent your short film applying for the short-time workshop. And I was chosen by them. I was trained by them for one month. So I was the leader of a short film produced by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Ang Lee. So that one month was very important for me. Because as I said before, I have no training in filmmaking. So in the one month I learned a lot of things, like technical or cinematographic language. But that’s why in 2009 I could make my first feature film, ‘Return to Burma’. And ‘Poor Folk’ is my second feature film.
AGI: Why did you decide to reference a story by Tolstoy for the title of your latest movie?
Z: When I did the research for this story, I went to Thailand, I met a tour guide who was also an illegal immigrant. Every day he read Tolstoy. I asked him which story he liked the most. He said Tolstoy’s “Poor Folk”, a short novel. It’s interesting. So I just used that as the title of the film. Even though the main characters in the film are poor people, they think are lucky, because some characters in Tolstoy’s story are poorer than them.
AGI: How do you feel about the changes that are happening these days in Burma/Myanmar?
Z: We just went there two months ago, for another short film project, organized in China. They invited [directors like] Tsai Ming-liang and me to go to our hometown to shoot a film about the Chinese diaspora. So two months ago I went to Rangoon [Yangon]. There are a lot of changes. Every day, it’s changing very quickly. Especially for the economy, I think it’s very good, it’s improving in a positive way. But for filmmaking, for the lower-class, nothing is changing. It’s just changing for some businessmen – they have more opportunities to invest, to set up their factory or whatever. But it’s not changing for the poor people or common people. Regarding the political situation as well, I think it needs a lot of time to change.
AGI: You have worked together on several projects so far. How did you meet originally and why have you continued to work with each other?
Wu: Before meeting director Midi Z I was a stage actress in Taiwan; also a dancer. The time I met him was when he was in the Golden Horse Academy. After that workshop, they wanted him to make another short film. At the time, his producer and him asked me to have an audition and that’s how we worked together for the first time, on his short film. After that, we just kept working together. I think it was a very new experience to me to work for him because he broke all the rules I have learned when I was a stage actress. The movie’s style was very realistic so in the beginning I was in a big shock as I had to break through all the things I had been taught and be just like a normal person in the film, which I thought was very, very interesting.
AGI: As a Taiwanese woman, was it challenging for you to play a Burmese smuggler in this film? What research did you do to help you prepare for the role?
Wu: Yes, it was very challenging because, first of all, I [had to learn] the dialect, the language, one year before. That part was quite challenging. Before the shooting, I also went there [Burma] for two months, almost three months to spend time with [the local people]. And they all called me ‘San Mei’ which is my name in the film. So we became friends and I lived there to experience their life, because I’m a city person, growing up with TVs and I don’t (hand)wash my clothes like they do! [laughs] I also watched a lot of documentary films about human traffickers and of course the director gave me some papers and information. But the more I knew, the more I became depressed, because it’s a very serious topic. But the people there, they are happy. People were joking. So we had a good time [during the shoot].
AGI: What do you hope people take away from this film?
Wu: Compassion. If you know more about what’s happening in the world, maybe you will have more compassion for people.
AGI: And what’s next for you both?
Wu: We just finished another short film, called Taipei Factory. Four Taiwanese directors with four filmmakers from other countries made four short films together, which will be combined into one feature film. It will be shown in Cannes at the Director’s Fortnight opening screening.
Z: My short film is about Burmese refugees again. There are two main characters. One is played by Wu Ke-xi; the other one is an actress from France, Joanna Preiss.
Interview by Tim Holm