Vivian Qu has plenty of producing credits to her name and is a star in the Chinese independent film community, having produced arthouse films such as Knitting (2008), Night Train (2007) and Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014). But besides producing, the Chinese filmmaker also has a firm hand on creating her own works, having scripted and directed her critically acclaimed debut Trap Street in 2013 and with it, becoming the first Chinese female filmmaker to compete in the Venice Film Festival.
Now, Qu has returned with her sophomore feature Angels Wear White, which opened the 28th Singapore International Film Festival this week and the film has been nominated for three of the most prestigious accolades, including Best Director and Best Feature Film, at the prestigious 2017 Golden Horse Awards. Starring 14-year old Best Actress nominee Vicky Chen, Angels Wear White follows the lives of three girls following a sexual assault, as they plunge into a deceitful world of lies and shadows. We spoke to Vivian about the concept behind her newest film and the independent cinema scene in China. Read the interview in full below:
Bakchormeeboy: How was Angels Wear White conceptualized?
Vivian: Angels Wear White was written in response to the many similar sexual assault cases reported in the news. Although there there were many reports, too often you only ever hear the beginning of it but nothing thereafter. I started to wonder why, and my film thus focuses not on the assault itself, but what happens to the victims and witnesses after. Its Chinese title 嘉年华 is a direct phonetic translation of ‘Carnival’, and I wanted to show how we live in such a busy, carnival-esque era where sometimes we end up neglecting the truly important things. In addition, the characters themselves translate to ‘beautiful years’, and I wanted to bring across the idea that the way these cases are being handled, the best years of these girls lives are being taken away from them.
Angels really deals with the idea of women in contemporary society. It begins with the sexual assault but doesn’t stop there, exploring how society handles the fallout, and how they either turn away or choose to turn a blind eye to the victims. and i tried to explore why this was happening. A lot of women, no matter how educated, are still affected by and victims of such cases even while living in a modern society.
Bakchormeeboy: What pushed you to start directing films after having produced for so long?
Vivian: I first started producing films 10 years ago to help out my friends, as back then, the independent filmmaking scene in China was very difficult. Many young people have ideas, but often lacked the means to finance or even find a team to make the film. After producing three films, I realized that if I didn’t start directing then, it’d be a while before I next got the opportunity to. I took a break from producing and made Trap Street,
Bakchormeeboy: In a previous interview, you mentioned that the child actors weren’t given the full script, what with the mature and heavy nature of the film. What was the process of working with these actors like?
Vivian: Vicky Chen, who plays Mia, only got to read her half of the script. Her character is a runaway child trying to make an extra $5 every day, where all she cares about is her survival. I wanted to focus on how she reacted after witnessing the assault, and didn’t want to distract her acting with the other themes of the film, since she’s so young and she couldn’t fully understand the fully impact of the film, but she still managed to give a very strong performance.
As for the other actress Meijun, we didn’t give her the script at all, instead just filming scene by scene and giving her simple descriptions, like a fight with her ‘mother’. All her scenes are about her changing relationship with her parents, and I changed her script to fit her age and make sure she understood. Interestingly, it was still a very emotional role for her, and after the film, she became less naive, and more considerate, realizing that there were children her age who experience pain and difficulty in finding love.
Bakchormeeboy: What has the journey of being an independent filmmaker in China been like for you?
Vivian: China doesn’t have the tradition of seeing films in cinemas, at least not till the last 5 years. And even then, people still mostly go to see commercial blockbusters, so there’s still a very long way to go to encourage a Chinese audience to see different kinds of films. People need to learn that there are films out there that can be good without being pure entertainment, but it’s not a common understanding and an uphill battle for independent cinema. In China, we don’t really have dedicated arthouse cinemas, so we’re not getting as much of a reach as the commercial films, and even the places where they’re released, they still have to compete against the commercial films released in the same cinema, which often have better time slots and more screenings.
Bakchormeeboy: Being an experienced producer, how can independent film continue to have a wider reach?
Vivian: We do extensive tours all around the country, targeting specific audiences and drawing in the arthouse cinema lovers. Most of our reach is built up via word of mouth because we don’t have big stars or a lot of money, so it’s really supported by the fans. Nowadays, there’s also many small festivals we bring the films to, and even private organizations who end up doing a selection of arthouse film screenings.
Bakchormeeboy: Finally, what advice do you have for any aspiring filmmakers out there?
Vivian: Be true to your heart and make a film you really want to make. If this was the only chance you were given to make a film, make it count by choosing the best thing you want to make and do it.
SGIFF 2017 runs from 23rd November to 3rd December across various cinemas and venues. More information and ticket sales available from their website.