Below is the English transcript of an interview with Evans Chan 陳耀成 conducted by Stefan Borsos for the German magazine Cine Asia. The German version will appear in the fall of 2002.
Stefan Borsos to Evans Chan: Your director's cut of "Bauhinia 紫荊," as expected, is richer and more complex than the 21-minute version [presented as part of the RTHK commissioning dramatic shorts at the 2002 Hong Kong Film Festival]. I really liked it! I was especially impressed by the latter part after Jack, Bauhinia's boyfriend, leaves town. This portion is considerably longer and more detailed than the short version, making Bauhinia's fears/thoughts/doubts more immediate and palpable (e.g through her dialogue with Liz, her school instructor, or the horrible Anthrax deaths she reads about in the newspaper). Furthermore, with more space for Bauhina's school friend to debate China's one-child policy with her, I think your treatment of this subject is more balanced. So, here are my questions:
1. How did the "Bauhinia" project come about? And how did you come to pick China's one-child policy as a subject and tie it in with a couple's troubled romance and a woman's unplanned pregnancy?
"Bauhinia" is part of a 10-episode Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) commissioned drama series for Hong Kong's independent filmmakers, to be aired in the spring of 2002. After I was approached to submit a proposal in mid-2001, I looked for an idea that I thought I knew something about. And I decided to set the story in New York, where I've been living, off and on, for more than a decade. China's one-child policy is very much an issue that most New Yorkers are familiar with. One manifestation of the policy concerns the high rate of adoption of Chinese female infants - who are deserted by Chinese parents who want a boy -- by American couples, and there are lots of such families living on the Upper West Side, which is my neighbourhood. I also have some immigration lawyer friends who could provide me with case studies of asylum-seekers based on their claim of persecution due to population control. I'm generally sympathetic to the one-child policy. China's overpopulation is a legacy of Mao's irrational, defiant ignorance, and most people agree that control has already kicked in too late. However, I'm also aware of the human cost of such a policy. Just last year I visited a village in southern China and was shown a house whose door and water and electricity meters were sealed - because the household violated the state policy by having an extra grandson. There was even a rectangular hole on the wall through which the family returned home secretly. Another serious side effect of one-child policy has been female infanticide, which is believed to be alarmingly widespread in rural China.
The original story of "Bauhinia" centers on the tension between the documentary about one-child policy that the female protagonist, Bauhinia, is making, and the fact that she ends up becoming pregnant herself. Abortion is an emotional issue. In the US, the Christian fundamentalists have whipped up hysterical campaigns, which have even led to lethal, not so "pro-life" incidents like the assassination of abortion doctors. My way of balancing the material was to create a school friend character, played by Hong Kong theatre director Chan Ping Chiu 陳炳釗, who argues with Bauhinia about the necessity of the one-child policy.
The possible arrival of a new life always stirs
up unsettling questions in the lives of modern men, or more particularly
- modern women. It impacts a couple's relationship and a woman's vision
of her life. It's not an easy question to begin with.
I was in New York during 9/11 and I followed the unfolding of events through radio and television from the time the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Through my window I could see smoke rising in lower Manhattan. A week later, the wind blew uptown and I could smell the acrid odors of death and destruction. It was entirely unreal and traumatizing. A neighbour in my building is missing because she worked at the Windows on the World restaurant (located at the top floor of Tower 2). Then I know many, many victims who were just one degree removed from me - friends or relatives of my friends. It was a horrific incident and the communal depression in New York reminded me of Hong Kong after the 1989 Tian'anmen Massacre. (I guess I'm more a veteran of candlelight vigils than most New Yorkers.) However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to talk about 9/11 because of our knowledge, or hindsight, of America's Middle East policies and the way Bush and Ashcroft are turning America into a police state. Recently I met a guy in Korea who compared Jenin to Ground Zero and charged a double standards in our disproportionate concern for the 9/11 victims. There have also been increasing complaints about survivors of 9/11 victims receiving disproportionate financial compensation. And of course, Bin Laden is now the biggest rock star of the Muslim world. I am as aware as anyone that one person's terrorist could be another's freedom-fighter. However, I do hope that nobody would say that those people in the twin towers deserved to die. In "Bauhinia," I used the incident apolitically -- to convey a sense of mankind's violence-prone nature as well as the unpredictability of fate. My film is also a modest elegy for some 9/11 victims, especially Asians.
3. In what way did the 9/11 attacks influence your film? Was there some kind of urge to either express yourself or comment on the 9/11 incident? And why did you choose to combine your original idea/story with the 9/11 aftermath, instead of doing a separate piece on 9/11?
The original "Bauhinia" was supposed to go into production in October, 2001. Then 9/11 happened. Bernardo Chow 周文淇, my male lead from "The Map of Sex and Love 情色地圖" refused to come to New York, while Victor Ma 馬才和, another male lead from "The Map," was willing to come but in the end passed up my offer because of a schedule conflict. Meanwhile CC Wong, who was the female lead in my Off-Broadway stage play "The Naked Earth," left New York in a panic with her baby because they lived too close to Ground Zero and she was worried about her baby's health. As a matter of fact, "Bauhinia" is vaguely based on CC's personal story and the plan was for her to be the female lead in the film. During the process of reassembling the cast and rescheduling our production plan, I was living through the aftermath of 9/11 in New York. Understandably the events were working their way through my subconscious. After all, halfway through the story, Jack, Bauhinia's boyfriend, leaves town. I thought that having Bauhinia cut adrift in a 9/11-devastated New York would make a stronger dramatic impact. Incorporating 9/11 into the background of the film seems logical to me since "Bauhinia" deals with the pain and uncertainty of bringing, or not bringing, life into this world. Where can you find a more appropriate setting than Ground Zero for the female protagonist to grapple with the question of life and death? For me, Bauhinia is almost like a female Hamlet.
It didn't occur to me then to make another film, tell another story about 9/11. (That may or may not happen in the future.) To begin with, I wouldn't be the ideal documentarian to make such a film, since I don't lay claim to any expertise on the Middle East conflict nor American foreign policies other than that I'm a concerned Asian New Yorker. 9/11 came to possess "Bauhinia" and kept expanding the story - that was an honest and partly involuntary creative response from my part. I don't think I was expressing any personal , i.e. political, opinions about 9/11 through the story except my sorrow for the victims.
4. How did you find your actors? And are you happy with their performances?
I found Shing Ka 賈勝 , who plays Jack, through Jadine Wong, the most important agent for Asians in New York. Shing arrived in New York from Hong Kong at the age of 10 and speaks Cantonese with a decent accent. But his syntax is a bit off and understandably he isn't familiar with more current expressions. I had to coach his Cantonese. His appealing persona was a great help and he did a fine job. It was actually the woman interviewee character that worried me most because I was told it would be impossible to find a mainland actress willing to play a role that decries the horror of coercive abortion in China. As a program consultant to New York's Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America, I had seen Yi Ling Li 李依凌 in a Yangtze production. So I gave her a call without much expectation. Fortunately, she said OK after some momentary hesitation. Then she asked me to fax her the script. Once she spotted Bauhinia's monologue at the beginning, she recommended her younger sister Jun Li 李珺 for the part. That was another stroke of luck. Both of the Li sisters are half Han Chinese and half Bai, a minority found in the South Western province of Yunnan. And both of them were trained in ethnic dance in Yunnan and then did a lot of TV work in Beijing before arriving in New York two years ago. As it turned out, Jun Li once spent two years in Guangzhou, so she had some basic Cantonese. Moreover, she is a fast learner. Anything I gave her, she could deliver to my satisfaction in 15 minutes. Her final transformation took place when Gill Wong 黃知敏 , my production designer from "The Map of Sex and Love," arrived in New York to redesign her image, to give her a hipper, more cosmopolitan look. Her performance became so convincing that even director Ann Hui asked me whether Jun is really a film student in New York. Working with Jun is a joy - the joy of seeing a gifted actress getting under the skin of the character and bringing it to life, which for me is always one of the most thrilling experiences of playwriting and filmmaking.
5. Why did you choose the Bauhinia plant as a central metaphor for the film?
Bauhinia is the emblematic flower of Hong Kong. Ever since my biology class at high school, I always thought it would make a nice name for a girl. It was some years ago that I came across the fact that Bauhinia is a plant that has no use for cross-pollination; its reproduction is actually of the clonal kind. Some people suggested that by naming my female protagonist Bauhinia, I'm implying that (post-handover) Hong Kong won't have a future, won't have a legacy. But my interest lies in Bauhinia's metaphoric resonance for our global middle class, which breeds a growing number of childless couples. Increasingly contemporary men and women pursue personal fulfillment by defying the biological destiny of the human species, which is to procreate.
6. Can you talk about the scene in which Bauhinia, while reading a story about a Buddhists prayer service for the 9/11 victims, begins to wonder if she's carrying a dead soul from Ground Zero? And how does that idea jive with the fact that she has a miscarriage at the end?
I came across the Buddhist service story in the New York Times and kept the clipping, not knowing that I would end up using it in a scene in "Bauhinia." That particular Buddhist service, taking place on the 49th day -- the end of the 7th of seven-day cycles -- was meant to help ease the deceased's passage into their next lives. 9/11 is a global event with multi-national and -racial victims and such a service appearing in multi-cultural New York is unsurprising. (I also include shots of Buddhist prayer calligraphy pasted onto the Ground Zero memorial.) Most Hong Kong Chinese have some contact with Buddhism. Hence Bauhinia's monologue when she wonders whether she was carrying a dead soul from Ground Zero. Yet, unless I'm making a horror or fantastical film, I don't see how I can push that thought literally.
7. Can you comment on the ending of your film? Why does the film end that way?
"Bauhinia" has a qualified happy ending.
Some critics have compared it to "Crossings," my second feature,
which also tells a story about a pregnant Hong Kong woman alone in New
York. Even if "Bauhinia" deals with some tremendously heavy
material, "Crossings" is probably a darker film. I guess one
does look for consolation in a world that hurts, that leaves a void in
our hearts or a gigantic hole in one's adopted city. Instead of having
a baby, we saw Bauhinia and Jack walking along the Brooklyn Bridge with
their new puppy. And at the end of "Bauhinia," we see the two
blue light poles that commemorated the collapsed twin towers at Ground
Zero. Throughout the film, I used Milos Raickovich's sonata for piano,
elegantly performed by Nancy Loo 羅乃新 . I broke the piano soundtrack only
once with Joni Mitchell's "Blue," which I think evokes a time
in Mitchell's life when she had to give up her daughter for adoption -
hence its relevance for Bauhinia's situation -- and of course there was
this line in her lyrics: "an empty space to fill in." I used
this piano piece of Milos's because of its lyricism, shadowy dramatic
overtones, and touches of melancholy. Later I found out that Milos wrote
the piece at a time when he was carrying on a long-distance, ultimately
frustrating romance with an Asian woman. So there was quite a bit of angst,
uncertainty and yearning in the music. Nancy herself observed that Milos's
piece is quite dark. "It keeps building up to something that isn't
there," she said. We all build our lives toward something. But where
might we actually land we never can tell. In the film, Bauhinia's worst
nightmare might be over, but there's still a hole in her dream.
From its commissioned 21 minutes, "Bauhinia" grew to 50 minutes. At first I suggested to RTHK that they should show it in its entirety or divide it into two episodes. But the slotting was arranged a year ahead, so there was no chance for "Bauhinia" to be shown in its unabridged form. It isn't too difficult to trim it down. All I had to do was to focus on the romance, shorten and compress scenes, take out most of the interview footage, and remove details about 9/11. The short version was broadcast in mid-April and seemingly well-received. However, the longer version represents my personal vision for the film. And Ying E Chi, the independent distribution collective in Hong Kong, will screen the director's cut at the Hong Kong Arts Centre in September of 2002.
9. Were there other constraints apart from the condition concerning the length?
Had there been more resources available,
"Bauhinia" might well become a full-length feature. However,
I think that's the best I could do given the kind of budget RTHK made
available to a 21-minute piece, and everyone involved was proud of what
we had done. Personally it is at least a kind of transcription, or creative
transformation, of my experience as an expatriate Hong Kong filmmaker
impacted by 9/11. I guess one important impulse for my creative work is
to bear witness to our age, be it in the form of documentary or fiction.
In this way, "Bauhinia" is consistent with my other films.
Commissioned by Radio Television Hong Kong as part of an independently produced short drama series, "Bauhinia 紫荊" was supposed to go into production in New York in October, 2002. Then the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks destroyed the World Trade Centre and thrust New York into a state of high alert. My production plan collapsed. My male lead (Bernardo Chow from "The Map of Sex and Love") refused to travel to New York, and my New York-based female lead (CC Wong from my play "The Naked Earth") returned to Singapore in a panic with her new-born infant. As I reassembled my cast in New York, I knew that the city would never be the same and that I wanted my story to reflect the new realities of a lethally globalized century. My original script focused on the dramatic tensions between Bauhinia, the female protagonist, her troubled romance, her unplanned pregnancy, and the documentary film she was making. But now the fallout of 9/11 came to possess the story like an irrepressible alien in a sci-fi film -- possibly because "Bauhinia," after all, deals with the pain and responsibility of bringing -- or not bringing -- new life into this world.
Weighing her decision at the edge of Ground Zero, the site of 9/11 devastation, Bauhinia became, in my view, a female Hamlet, fighting for the survival of destruction-prone humanity. And since Bauhinia is the name of Hong Kong's city flower, one question inevitably crops up following its screening: Does the fate of the female protagonist symbolize the situation of Hong Kong? For me, my interest lies in examining the uneasy trend of contemporary women and men living in industrialized countries who seek personal fulfillment by defying the procreational mandate of nature.
Hong Kong, with its declining birth rate, definitely fits into that equation. Influenced by the 9/11 incident, "Bauhinia" grew from its commissioned length of 21 minutes to 50 minutes. However, as agreed, a 21-min version was delivered to RTHK and broadcast in Hong Kong in mid-April, 2002.
--- Evans Chan 陳耀成