Even if you’ve never heard of the late director Wu Tianming, you’ve almost certainly felt his influence. As the head of Xi’an Film Studio in the ’80s, Wu was responsible for nurturing the talent that would change Chinese film. He helped launch the careers of a generation of seminal directors, including Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. Despite this, Wu Tianming always saw himself as a filmmaker first and producer second, only agreeing to take charge of the studio if he was still given enough time to make his own movies.
‘He accepted the job, but later he found it was really taking a lot of energy from his directing; he wanted to quit. After that, they wanted to appoint him to the head of the film bureau in China. He said, “I don’t want to do it. I’m a film director, I don’t want to be a politician,”’ says Wu’s daughter Yanyan. When we meet Wu Yanyan, she’s busy preparing for the release of her father’s last film, finished just before he died in 2014. The film, Song of the Phoenix, was inspired by the same drive that led Wu to succeed in, but at the same time want to leave, his post at the head of Xi’an Film Studio: a passion for filmmaking.
‘This film is about... him as a film artist, as a film director, how he felt in his heart about this whole culture, about the industry,’ Wu explains. ‘He felt angry. He felt that the art itself was kind of losing its essence.’
Song of the Phoenix is about a master suona (a Chinese woodwind instrument) player dismayed by a culture increasingly in thrall to cheap modern entertainments rather than his traditional art form, and his begrudging attempts to pass that art form to the next generation. Any similarities to the state of modern Chinese film, where short-term profits are vastly more important than artistry, are clearly not coincidental.
The state of Chinese film is something Wu long had a stake in. He didn’t just help enable the first wave of artistically worthwhile Mainland films since the revolution; he made some of the most important ones. His 1983 film River Without Buoys was one of the first to tackle the scars of the Cultural Revolution, while 1987’s Old Well, about a man trying to bring water to his village, was both a domestic and international award-winning hit.
In 1989, however, Wu – who’d gained notoriety for his tussles with Government bureaucrats and censors – was travelling abroad and found himself unable to go home. In the aftermath of the political crackdown in China that year, friends had advised him not to return. For years, he and his family found themselves struggling to make ends meet while living in Los Angeles.
‘I was working part-time in a karaoke place from four in the afternoon to four in the morning,’ Wu Yanyan tells us. ‘My father didn’t have any money so he went and opened a video store. But before he opened the video store, because my father was a really good cook, someone suggested, “Hey, Uncle Sam” – they called him Uncle Sam – “why don’t you just make some dumplings and sell them to your friends? Then you can make some money and live off of that.” So he did it for one week and my father said, “I can’t stand this!” He’s an artist, right? But back then he had nothing to do. Deep down, I think he was very sad about the whole situation.’
When Wu was finally able to return to China in the mid-’90s, he did so with a resounding success, directing his most internationally famous film, King of Masks (1996). Wu’s passion for film, meanwhile, had infected his daughter. ‘I didn’t think I was going to be in the film business,’ she says. ‘I thought I would be a fashion designer, so in the US I studied fashion. But deep down, I wanted to study film. My father disagreed, because he thought it was a really hard job to do. I fought with him for three years, and I sort of secretly studied film.’
As Wu Yanyan’s career developed, her father grew disappointed in the state of Chinese film. ‘I think now, when I look back,’ she tells us, ‘he wanted to do that movie [Song of the Phoenix] because it’s how he felt as an artist. It is about faith. He felt that China was a country that lacked faith and conviction. He wanted to shoot this movie, and I fought with him. I told him he’d spend two years to do it, and the current Chinese market wouldn’t accept this kind of movie. He smacked the table and said, “I’m just going to make it, dammit! I’m not making this for the present; I’m making this for the future!”’
Soon after the final cut of the film was finished, Wu Tianming passed away from a heart attack, leaving his daughter responsible for it. ‘It’s been chosen as an official selection for many international film festivals,’ she says. ‘I went to the festivals, I’ve watched the film ten times already, and each time I watched it, I felt deeper and deeper why he wanted to shoot it... Each time I was moved by it, by the message in it. Now I understand why.’
Initially hobbled by a lack of funds, she’s been able to finally bring the film to cinemas this year thanks to volunteers from across the movie industry stepping up in memory of Wu Tianming. ‘Almost 100 people volunteered. Everyone’s like: we want to do this. We want to attract more audiences to see the movie.’ ‘From nowhere, people have come up to me and wanted to help... I just feel like this year, my father’s light is shining down.’
By Aaron Fox-Lerner