With his long hair and beard, Johnny Ma looks more like an indie rocker than a Chinese film director. (The fact that his name is nearly identical to Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr doesn’t help matters, either.) But it might also be because he still doesn’t see himself as a Chinese director – despite making two Chinese films. Ma was born in Shanghai but moved to Canada as a child and is quick to say no when we ask if he considers himself a Chinese filmmaker.
After graduating in Canada, Ma came back to China, working first in finance then in fashion before a near-death experience jolted him into reconsidering his life. 'I was in India and caught a very deadly virus that would have killed me at 25,' he says. 'I realised if I did die at that point, I would be known as just a guy who worked at that fashion company and was good at making money.'
He decided to study film at Columbia University and returned to China to shoot the short film A Grand Canal in 2013 as his student thesis. 'When I made my short film in China, I felt like what I wanted to express was successful. I felt like at that moment, if something happened to me, someone would say, "Okay, who is Johnny Ma?" and look at that film and they’d know who I was.'
Besides helping him make peace with death, the film toured a host of festivals and has now been made available as a Staff Pick on Vimeo. Shot in an industrial river town in Jiangsu, the movie’s about a boat captain trying to collect a debt from the most powerful man in town and the effect it has on his family.
A Grand Canal
'We made that film like a ’90s Chinese movie. We made that a conscious choice. I think I’d seen Jia Zhangke
movies before then, but I was never in love with them. Somehow, coming back, I educated myself in ’90s Chinese cinema: Lou Ye
, Jia Zhangke
, Jiang Wen, everybody. And I watched them in a much more visceral way,' Ma explains. The film’s homage to ’90s China goes beyond film, with a vintage Liu Huan pop song serving as a key part of the plot.
Ma even went so far as to shoot A Grand Canal on 16mm film, which he could only get from Taiwan: 'We were so poor... we had 22 reels, and basically we were going to have a Taiwanese tour group each carry one through customs. Luckily enough a friend of our friend found out we were doing this and said, "You cannot give film to people who don’t know how to handle it!"'
A Grand Canal
While this all may make it sound as if the film is a slavish recreation of older Chinese movies, it’s not. It deftly manages to pay homage without falling into imitation, and similarly comes close to the edge of maudlin sentimentality without crossing the line thanks to an interesting meta-cinematic twist. The short ultimately helped Ma put together his debut full-length feature, last year’s Old Stone. That film, a crime thriller about a cab driver in a lower-tier city who hits a motorcyclist and is dumb enough to take responsibility for it, was released to strong reviews in the US but still hasn’t come out in China.
So was the movie blocked from release here because of its despairing portrayal of Chinese society and bureaucracy? It turns out to be something much simpler. Chinese authorities approved the film, but as Ma explains, 'the only reason why the film hasn’t come out in Chinese theatres is the film belongs to a Chinese investor, and it’s up to them. It’s a business decision... I don’t have a star in my film and it’s a film that’s a little dark.'
Its darkest elements will feel familiar to anyone who’s read about (or experienced) China’s issues with traffic accidents and helping strangers. Still, Ma says he was inspired by an incident in another country where a truck driver ran over a farmer, then backed up over him when he realised nobody was watching.
'I think what made this story interesting,' Ma explains, 'was that when the cops asked him, he said it in basically the most practical way: "I did what I did because it would have been worse if this guy were alive." He told the truth in some way. And that scared me so much because I completely understood his thought process. That’s a reasonable man, but that’s a dangerous man because he’s a killer... That’s the moment I realised this was a story.' As the film’s been released in the West but not here, it’s open to a common criticism of independent Chinese movies: that they peddle a miserable version of China more in line with negative news coverage than reality. It’s an argument Ma’s familiar with, but rejects.
'I actually wanted to do this as my second film and shoot it in America, because I didn’t want the conversation to be like this can only happen in China,' he says. ‘When our reviews came out, that was always the first thing in the first paragraph and I hated it. And then I realised that’s how they sell, make people read it... It’s more interesting, though, especially when we show it in Germany, or even the States, where they can see that happening in their own places.’
Ma discusses the practical side of making movies in a way that betrays his business background, but when the topic of ethics and empathy comes up, he can sound downright evangelical about the effect of film. 'It’s up to the audience to think about how they behave the next day,' he tells us. ‘If this film can make the audience think about the next time where they could do something to help somebody and they don’t, just makes them think twice about that, I think that’s all you can do with cinema. Just make them change their mind a little bit.'
Watch the film here [VPNs on].