Up until last Friday, you could easily argue that director Wayne Wang had lost his soul. His career began in the early ‘80s with a burst of promise, when he released the critically lauded indie film Chan is Missing, a “semi-documentary” that explored the deep recesses of San Francisco’s Chinatown, a neighborhood where eccentrics dwell and languages mix. An immigrant himself (Wang relocated to the Bay Area from Hong Kong in the 1960s to study film at CalArts), such gritty but accomplished early work became staples of the Chinese-expat-experience genre. Wang was unafraid to examine the malleability of identity, to play with the “Asian-American” label.
“You no longer have any excuse to not make a film—a friend of mine shot an entire feature film on his iPhone.”
But the talented young director soon caught the eyes of big Hollywood execs and fell into the rabbit hole. He achieved his first major picture in 1993 with The Joy Luck Club, based on the bestselling book by Amy Tan, before continuing further into megaplex territory with heartwarmers like Maid in Manhattan, Because of Winn-Dixie, and last year’s Queen Latifah vehicle, Last Holiday.
Now Wang is enjoying a third act, this time as a new-media frontiersman. On October 17th, he released The Princess of Nebraska, a barebones drama about a teenage Chinese immigrant dealing with an unexpected pregnancy. And he released it in an unorthodox way: in YouTube’s Screening Room, in high-definition, for free. The film garnered nearly 200,000 views in one week, making it the biggest online full-length feature release to date (and a clear success when compared with a traditional indie box office release, which is lucky to sell 30,000 tickets).
Wang chose to release the film online as a companion piece to A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, a simultaneous theatrical release that’s the more traditional of the two. Both films are based on elegant short stories by the young Chinese author, Yuyun Li, and explore the lives of recent female immigrants searching for identity and stability in a new country. Told he couldn’t release the films as a double feature by his distributor, Wang and his team turned to other avenues. “We thought, wouldn’t it be fun and a bit revolutionary to take a brand new film by a veteran filmmaker and put it on YouTube?” says Matt Dentler, an executive at Cinetic responsible for brokering the YouTube deal. “The film is now attracting audiences that a theatrical film would never attract—people who don’t live in a major city and would not have a chance to see the movie are flocking to it. This is a good sign for the independent filmmaker, and it’s much like what Radiohead did by giving away their music online. You don’t have to always go the traditional route.”
The Daily Beast spoke to Wang about why the 59-year-old industry veteran decided to make the jump to new media, and why releasing movies on YouTube should be the standard rather than stigmatized.
Why did you choose to release The Princess of Nebraska online, but not A Thousand Years?
Well, Princess was actually shot in a new-media way, which I did even before I knew where I would be releasing it. We shot it on a handheld consumer camera, the kind that anyone can buy in the store. There is also a plotline in which the main character takes video of herself on her cell phone, so we really shot a lot of the film on a phone camera, as a diary. We framed a lot of the shots like YouTube vignettes without even knowing it—very close up and spontaneous. A lot of the shots were blurry, which is just like online video usually is, but also metaphorical; this girl has yet to know who she really is. It really seemed tailor-made for online release, we just didn’t know it at the time.
Why did you return to the subject matter of Chinese immigration?
Over the last 15-20 years, China has been a really major force in the world, whether its economics or immigration or human-rights issues. People aren’t ignoring it anymore, but the experience of Chinese-Americans is still not fully documented, and that’s the angle that I am coming from. I made the two movies to reflect different aspects of that: A Thousand Years is about a middle-aged woman who went through the cultural revolution in China in her youth and was really traumatized by it, so runs away to the U.S. to find a new life. Princess of Nebraska is about a young girl, under 20 and pregnant, who comes to the states with no background for the cultural revolution. She doesn’t know about Tiananmen Square, and really, she has no idea who she is, so she experiments sexually, and with new media. One woman is running away, the other is searching for something—these are two sides of the same story.
Your film is on YouTube, which means snarky YouTube commenters. Does that scare you?
Some of it repels me, but most of it I find interesting. There are always going to be those guys out there who comment, “Hey, she has a nice ass.” But there are some really direct, interesting, thoughtful comments too, that sound like the way people talk to each other after leaving a theater. It adds a whole other communicative element to the film. And if something needs changing with the film, you can! That’s the best part about the Internet, you can go back and alter your work, unlike committing to the sequence of printed movie reels.
Was it strange for you, as a longtime traditional filmmaker, to transition into the digital format?
I’m always looking for the next thing—the old theatrical model is so boring and breaking down. In the film community, people still think that if you shoot digital, it’s a lesser thing. But it’s an amazing medium, and people should not fear it. Music has gone ahead of us and has been completely transformed, but film is the next business to go that way. I don’t think it’s the only option, but it’s a new option and I’m very intrigued by it.
It’s a more democratic way to release a film as well, without the marketing schemes and ticket prices.
I was just back in Asia and telling film students this: You no longer have any excuse to not make a film—a friend of mine shot an entire feature film on his iPhone. You can put it on YouTube, you can put it on Facebook, it can get out there. Internet openings really even the playing field. This isn’t to say that people no longer have to take it very seriously. You just have to adapt to the medium at hand, and make something that works perfectly in that little box.
Plus, you can make a feature film for next to nothing.
It was really cheap—we shot it really guerilla style. It took us about 15 to 17 days to shoot. It was down and dirty, with maximum eight people on the crew. The two most expensive things were story rights and song at the end. The whole endeavor cost what craft services would cost on a big release.