While Hollywood still dominates the exploding robot segment of China’s movie market, comedy has been owned by local directors. Beijing-based Dayyan Eng’s latest entry hopes for big box office with Wished.
Director Dayyan Eng (伍仕贤) occupies a unique space among Chinese filmmakers. Born in Taiwan, raised in Beijing, educated at the University of Washington and a graduate of Beijing Film Academy, Eng moves between English and Mandarin Chinese with ease. His unique background and heritage have given him the opportunity to make significant in-roads into China’s film industry. Six years after his drama Inseparable, which starred Kevin Spacey, Eng returns to his comic roots with Wished (反转人生). It’s a Chinese film fan’s movie, featuring the onscreen reunion between In The Heat of the Sun‘s Xia Yu and Ning Jing, along with numerous other touches Chinese movie geeks will appreciate. Eng even makes a cameo, looking like a Chinese-inflected mash-up of Seth Rogen and Kevin Smith. CFI talked with him about his latest work.
CFI: Set the film up for us.
Eng: Wished (反转人生) is a fun summer movie, with good English subtitles (laughs)! It’s a story about a guy who feels like he’s lost direction in life, and just when he is feeling the most depressed, an Earth Goddess (a Chinese deity) shows up telling him she’s going to make his past wishes come true – but which ones? He and the audience don’t know, which is where the comedy and surprises come from. The film is about life and happiness, and while sometimes we can’t control destiny, we can control what we make of it and maybe along the way figure out what it really is that can make our own lives happy.
CFI: How tough is the comedy market in China? Is a comedy audience more difficult to please than action or drama?
Eng: I think comedy is the hardest to make these days, and in general, harder to please audiences. Audiences here are getting really picky, some rightly so, but also in some ways the last couple years has been tough for the market for any film, even some imported big films. Look at Wonder Woman. There will always be the haters out there who troll and bitch about everything that comes on screen. But we’ve been lucky for the most part so far, audiences who have seen the film in advance screenings seem to really like it. The “masses” are who I made this film for anyway. It’s a fun summer popcorn fantasy/comedy that’s meant to entertain.
CFI: Are you pleased with how the film turned out? What was the biggest surprise?
Eng: Yes, I’m pleased, it was the best experience I’ve had so far in my career because while my previous films were fun on set with the actors, there were issues behind the scenes that no one else knew about, dealing with unprofessional financiers etc that was very depressing and disappointing. This time, the studios involved, the producers, distributors were all very professional and they’ve all been very supportive and have been doing a good job on their end as well.
The biggest surprise for me, while we did the tour cross-country to promote the film, is that we had so many audiences in small towns and mid-size cities turn out to see the film and genuinely seemed to enjoy the film, they also seemed to really connect to the theme of the movie. We had many people who during the Q&A section would make some very moving observations about the story or characters and how it related to their own lives. When I sat in the back of the theater (watching without them knowing), and heard them laugh throughout the movie or hear sniffles during the emotional scenes, it makes the four years it took to get this movie to the theaters all worth it.
Do you feel like you have any more opportunities as a filmmaker who can straddle both China and Hollywood, or are the challenges the same?
Eng: I think I’ve always been a bit of an anomaly here since I’m considered a Chinese filmmaker, but an American at the same time. I guess I’m in the unique position as a filmmaker, to be so completely fluent in Chinese and English while understanding both cultures. I’ve been lucky to have been offered quite a few projects and opportunities to do something that straddles both China and Hollywood, but the challenges are equally great because there simply aren’t that many scripts that can do that well. And if it’s not generating images in my mind or getting my excited, I’d rather not do it. In the meantime, I’m more interested in telling stories that are Chinese – unless a really good Hollywood script comes knocking on the door. Being someone who is known in the industry here in China, allows me to make whatever movie I want, whereas, in Hollywood, I’m still a bit of an unknown.
Wished opens at theaters throughout China on June 29.