Conversation with Xiao-Yen Wang

 Xiao-Yen Wang in 1970, the year The Monkey Kid takes place

From an interview by Erica Marcus in Release Print

All the books and films about the Cultural Revolution portray only the dark side. The Monkey Kid takes a very different approach. Why?

The Monkey Kid is based on my childhood experiences. They are all true stories. I was a child and my parents didn't allow us to know the horrors that were taking place every day. My mother and father themselves suffered greatly during that time. Each day my mother was forced to crawl through a dog door in and out of her school because she was the daughter of a landlord. But I was too young to know of any of this. So, ironically, the years of the Cultural Revolution are the source of my happiest memories.

Your background and how that informed the film?

My father was the son of a peddler. He was part of the sub-proletariat that was the backbone of the Chinese Revolution. In the late 1930's he joined the Communist forces at the age of 16 and fought in the War of Resistance against the Japanese. My mother was from the landlord class. Her mother and two sisters starved to death during The Great Leap Forward. Her father died in a sulfur mine. To distance herself from her "black background," my mother joined the Communist Army's song and dance troop. I was born in Beijing in 1959 and grew up during the Cultural Revolution. That was my time — including the period when schools were not in session and we were unable to go to classes. I was lucky, my mother helped me get a painting tutor. So, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, when the universities reopened, it was the end of my high school years and I had this perfect skill. There was a national test and although it was very competitive, I got into the Beijing Film Academy right away. That's how I started my filmmaking career.

Many people know little about the Cultural Revolution. How old were you when it started?

In 1966 I was six years old. The Monkey Kid takes place in 1970 when I was ten. The film is from a child's point of view of that time. For that reason, I didn't emphasize the terror or the big dramas. 1970 was a very specific period of the Cultural Revolution. It was not the beginning nor was it the latter stages of the Cultural Revolution. In 1970, the intellectuals were shipped to the countryside and the kids were left alone. They stayed in the city. They had to live and learn life on their own.

What year did you leave China?

I left China in 1985 after graduating from the Beijing Film Academy and after working for three years as an art director in the Chang Chun Film Studio. I came to the United States to go to graduate school.

How did you shoot underground without the permission of the government in China?

I had quite a hard time since I had been out of the country for a number of years and wasn't used to how things were done. Filmmakers in China are actually quite spoiled. They have privilege. They get money. So when I went back, I was just a humble little independent filmmaker. I didn't have a film studio behind me. I had no capitalists to help me and no Communists who would help me. I was just a fragile little grass in the wind. But we had a very strong determination. We approached the government for their cooperation. But I was naive: I didn't bribe them. Also, they didn't approve my script because it was about the Cultural Revolution.

You brought a camera with you?

No, we rented one. There are only a few 16mm sync film cameras in China. We shot on 16 and had it blown up to 35mm. Li Xiong was my cinematographer. It's his first feature film. He had shot a lot of documentaries with the Central Documentary Film Studio. The whole time the camera was handheld on his shoulder. I wanted to have a documentary feeling. I wanted to feel as if the camera were our eyes, seeking and looking for things.

How long was your production schedule?

Two months, beginning in January, 1993.

Was it hard to find period costumes?

Since we didn't have access to studio costumes, we went to the junk clothes collectors. We also collected things from neighbors. For the Mao buttons, we asked all the actors, all the kids' parents to look for them. During the Cultural Revolution, everyone had boxes and boxes of Mao buttons and obviously everyone kept at least a small stash.

The child actors, were they professional?

Yes, in Beijing there is a Children's Film Studio, so they have an acting school. This is where we found most of our characters. One day, in the class, everyone was acting. But there was one girl in the far back who Andy Martin, my producer, noticed immediately. She was sitting quietly with her legs apart, really tough. A real tomboy. She was so confident. Later, we asked her to improvise the class assignment. A child of divorced parents comes home. She finds a gift on the table and knows her mother has come home. She searches every room but her mother is not there. She starts to cry. Just at that moment her father comes home and asks what's wrong. When our little girl did this part, she looked away and told the father she had fallen down and hurt herself and that's why she was crying. The other kids answered that they were crying because they missed their mother, but our little girl answered to keep her privacy. It was moving.

The film is autobiographical. Did you feel sometimes when you were directing her that you were watching yourself?

I separate those things very well. When you write a script and create a character and when the actress or actor is acting the part, they are once again creating the character. It is not me anymore. Sometimes she tried to act like me or imagine how I was when I was nine. I said, "You are you, yourself, Shi-Wei, act as yourself. Don't try to act like me." She acted herself very well, very confident. Since the children were born years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, I had to try to create an environment where they could understand the time. I showed them photos and books and played them the music. One important thing on the set was that I was determined that all the kids wear their costumes the whole time. I wanted to make them feel the costume was part of their own wardrobe. So when they came to the set they didn't make a distinction between off-camera and on-camera. The crew also wore clothes from the period of the Cultural Revolution.

Did the kids know the Revolutionary songs?

They knew some, but I had to teach them some, like "Our Respected Chairman Mao" and "I Love Beijing Tien An Men" They are a part of me. For example, "Our respected Chairman Mao, you are the Red Sun in my heart." It expresses how much people love Chairman Mao. "Thousands of words we are yearning to tell you, millions of songs we want to sing to you!" I remember these songs so freshly.

What did your actors — the kids — think about these songs? Were they cynical about them?

In general, my generation is very cynical about that time because we lived through it. But the younger generation has no idea. It has become a myth, just a story. The older generation, my parents' generation, whose lives were completely ruined by that time — they hate it. They are not only cynical about it, they have a profound hate of that time. The kids thought it was very silly. "We look like we are from the 'old society.' Look at the way we dress, oh, so ugly! Look at the way we act, oh, so ugly!" But they had fun. They thought the dance to Mao was great fun.

What did they know about the Cultural Revolution?

Their parents were about my age or a little older so their parents told them a lot. For instance, the bad boy. His father had played many of the pranks in the film on his teachers. So the little boy went home and practiced pranks with his father.

How did the kids react to the Little Red Book?

Of course, when I was a child, we read it everyday, nothing else but that. On the set the actors thought it was great fun. But they didn't understand what any of it meant. Terms like "international spirit" and "death weightier than Mount Tai" seemed like a different language to them but they read their lines well.

How were you able to shoot the film and not get into trouble?

I wasn't worried. We had chosen as our location the neighbor-hood where I grew up. Everyone knew me and everyone was willing to help. It was in Yung An Li, across from the Friendship Store. People knew me since I was three-years-old. They all loved and supported me. No one asked if I had permission. The woman from the Neighborhood Committee never asked anything. At one point we had to act fast. We had rented an apartment for the interiors but were forced out before we finished, so suddenly we were stuck. Since the apartment was similar to my parents' apartment, we asked them to let us shoot there. They had lived in their apartment for 28 years but we asked them to move out overnight, so we could dress the set to match the original apartment and shoot the same day. My father didn't know where to start. He worked very hard to help me and then had a heart attack. I thought I'd never forgive myself. But he was okay and now he is very proud.

After shooting, you edited in China. You didn't have problems getting the film out of China?

After we finished shooting, I discovered that we had been reported. I received a call from my "friend" who had referred me to the government Joint Venture Company when I tried to get my script approved. He said, "I heard you shot the film, did you finish it?" I was clever enough to tell him I hadn't finished but was still trying. He went on to warn me "because he was a good friend" that if I ever finished, I should avoid at all costs leaving the country with the film. "Never try to smuggle the film out of the country. If you do, the party will not be light on you."

Explain the scene when they listen to Carmen.

The mother is a teacher and realizes that the kids are not getting proper lessons in school. She wants to teach the kids at home and secretly borrows records from a friend. It had to be secret because an action like that could cause someone to be arrested. Those records were poison from the imperialists. In the scene, the mother makes the kids lock the door and she plays the record. When there is a knock at the door, everyone is terrified. It's one of Shi-Wei's friends. The music impresses the children. The next day, Shi-Wei is on the street absentmindedly humming the music when a neighbor woman asks her suspiciously what she is singing.

Did things like that happen to you?

It was the nature of the times.

What about the funding of the film?

We started out with $3,000 from three foundations: Zellerbach, Columbia and Gerbode. $1,000 each. We managed to raise the rest of our production money, a little more than $30,000, from our savings, friends and family. And then we got a grant from NAATA (the National Asian American Telecommunications Association), which enabled us to pay for the sound mix.

What about the next project?

It is about cultural shock and displacement.

Xiao-Yen Wang with Fu Di, the lead role of The Monkey Kid