Wayne Wang is a poet of longing. Attempts to categorize him, to identify auteurist hallmarks in his films, seem to neglect that aspect of desire in his pictures; not a desire for sex, though there is sex in his films, but for connection. His pictures run the gamut from the smallest micro-indie to big-budget Hollywood rom-com, but they’re bound together by attention to people stranded in alien environments, set apart by their curiosity, identified by their long thoughts and silences. As a kid drawn to Wang’s “Chan is Missing” (1982) and “Eat a Bowl of Rice” (1989) for their Chinese-American casts and the snippets of the secret history of us in this country, I wanted very badly to embrace Wang as the lone avatar for the Chinese-American diaspora (in my early teens, I was beginning to realize the diaspora was the only culture to which I truly belonged). Wayne was the first filmmaker in my experience to speak to my existential liminality. But he rejected that label. He rejects every label.
As his career went on, I watched as he made films with Japanese heroes, Korean, Hispanic, African-American, men, women. His films essayed the Richmond District in San Francisco, the corner-spot bodegas of Brooklyn, back to Hong Kong, where he was born to watch it return to Chinese rule, then away to the distant past, the not-too-distant past, and to the eternal present with the same attention to seemingly quotidian detail. Everywhere he went, he carried his debt to Ozu and Satyajit Ray like a lens through which to focus on what was most important in a lived-in world. I came to understand that Wang did stand for me—that his films were speaking specifically to me, but not as a Chinese-American but rather as a person looking for completion. I have always been a little lost and looking for a place that could be home. Wayne Wang’s films are always about castaways like me, films like the dulcet, beautiful “Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart” (1985) and “Smoke” (1995) and his delicately devastating late masterpiece “Coming Home Again” (2019) but even in things like his girl-and-her-dog picture “Because of Winn-Dixie” (2005) his psycho-sexual erotic thriller “The Center of the World” (2001) and the Natalie Portman vehicle “Anywhere But Here” (1999).
When offered the opportunity to chat with Wang upon Criterion’s release of “Dim Sum” in a rigorous Blu-ray presentation that includes, among other things, a brilliant essay by the San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Brian Hu, I was beside myself. I started, as I felt I must, by asking him about the importance of listening:
WAYNE WANG: Oh, it’s the most important thing. It’s the only thing. There isn’t enough listening in this world. I remember a few years before my mother passed away, I used to visit her at her home. There would be very little for us to say, so to speak, at least very little that was specific, so we would just sit in the backyard and just not talk. Sometimes, we would sit for an hour in silence. I would, you know, maybe listen, maybe just drift off. But the listening was really interesting, especially the listening to silence—or specifically the silence between me and my mother there at the end. I think there’s a peace and there’s an acceptance. At least, that was what I sat in: silence, peace, and acceptance. There’s a calmness to it all that I really appreciated with our relationship then. That’s the only time in my life where I felt that with my mother.
Your films have a remarkable stillness to them.
I think in films, generally speaking, people don’t listen enough. When I work with actors, I will often tell them “You’re not listening,” you know, “Listen to the other character, listen to what the other character is saying or not saying.” There’s nothing more important for me.
Where does that come from?
I think maybe part of it was growing up kind of as a lonely person, as a lonely kid spending a lot of time on my own. Even when I was with my parents, so to speak, I was trying to listen and not say very much. We couldn’t connect when we were speaking. There was too much risk. And then later on, watching films, the two filmmakers who taught me the most were Ozu and Satyajit Ray. Ozu and Ray both had their characters listen. They helped me give shape to my feelings about silence—their example always pops up in my head when I consider silence and the power of listening. And I’ve always felt that Hollywood films, if you look at a script from Hollywood, it’s filled with dialogue. There was a cameraman who I worked with on “The Joy Luck Club” who came up to me and said, “Are we doing a radio play here? Everybody is constantly talking. There’s so much dialogue. Why don’t we shoot something that deals with silences, that deals with the space in between?” So that was a very revealing moment for me, too, how even in this giant production with all these stars and these expectations, that we should carve out a space for stillness.
“Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart” is so … quiet.
Yes—I was so inspired by Ozu I knew I had to tell this story this way. A lot of things in that show were just people listening or just the camera existing in empty spaces waiting for characters to come into them and then leave them. This emptiness where people were playing out their lives … listening became really important for that show.
As the budgets got bigger, there must’ve been pushback.
Oh yes. Later on, and this became another lesson for me, I remember during previews, especially with the studio films, how the producers and studio executives, even when the score was really high, would always say something like, “Uh, there are a lot of gaps and spaces in between the dialogue. You should cut them all out. The film would play better and play faster.” Without fail. Every time. That’s the kind of attitude that comes with the corporatization of our art.
A sickness of our culture.
It’s funny you say that. In my experience of trying to survive all the stress, I got really, literally sick at one point during the shooting of one of those films and went to the doctor, and the doctor said, “Wayne, you don’t breathe. You have to breathe more.” And I thought to myself, “You breathe in the silences.” I had learned to do that in my films, but I had to go back and learn to do it in my life. I started taking yoga, and I learned to breathe. [laughs] So it only convinced me that way was the right way. In the listening and the spaces between dialogue, you have the opportunity to, and you have to learn to breathe again.
Talk to me about the importance of curiosity.
I really want my characters to explore their environments. Again, we don’t give enough importance to the spaces where we exist. I think those spaces—the ones where the characters live and breathe, right? and talk and eat and whatever action, is equally important as any other element in a story. The dialogue, the action, all of those things need something to hold them: the environment is the vessel that collects them. It catches all their feelings, too. It’s a container for all their emotions. Almost as though you were cupping something precious and fragile in the palm of your hand. So when you start to tell your story, you must show the environment; have your character walk through the environment, and it’s in their interactions with space that you get the essence of who they are. Nothing is an object in someone’s eye. Anything becomes a vehicle for the conveyance of emotion once it’s observed.
That’s a very special thing that film can do really well, help you through to the essence of a character just by cutting straight to something in the environment. The production design becomes shorthand when you revisit the elements of it you’ve highlighted. One cut, and you relive those emotions you’ve imbued it in a very filtered and essential way.
I love it when the father finds the Russian doll in “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” and, layer by layer by layer, pulls it apart.
That particular thing came from the writer Li Yiyun, and I loved it so much. I think I spent almost ten minutes just shooting that doll. The essence of the movie was a father coming over to visit his daughter, who just gotten divorced. He has no idea what his daughter is going through, and I wanted to represent his search for understanding as the opening of doors, drawers, and, finally, that doll. The environment is the story of this man’s will to unravel the puzzle that his daughter has become to him in her adulthood in this strange country. When he’s alone in the apartment, even though it’s a little bit of a violation of the privacy of his daughter, he starts looking at things. I think the Russian dolls, and, and pulling one after another out from the inside of the other is just … it’s very revealing. Here is a thing that’s all covered up, and you have to very slowly get to the bottom of it, you know, by taking, taking, taking a piece away, one at a time. But the more you pick, you find just more mystery contained within each layer. It’s a nice metaphor for him and her as impenetrable and complex, too.
I feel such sadness in your films—I see in them my own rough relationship with my parents and our failure to communicate with each other before it was too late.
I have the same problem. I had a lot of problems communicating with my father, especially who was a very strong patriarch in the traditional sense. Very early, I was afraid of approaching him and talking to him. There was a wall between us. My mom–communication with her was a different problem. She was so effusive with her love for me. She was so very loving, and every time I tried to talk to her, she would kind of smother me with love. It was a kind of silencing, too. So, between the two of them, I never could communicate in any real way, much less in any authentic way with them. I think that helped me to become very curious about other relationships. Like, let’s say, Laureen Chew and her mother (Kim Chew) in “Dim Sum.” I kind of just wanted to turn on the camera just to watch and capture how they communicated or didn’t, couldn’t, communicate. It was like …
Explaining how you failed your parents to yourself.
… and I do that with a lot of my characters, especially if they’re mothers and daughters. I watch them and see how they might do it better, differently, and successfully. I think for a lot of people, their communication with their parents happens at very unexpected moments. I don’t want to manufacture that unexpected moment; I want to catch it when it happens. And if it never happens, I want to document that, too. True communication either never comes, or it comes when you aren’t prepared for it.
Were your parents able to see your films? Were you able to communicate your longing through them?
Sadly, no. I mean, they did see many of my films in the literal way. My mother would say she loved every second of every film for whatever reason she did, but I don’t think she truly understood them. My father, I remember in one of the last films he saw of mine before he died, “The Joy Luck Club” of all things, he said, “Oh, that is probably one of your most successful films, but you can do better.” Success is making money, I think, for him more than any other measure.
Did you inherit some of that pragmatism?
Maybe. If I did, I think you see it in my approach to romance.
The scene where your young lovers kiss behind a movie screen is very romantic in “Eat a Bowl of Tea.”
Well, yes, I wanted that scene to be very big and sweeping, like a literal Hollywood scene, so I set it there behind a giant theater screen. But then my instinct is to sort of—even if you start at that elevated emotional level to then bring it down more to a level, grounded reality. Maybe because I live so much in the fantasy of love and romance in my life that whenever I depict it, I sort of want to tamp it down to a more grounded level. It’s not modesty. It’s … like, I want to reign it in when it becomes … if you look at my films, I really don’t deal with romance that much because I don’t actually know very much about it, I think.
What does your wife say about that?
You know, when I met my wife [actress Cora Miao], it was very instinctual. There wasn’t so much so-called romance or courting or fantasy. It was very real, and it happened within ten days.
What happened in ten days?
We got married.
[laughs] I’m not a very good person to talk to about love and romance.
That’s not how I interpret that story, but you mention the concept of instinct—can you expand on that by talking about the element of improvisation in your work?
Let me talk about that by talking about rhythm. The rhythm deals with feeling when something is happening at a pace where you know people are getting bored. Rhythm is instinct. I don’t know if you can teach it. Rhythm, especially if you’re improvising and it starts to go off at a tangent or go south, you can feel it, and then you say, well, “Let’s stop it here. There’s nothing going on here.” The thing about improvising is that it doesn’t work without guidelines. Freedom is only freedom if you have guardrails. You need to have characters who know what they want. The want is really important. What is the conflict between these characters’ wants? If it works, it has its own energy, and it just takes off.
What is a Wayne Wang movie?
I really don’t have an identity. You know, I remember there was a criticism somewhere saying that Wayne Wang doesn’t really exist because he’s all over the place. There was even this theory going around that Wayne Wang might be one of these Alan Smithee names that directors use when they don’t want to use their own names. I kind of like that because I don’t wanna be tied down. I’m not just from Hong Kong. Hong Kong is very much a part of me, and I have made films about Hong Kong, whether it’s “Life is Cheap” or “Chinese Box,” but I’m also not just Chinese. I’m of the world. Jean-Luc Godard, Steven Spielberg. I mean, everybody has influenced me. I don’t want somebody to necessarily identify me as Chinese-American if it means lumping me into a box because I’m more than that. If you look at somebody like Billy Wilder, he made all kinds of films.
When I knew I was talking to you, I tried finally to crystallize what it was about you that is a hallmark—and I think I figured it out. It’s not your Asianness; it’s your loneliness.
Well, you hit it right on the nose. Whenever I’m looking at a script, or before that, whenever I’m starting to think about a film, I always look for loneliness, for that humanity. I want to know that character. I want to see them in three dimensions in a space that I have curated, and if I let them live there, maybe I can figure something out about myself in the world. My job is to figure out how to make their loneliness tangible and identifiable and, then, to make it authentic so the audience will empathize with them.
You know, I’ve been trying to get this movie together, and everybody who’s read the script said you’ll never get the film distributed even if you figure out how to get it made. The story is about an old man in his sixties who just had a stroke and has almost died, but now that he hasn’t, he decides he wants a very passionate and sexual life. So what’s wrong with that? And he’s lonely, and everybody’s against him to find his happiness. Then he finds he may be finding a connection with his daughter-in-law … It’s taboo, and it’s an interesting, you know, uh, problem. Everyone who’s read the script says this is so wrong, but I don’t care because, ultimately, I’m going to find the character’s loneliness and try to express it in a way that people can understand. What is the limit to the humanity and loneliness you can identify with? Do you have a limit? When the light goes down, there’s nothing more human than feeling alone and lost.
I have to ask this about one of my favorite films: was there ever the thought not to show the final flashback in “Smoke”?
You know, Auggie (Harvey Keitel) was alone on Christmas Day. He went to return something, and this old blind woman mistakes him for her grandson. It’s all about loneliness. Paul (William Hurt) is lonely, and he’s listening very carefully to the story. It’s all about the connection between these lonely characters. The whole film is about lonely people making brief connections. And is the story real? Who knows? The story may be all made up, but there was a connection between the two of them throughout the story. Was there ever a thought to end it without showing the story played out? There was actually a very serious thought, but because I liked the images Auggie tells so much, I decided, oh, what the heck, I’ll put it at the end. Some of the earlier cuts did not have it, but anyway, we decided to put it in. Even with it, I still don’t think you know if it’s true or not. It doesn’t matter. It’s a story about loneliness and connection told by lonesome people, and in the telling and the hearing, they’re a little bit less lonesome for just a moment. At the end of it all, what else is there?