Interview: Li Weiran, director of ‘Welcome to Shama Town’

It is the second day of the 13th Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy and Spencer Murphy sat down with director Li Weiran to talk about his first film, the action comedy summer blockbuster from China Welcome to Shama Town (2010), which opened the festival the previous evening.

Spencer Murphy: First of all, thank you very much for your time. My first question is, are you happy with last night’s response to the film? Comedy can often get lost in translation culturally, but this film received a very warm response from the audience.

Li Weiran: The audience really had fun last night so I am indeed happy with the response. But I am perhaps too critical towards my film because of the subtitles. I noticed they didn’t follow strictly what was being said, they were shortened in order to fit to the screen. So that’s the only thing I can criticise on the presentation. But it wasn’t relevant to the outcome, because the audience understood perfectly – the actors were very good and the expression they gave was very clear.

SM: You have a long background in advertising and you are an award-winning adverts director. Given that your debut film is quite a high-profile one, filled with stars, was there a lot of pressure, artistically and commercially, to achieve the same success you had in the field of advertising?

LW: I have a lot of experience in advertising but that didn’t mean I would be able to make films, because advertising is a completely different world. So actually I didn’t have this kind of pressure. Instead, I had two different kinds. Advertising requires you to tell a very short story, while a film is much longer, so the first pressure was finding a way to tell a longer story. And the second one was having to work with crew and cast, which came from a background of film, not advertising, and it’s a very different way of working. And also, I had to work with famous actors and a famous director of photography, so this difference was also a pressure for me.

SM: One thing, which struck me in the film was the very fast pace in terms of editing, and also the mixing of genres – action, adventure, romance, comedy… All of this added to a very unique style. Were those conscious decisions?

LW: Before I answer I want to ask you, what do you think about this rhythm of the film?

SM: Personally, I found the rhythm to be extremely fast paced, with very little exposition. This tremendous pace from start to finish I think was very unique in terms of Chinese film.

LW: Last night was the first time I saw my film in a year and a half, so for me it was a chance to notice many things I didn’t notice before and there are some things about it I don’t like anymore, because they create problems I didn’t notice at that time. An example of that is the pace you mentioned. Especially in the first part of the film I couldn’t tell the story at the right pace – it just went too fast. This was perhaps because of the editing and I do recognize it as limiting to the story. There could be two main reasons for that: this is my first film so maybe I’m not experienced enough to express a film in the correct way and the second is that the director of editing also comes from a background of advertising.

SM: Oh, but I wasn’t noting it as a criticism, I think it works really well.

LW: But in my opinion this is a problem. I personally found this is not the film’s strongest aspect.

SM: Now to turn to the casting – I noticed something unique there as well. The lead actress is Lin Chi Ling – the very famous Taiwanese model. I think she was crowned the most beautiful women in Taiwan or China. And the role I certainly remember her for is in Red Cliff (2008) – a very particular role, beautifully played. And here in Welcome to Shama Town she is cast against type – short hair and so on. Was that a conscious and commercial decision in order to get press coverage?

LW: Choosing her to act as the role of the fiancée of Sun Hong Lei, who is another famous Chinese actor, was a kind of strategic decision, because if you have a famous lead actor you need to have a famous lead actress. But I chose her not because of her beauty and I didn’t choose to stress it – it is already known. I wanted to stress her strong personality and masculinity in the way she fights with her on-screen boyfriend. I think this contrast created a very nice outcome.

SM: And what about the way she speaks in the film. Is that a regional accent?

LW: She uses her own way of speaking. I myself am not Mandarin, my own dialect is from a region very close to Beijing.

SM: This using of original dialects brings to my mind director Ning Hao and Crazy Stone (2006). I was just wondering, why is it so important for such a big film with such big stars to use regional dialect?

LW: Because of the story itself. The setting is supposed to be very far away from Beijing – somewhere in the North-West of China. And you know China is very big, they speak many different dialects in different places. All of these people in the film are supposed to come from the countryside, not the city. So in order for it to be as realistic as possible – they all speak different dialects.

SM: The other central theme of the film is a very contemporary one – about the emerging cultural tourist industries. It struck me that the film is kind of critical towards this trend. I know that you are also the scriptwriter, so does that reflect your personal feelings about this emerging industry?

LW: Actually I had no intention to criticise this tourism. It was my way to reflect on what’s going on today. As an economic background for this rising tourism in China, in the film we also find some lines saying: “The more you make yourself noticed – the more people will come in your region and your area will thrive economically.” So it’s not a way of showing criticism towards the tourism. It’s rather aims to show the stress of the people to make themselves known and attract tourism so that their region will thrive.

SM: And one last question: Is there a sort of poking fun in the last line of the film about Zhang Yimou and his “impressions”? Or is it from of criticism for the project?

LW: Again, it is not a way to criticize, but just to have a little fun. I’ve had the chance to meet and work with Zhang Yimou in a commercial and even if it is just for fun, I wouldn’t use this line if I didn’t get his “ok”. Since the actor, Sun Hong Lei, who was saying that line, got to work with Zhang Yimou – he got the chance to meet with him and say: “Look, I’m going to say something about this” and Yimou laughed. So it was ok. And about your second question, Zhang Yimou is a very famous person and the best way for me to emphasize a point in the story was by using him. This is not about criticizing him or his work, it is because everyone knows about what he does and will understand the idea I’m trying to convey.

SM: Thank you so much! Xiexie!

Zhang Yimou acclaimed film director, producer, writer, actor and cinematographer. The film Welcome to Shama Town makes a reference to one of his on-going tourist projects, entitled “Impressions” – a series of live performance musicals, each of which is performed at a strategic culturally significant location in China.

Transcript by Elena Rapondzhieva (CUEAFS)

Spencer Murphy (CUEAFS)