Friday, Jul 28, 2017, 8:50 PM CST – China

Culture

Director Feng Xiaogang

In Front of the Camera

After a two-year break from the film industry, director Feng Xiaogang, known mainly for his many light-hearted blockbusters, returns as a lead actor in an action flick. NewsChina talks with Feng about his new choice, the motivation behind it and what’s to come

One of China’s most famous and commercially successful directors, Feng Xiaogang, uncharacteristically stepped onto a movie set to play the title role in the action movie Mr. Six, which premiered on the Chinese mainland on December 24, 2015. It turned out to be a winning move — at Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Awards in November, Feng vaulted over many professional actors to win the award for Best Leading Actor.

“I should have won the Best New Performer award, because I am a fledgling actor. If I receive the Best Leading Actor award, that doesn’t leave much room for improvement,” Feng said in his acceptance speech read by Mr. Six director Guan Hu. That night, Feng was actually in Beijing, singing at a promotional concert at the Beijing Workers’ Stadium.

Mr. Six is about an aging former ne’er-do-well who faces off with a gang of younger mobsters after they kidnap his son. In fact, the Chinese name of the movie is Lao Pao’r, a Beijing slang term that refers to indolent older men who were gangsters or thugs back in their day. Feng said he is quite familiar with such people — he has many such friends — and he also stirred up trouble when he was young. As with the movie’s titular hero, the old rascals in Feng’s life were mostly straight-shooting, impulsive, loyal and honest, though they never shied away from a fight. Most important, they were willing to risk their own lives to help a friend.

However, such values no longer fit into today’s world. In middle age, Mr. Six has become a nobody on society’s lowest rung. He has “little dignity” in life, Guan Hu said. Guan hoped the movie may “restore the dignity” of Mr. Six and other lao pao’r.

Although he has led a successful career, Feng Xiaogang empathized with Mr. Six. “The character feels oppressed, like he’s suffocating and he wants to break free,” Feng said. “His son’s kidnapping is an outlet for him to let it all out.”

When he accepted the role, Feng hadn’t worked on a movie set for two years. Throughout his directorial career, he has learned to compromise — he often “traded” with investors, making them entertaining, commercial movies in return for support for his more serious and artistic films. However, in his mid-50s, he suffered his first box-office failure with historical drama Back to 1942 in 2012, and then received low ratings — including a 5.6 out of 10 on popular cultural social networking site douban.com — for the comedy Personal Tailor in 2013.

Without knowing it, Feng had taken his hand off the pulse of today’s young consumers. He was tired of the constant compromising with investors and those in power. “If I were still 30, I may compromise… But I’m nearly 60… I don’t want to compromise anymore. There isn’t enough time,” he wrote in one microblog post last July. He realized he just wanted to free himself from the pressures of navigating generation gaps and make the kinds of movies he wanted to make before it was too late.

“Actually I have more freedom now. It’s obviously unwise if I don’t utilize this freedom and just stick to my old role of being a cash cow,” he said.

NewsChina met with Feng before the premiere of Mr. Six in Beijing to discuss his new acting career and the direction this newfound “freedom” might take him.

 

NewsChina: After accepting the role of Mr. Six, how did you prepare for it?

Feng Xiaogang: To be frank, I didn’t. I had been familiar with people like [Mr. Six] in my life. There are a lot of people like him around me. Though there might be some differences, they are generally fairly similar. They are impulsive, loyal and responsible. They have their bottom line. Though they are seen as hooligans who like to fight, they actually have their own principles.

 

NC: In your view, what were these “old hooligans” like in the past, and what are they like now? What’s your own point of view on them? 

Feng: Many of these men have been detained or put in jail. In the joint, these “fighters” would definitely despise those who steal or rape. They loathe such behavior. These people were more like those naughty classmates you knew in school — you may find them noisy and scrappy, but they are not really that bad.

Many of them are older now, and they’ve changed. Some lived high-profile lives when they were young, but now have become ordinary. Some have become gentle and easy-going. But then there are some who haven’t changed at all. They are still scrappy and impulsive.

 

NC: You have said both you and Mr. Six have your own spiritual world which is at odds with the world today. What aspects of yourself are incompatible with today’s world?

Feng: Many of the rules in the old days have become ruined now. For example: Film actors, including those in Hollywood, should appear on TV as little as possible. But now all our movie stars are on the small screen. So why should audience members spend money to see them in a movie theater? It’s short-sighted and suicidal. They just think that they can make money on TV so they all go on TV.

Now you feel that people only love money. Of course, I like money a lot (laughs), but I think there are things I like more than money.

 

NC: At the end of the 1990s, when most directors in China aimed to make serious masterpieces, you chose to make New Year comedies [that traditionally premiere during the Chinese New Year vacation]. Later, when most movie studios turned toward commercial movies, you instead set your heart on making serious films. Why is it that you always seem to take a different path?

Feng: I’ve never heard someone sum it up like that; well said. When everyone rushes toward something, I go toward another. [In the late 1990s,] the most important thing for China’s film industry was to attract moviegoers and keep theaters afloat. Otherwise, cinemas would have to close and become bathhouses or nightclubs. When the movie market was more established, I felt as a director I should make more meaningful films. I thought I should shoot movies that would make people think.

There is also a need for market-oriented movies. But we shouldn’t become slaves to the market. Since we have gained some status in the marketplace, we are entitled to utilize it to make movies that are more related to what’s in our hearts.

 

NC: Mr. Six is nearly 60 years old, but he abhors people referring to him as being “a half-century-old” man. You are around the same age as Mr. Six. Do you have the same aversion?

Feng: Yes, I do. I’m almost 60 but I don’t feel that I’m old.

 

NC: What do you think your mental age is?

Feng: Around 30 or 40.

 

NC: Have you ever had a mid-life crisis, a time that made you feel lost or directionless? If so, when was it?

Feng: I have. From when I shot Back to 1942 and Personal Tailor until the last one or two years.

 

NC: What triggered it?

Feng: After I shot Back to 1942, I discovered that the audience and I were no longer on the same frequency. Our common ground was gone. It wasn’t like that before… before I had known the audience well.

 

NC: In recent years, China’s moviegoers have become younger and younger. Most directors must eventually face that situation. It’s like the confrontation and friction between the older and younger generations depicted in Mr. Six. What do you think about that yourself? Do you feel like…

Feng: I’m behind the times? Yes, I do feel like that sometimes. But I also think the movie market should have the space for different audiences and directors. Younger audiences have directors who share common ground with them and create for them. Older audiences have their own directors. The audiences and their directors understand each other.

 

NC: China’s main moviegoers today were born after 1990 or even 1995. Have you ever thought of getting to know their ways of thinking, tastes and preferences?

Feng: No, I haven’t. You can’t understand what people do at different ages. You try to, but in the end you still can’t understand them.

I can’t understand why my daughter likes watching celebrity reality TV shows so much. She must have her own reasons. But I think I shouldn’t waste the time I have left trying to figure out what they want. I’d better first figure out what I want (laughs).

 

NC: What is your plan for your next film?

Feng: I want to try something new and to continue learning. I’m working on a movie adapted from Liu Zhenyun’s novel I Am Not Pan Jinlian. I have been experimenting with some new approaches to filmmaking that no one has done before. It has been a learning process, which really excites me. People say that it is risky. Why isn’t everyone using these approaches? Obviously, it’s risky and might offend audiences, so no one has tried. However, if you always adhere to common practices, while it’s reliable, it’s also pretty boring. It’s not creative. Why not try something risky? Even if it fails, I won’t have regrets, since at least I tried.

 

NC: [Famous actor] Zhang Guoli once said that you are a pessimist. Do you agree?

Feng: Yes, I am. And I often make everyone at the dinner table pessimistic.

 

NC: Where does your pessimism come from?

Feng: There aren’t many things that make me optimistic. Actually, many comedy directors are pessimistic. Like [actor and director] Xu Zheng — if you talk with him, you won’t think he’s an optimist.

 

NC: What do you do when you feel most pessimistic?

Feng: I do nothing. Maybe I’ll become a nihilist in the end (laughs) — I’ll go from being optimistic to pessimistic and then nihilistic. But currently I don’t think I’ll go any further.

 

NC: The Chinese movie market is quite prosperous. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the market?

Feng: Optimistic. But on the other hand, it seems that a movie isn’t what a movie should be anymore. People have no persistence. I hope we can return to what a movie used to be.

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