One of Hong Kong's most talented and esteemed cinematographers (Christoper Doyle) paired up with his trusted producer (Jenny Suen), as a team they wrote and directed The White Girl, one of the finer films to have come out of Hong Kong in years. Hong Kong isn't really overflowing with female indie directors, so I couldn't pass on the chance to ask director Jenny Suen some questions about her first feature film directly. If you're still on the fence about watching The White Girl, do read on and let yourself be convinced.
Niels Matthijs: The White Girl is a film that works on multiple levels. There's the plot and the characters on the one hand, the Hong Kong allegory on the other. Was it conceived that way from the start, or did it grow into that during production? Also, are both layers equally important to you, or was one written in function of the other?
Jenny Suen: To an audience a film is only what they see on the screen. To a filmmaker a film is a life. The choices are a reflection of how we live: location, language, budget... and most importantly, the people you choose to share that with. I started to work on it back in 2013 after I moved back to Hong Kong. So the film is a result of me trying to understand this place and what this "home" means to me after years of living abroad. Hong Kong is disappearing. Our way of life is under threat. What is the point of giving a story as grand of a stage as a silver screen if we don't have the courage to tell the grandest story of our times?
You worked with Christopher Doyle before, but in a different setup (you as the producer, Doyle as the solo director of Hong Kong Trilogy). Here he's listed as co-director, but how exactly did you guys split the work?
I, naturally, get asked if I ever went to film school. I say this: I went to the Christopher Doyle school of film, but the tuition was very expensive, it was eleven years of my youth! Everything I know about film I learned from him. How we work is still a work in progress. On our first film I did everything he didn't want to do and more. On our second, I worked with the actors, and he ran the set. Everything else was shared. So "producer," "director," "cinematographer"... these are credits and titles. I am directing the next film "on my own," but it doesn't mean he is more or less important than he's always been.
The cinematography is one of the standout elements of the film, but the soundtrack is also quite unique. How did you come across Lung Dart and how did Odagiri contribute to the soundtrack?
Don't you love the score? It's actually something between a score and a soundtrack. Because The White Girl's mother was a pop star - I really wanted the film to kind of sound like a "greatest hits of the decade" from this imaginary world and create something a bit different than so-called "film music". My best friend Sara introduced me to them. My favourite song is the "White Obscura Theme," which you hear when The White Girl spends the night in the Ruins. I still cry whenever I hear it.
Joe is everything: actor/writer/director and musician. When I heard his stuff I immediately wanted to use it. You can hear his song when he and Angela are lighting candles in the ruins. Actually, Joe was just in HK promoting his first film as a director "They Say Nothing Ever Stays The Same." Driving around with him at night, listening to music gave us so many new ideas for our next film. The best auteurs must be this way - they must have a sensibility for sound, image, story - because a film is all of these things.
How different was it to work with one of the most recognized Asian actors of this generation (i.e. Jo Odagiri) versus one of the budding talents of the coming generation (Angela Yuen)?
Actors do their best when they are free and uninhibited to do their best. This means that they should be treated equally. Men and women, young and old, star or starlet. I didn't direct Angela any different than I did Joe. Our best films should always be the film we are making now.
Hong Kong cinema is currently in somewhat of a slump, with much of its talent either moving to China or being eclipsed by China's bigger budget cinema. Did that make it harder, or maybe easier to get The White Girl made?
I've never made a film within the system, or with money from the HK film industry. Maybe because I don't feel like I'm a part of it or because I didn't become a so-called "feature director" working for other people. I've always made my own way. So every film is FUCKING difficult. From time to time, I wonder if I shouldn't take the easier road, but isn't it more important to be ourselves and be free?
A lot has been said about women in cinema these past couple of years, Hong Kong cinema has been typically rather male-dominated. Did you experience any extra hurdles when making your film and do you see any improvements there?
Chinese is not a typically gendered language like French is. But in Chinese you are always referred to as a "Female Director" instead of just "Director." Why? They don't say this about female taxi drivers or female accountants. Once I was at the Busan Film Festival walking down the red carpet and a bunch of Korean housewives mobbed me for selfies because they thought I was an actress. I didn't have the heart to spoil their fun and tell them I'm ONLY a "Female Director".
Now that we're in the age of streaming, one might assume that it would be easier to see films from around the world. Sadly it seems that it's getting harder again to watch Asian films in the West. Do you think films like The White Girl could benefit from broader streaming options?
The film industry is reeling from its problems, many having to do with an outdated business model, and the spiraling costs and complexity from marketing and distribution. Streaming is great, but it is only one answer to a much bigger problem, which is that less and less people are seeing films. They are watching Tiktok or Instagram Stories. So our visual experience as a society is changing. I can't remember who said this... but I read a very funny thing recently where a director said: "A lot of people come up to me and tell me they saw my film on a plane. They might as well have said: 'I saw your film while I was taking a shit'". We can't make films if people don't know about them. That's why it's important to have people like you share the energy of our works.
You got quite lucky, talent-wise, with your first film. Are you worried it might be harder to secure the same kind of established names for your next films?
It wasn't luck. I worked hard for it. So no, I'm not worried at all.
Anything you can share about new projects in the works?
I'm going to make the greatest chick flick in the history of Chinese cinema.
If some rich benefactor would approach you and give you a blank check and full artistic freedom, what's the film you would love to make?
The one I am making now. Live free or die!