Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E11): Janet Yang on Art and Chinese Cinema, 5.27.21
Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.
Season 3, Episode 11 introduced lucky participants to filmmaker Janet Yang, who was in Beijing in 1980 at the center of a world of artists and intellectuals notable for raucous scene—dance parties at the Summer Palace, artistic experimentation, and the thrill of freedom tinged with a frisson of danger. Janet Yang shares her story, beginning with a cherished gift of sculpture by artist Wang Keping, and including old B&W photos of China’s top filmmakers and insights from her life-long romance with China through film.
Janet Yang (JY) is a Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning Hollywood producer who sits on the Board of Governors for the Motion Picture Academy and is Chair of the Membership and Governance Committee. Yang’s extensive film and television credits include “The Joy Luck Club”, “The People vs. Larry Flynt”, “Shanghai Calling”, “High Crimes”, “Zero Effect”, and the recent animated feature “Over the Moon” for Netflix. Yang has been named one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Hollywood” by the Hollywood Reporter. Committed to fostering global understanding, Yang has been a long-standing member of the Committee of 100; an advisory board member of Asia Society Southern California where she also chairs its highly regarded U.S-Asia Entertainment Summit; and co-founder of Gold House, the non-profit collective of the most influential Asian cultural leaders.
Selected Quotes from Pieces of China, Season 3, Episode 11:
JY: I had gotten very lucky to have met, very quickly in a country I knew very little about, a lot of Chinese artists, painters, sculptors, and I was so drawn to them because I never in my experience growing up in America, met Chinese artists or creators of any kind. It was a gamechanger.
Dinda Elliott (moderator): You jumped right into the thick of things—you had parties out at YuanMing Yuan, the Summer Palace!
JY: I started meeting Chinese people and my Caucasian friends were envious that I could infiltrate the group. It was a little racy. We decided to bring a boom box and play music and invite friends…and pretty soon there was a large gathering of people.
DE: The early 80’s were so intense, as China was just emerging from the Cultural Revolution…
JY: It was so heady and so exciting because we didn’t know what the boundaries were. There were very few set parameters. Some Chinese would never be seen with me because it would be seen as too dangerous, but others went very far to be friends with me. It was artists and painters and a few filmmakers.
Many of us who experienced China in the 80’s are very nostalgic for that period because there was both this innocence and curiosity and a feeling of optimism, as it was coming out of a very dark period.
As Wang Keping very clearly told me, he purposefully made a sculpture with one eye open and one eye closed. And that is a summary of what we were all doing at the time and how many artists live in China… you are never quite sure what was kosher- you are walking a fine line…as an artist your impulse is to want to push boundaries but you don’t want to be canceled, so to speak.
JY: It was right after that when I saw the movie Yellow Earth. A couple years ago, TimeOut magazine did a thing on “Most Essential Chinese Films” and a number of people- including me- said Yellow Earth. It was so startlingly beautiful, haunting, [and] deep. It showed me that there was incredibly artistry.
There was little commercial pressure, but on the other hand, what movie can you make that has depth and meaning, but can pass censors, so there is a kind of obliqueness about the messaging…but so profound and so haunting…I think about that film to this day.
That is when I thought, I want to dedicate my life to Chinese cinema. …If people in China could do this, it opened my eyes so that people seeing those images would change how they thought of all of us from this race, and if Westerners could see it, wow, it would change how they saw [China].
The first studio film I sold to China was Roman Holiday. We organized a Gregory Peck retrospective.
So I am working at Universal Studios, I got a call from Steven Spielberg’s office [to work on Empire of the Sun], as I was the only person in Hollywood actively working in China…my boss Skip Paul absolutely realized the importance of China but very few other people did. …Then I realized I could be a producer and affect the things on screen. Before I was just looking at pictures that were done and using them to form a bridge. Now I thought, if you could get behind the camera, it is a whole other level of empowerment.
After that period, I then formed a company with writer/director Oliver Stone…and one of the things I brought… I was handed a manuscript of just a couple chapters that became The Joy Luck Club.
DE: So we have you to thank [for that film]!
JY: I did my part…The 90s were not a great period, but the 2000s approaching the Olympics there [were more opportunities] and…I produced a film called Dark Matter with Meryl Streep in it, and brought it to Sundance where it won an award.
I loved working on that film. So, I started thinking about what I could do more in China. I produced a Chinese version of High School Musical [around 2010]. It was really, really fun! Then I made a movie called Shanghai Calling– I couldn’t have been happier. We had little interference, as it was a lighthearted film.
DE: Why is film a great way to know China?
JY: It is live, it is real people. [I love] Beijing Bicycle, it is a simple movie but it touched me so much. It broke a shield for me that is rarely broken…people are not willing to penetrate beyond the things we read in media—not that that’s not true, but it is hardly the full story and focuses on troubled areas. What I lament is that there are very few opportunities to see the humanity. Mr. Six, for example, is about a man and his son whose life is going awry—so finding these is a way to flip the coin and to see ‘what are their actual experiences?’ Another I would recommend is 76 Days, by Wu Hao, about the early days of the pandemic, and the care that they gave their patients…was so moving. This is what we strive for: characters that are fully fleshed out.
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