Photographs by Florence Noble
Roseanne Liang directs her first feature film—based on her own life and starring two kung-fu movie veterans. No pressure, says
New Zealand writer-director Roseanne Liang meets me at a cafe. She is petite and inconspicuously dressed, like a student. She sips at a hot chocolate the size of her head.
Liang is currently in post-production of her first feature film, a romantic comedy with the working title Girl Meets Boy, based on her award-winning documentary Banana in a Nutshell in which she details her own life battling the expectations of her Chinese parents in order to be with a New Zealand European boy.
Girl Meets Boy stars Michelle Ang, best known to New Zealand audiences for her role as Tracy Hong in Outrageous Fortune, and Matt Whelan, who appears as the hapless Brad in TV2’s Go Girls. Not to mention Kenneth Tsang of The Replacement Killers, Rush Hour 2, Memoirs of a Geisha and Die Another Day as well as countless Hong Kong kung-fu movies, and Cheng Pei-pei, known internationally for her award-winning role as Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Not bad.
I ask her how her film is looking. “I’m really superstitious. Can I say it’s going as expected? There’s a Confucius saying—typical that I quote him all the time, being Chinese and all—about waiting until you’ve done the thing before you boast about it. Not that I’m about to boast. It’s not really a New Zealand thing to do.”
Against her parents wishes, Liang studied film, TV and media, in addition to a BSc in computer science. Her first university short film made it into the London Film Festival and Liang received pod funding to direct another short film, which allowed her to go to the Berlinale Talent Campus, a part of the Berlin film festival that invites young filmmakers around the world to meet and attend lectures held by the likes of Ridley Scott.
“The fight scene from Oldboy never cuts. It’s one guy with a hammer against about 20 gangsters with broomsticks and stuff. I hate action sequences that cut all the time. I think I love the idea of no illusions”
When I ask if this was inspiring, Liang laughs. “Walter Salles was, because it was around the time that he was doing The Motorcycle Diaries, but Ridley Scott ... If I could make a film like Thelma & Louise I could consider that maybe the pinnacle of my career, I could stop and die happy. But recently he has been disappointing, making overblown budget things that have no story.”
Liang frowns. “I got really angry at his session because he kept repeating the phrase, ‘Story is king’, then he showed a perfume commercial by his daughter, which had these impossibly beautiful women reciting lines of poetry. I don’t think he realised the irony of what he was doing.” She stops. “Listen to me! I do sound like a bit of a dick.”
The Berlinale Talent Campus made Liang creatively hungry. “All this personal stuff was going on in my life so I decided to pick up my camera and film it.” The result was the 2005 doco Banana in a Nutshell, which had sellout audiences in the New Zealand film festival. “At the end of a screening,” Liang says, “John Barnett of South Pacific Pictures strolls up to me, shakes my hand and says, ‘Do you want to make a feature film of this movie?’”
She did. Liang co-wrote the film with university pal Angeline Loo. “Angeline and I have a great relationship. She is one of my best friends and can tell me that something is shit without me getting defensive. That’s a good thing to have!” Four years later they had a working script and were approved for Film Commission funding.
Liang searched for Hong Kong Cantonese actors to play the roles of her parents and found how few older Chinese actors live in New Zealand.
“To cut a long story short,” she says, “my cousin, who is Hong Kong–born but lives in New York, knows the curator of a New York Asian film festival, who in turn knows an Asian-American agent in Vancouver who represents Pei-pei and Kenneth. When he suggested them for the roles I thought they were out of my league. It turned out that they were aware of the diasporic Chinese voice and wanted to support it.”
Liang found working with such experienced actors daunting. “It sounds horrible, but I think my ignorance helped with that. If I’d known quite the extent of their experience when we started, I think I would have been a lot more intimidated.”
Quite the opposite of intimidating, Tsang and Cheng were a joy to work with. While filming, Liang noticed that Cheng wasn’t leaving between setups. “She would just sit there quietly. And I went up to her one time and said, ‘You know you’re allowed to go.’ And she said, ‘No, I want to sit here.’ It turns out that when Pei-pei was 18 and making her first film, she wasn’t allowed to leave the set because the director said it would dissipate their energy. It is such an admirable work ethic. And I think so much of that is lost nowadays.”
What types of films does Liang like to watch? “I like a good story. I like fight scenes, I like action, I like set pieces. Do you know the fight scene from Oldboy? It’s in a corridor. It never cuts. It tracks back and forth. It’s one guy with a hammer against about 20 gangsters with broomsticks and stuff. I hate action sequences that cut all the time. It’s a stunt double, that’s why they’re cutting, or they cut to make it exciting. I think I love the idea of no illusions.”
In keeping with her no-illusions philosophy, Liang wears absolutely no make-up when I take her photo. This doesn’t happen often.
Liang and her boyfriend, on whom both films are based, are living a real-life happy ending. They are now married and have a one-year-old baby. For the future, Liang intends to continue to write and direct features, but she has a bigger goal.
“Do you know what I want to be in the future? I don’t want to be an asshole. I’ve got this idea that you don’t have to be an asshole and be successful in this industry.”
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