China’s Wang Xiaoshuai Goes Low Budget and Improvisational in Toronto Drama ‘The Hotel’

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Wang Xiaoshuai, director of “So Long, My Son” and “Red Amnesia,” will be the most senior mainland Chinese director to present a new film at a major Western festival this year.

That may be a reflection of the growing political and economic separation between China and the West over the past couple of years — with COVID an additional irritant. But tough times can also breed innovation.

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Wang’s latest, “The Hotel,” a chamber piece about a small group of Chinese tourists trapped in a hotel in Thailand during the early days of the pandemic, was inspired by events that Wang personally endured in 2020. It was made in almost improvised fashion, with a hastily written screenplay and shot with available crew.

The film was financed and produced entirely outside mainland China and has not obtained the “Dragon Seal,” the mark of China’s censorship approval. That means the film cannot (yet) have a release in China, but its play at the Toronto International Film Festival is unobstructed.

While the production may have been almost spontaneous, Wang displays his familiar quietly-critical gaze at his fellow countrymen as they simmer in the hotel hot house. Confronted by the difficulty of returning home, they reveal their darker traits, hide behind regulatory attitudes, and largely fail to empathize with each other’s pain.

Were fatalism, frustration, fear and ennui the emotions you intended to convey here?

There was a sense of, if not quite magical realism, something not entirely realistic. It was the first time in their lives that these characters were stuck in an unfamiliar environment, with no way to know how long the situation would endure. So, there were fears, but also comedy.

You lived through some of this yourself and created composite characters based on people you knew. Why do you not have a screenwriting credit?

Wang Xiaoshuai
Wang Xiaoshuai

It was a complete, but also a very temporary, togetherness. Very special. Everyone felt like they should take a chance and just make a film. The writer and the screenwriter worked together. I was willing give them the freedom and do my part as director. Besides, I got to make changes on site [and in post-production] in the way that a director does.

The film is set in April 2020. When did you actually shoot it?

In early 2020. Shooting took 14 days. We also did 10 days of preparation, but most of the prep time was spent looking for equipment.

We were really lucky because there was a little group who had just finished shooting a commercial. Chiang Mai was just locking down, so the Thai team could not leave either. And because of the COVID situation they had no work.

This is an extraordinary and brave role for lead actress Ning Yuanyuan, who is playing in only her second film as an adult, but who anchors all the pieces of the film.

I’ve known her since she was really young through her father Zhang Yuan [who directed her in 2006’s “Little Red Flowers”]. Now she’s at the Beijing Film Academy, where she’s enrolled in the directing and acting departments [and directed and starred in 2020’s “An Insignificant Affair”]. She too was stuck there with her father. I constructed the character around her and built it on one sentence, the idea of a really young woman facing the entire world. Yuan was very brave and invested herself completely. This whole thing was like members of a band just picking up their instruments and playing along together.

You use some specific devices to tell the story: presentation in black and white, a close 4×3 aspect ratio, and present the chapters out of order. What were the reasons?

I wanted blur the difference between reality and non-reality. Black and white provided a withdrawal from time and space, meaning that the viewer would know less about the specific year this was set in. The 4×3 ratio seemed to fit Chiang Mai, which is a city without high-rise buildings. And, also, it gave the impression of being an older movie. And for the order of the stories, well, I wanted to maximize my creativity within this singular small space.

If this film is not a mainland Chinese film, what is its nationality?

This is a very low-budget film and not obviously commercial. We were able to get the money from Hong Kong, which also has its own film classification system. If the film is to be released in China we will have to work with a mainland Chinese distributor. It will be treated as an imported film — albeit one in the Chinese language.

Why do you think fewer Chinese films are taking part in overseas film festivals these days?

Certainly, it is not like the 1990s or the 2000s when there were many more Chinese films in the major festivals. However, there are still a lot of really good authors making really good works. I’m sure that eventually they will enter the festivals. I really hope that artistic films and art in general will be seem more in the future.

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