Sophie's Revenge is a film that takes its influences (Amelie, screwball romantic comedies, Korean melodrama) quite seriously. Whether we should extend the same courtesy to its slightly off-the-rocker female protagonist and her various machinations is less clear. Luckily, said female protagonist also happens to be played by Chinese star (and producer) Zhang Ziyi, who possesses surprisingly nimble comic timing, which no doubt contributed to the film's robust run at the box office -- it grossed $100 million yuan domestically, a truly rare feat for any Chinese film not spawned by Zhang Yimou or Feng Xiaogang.
But perhaps the most compelling reason to take Sophie's Revenge seriously is the woman behind the curtain. Director Eva Jin, or Jin Yimeng, was born in Harbin, China, and received her MFA from Florida State University. She also has a background in Italian opera and spent many years as a prolific cartoonist. Clearly, these are influences meant to be taken seriously. Then again, they might also explain both the titular character's compulsive flights of fancy and tendency to scream when things don't go her way.
Eva Jin swung by Asia Pacific Arts HQ for a chat about the merits of co-production, the growing savvy demonstrated by Chinese audiences, and how when it comes to her sense of humor, she's got a heart of darkness.
Interview with Eva Jin
August 30, 2010
Interviewed by Chi Tung
Camera by Craig Stubing
Video Edit by Ariel Adler
APA: Could you start by briefly introducing yourself?
Eva Jin: My name is Eva Jin; my Chinese name is Yimeng Jin. I was born in China, and went to China Music Conservatory to study Italian opera performance. I studied Italian opera for eight years -- in school for five years, and three years before that. After graduating, I wanted to study film, so I came to the US, and studied English at Maryland University for one year. Then I got into FSU film school and got my MFA. After graduating from there, I came to LA for a couple years, then I went back to China and made my first feature called Sailfish. It's a period drama. Then in 2009, I made Sophie's Revenge.
APA: Sophie's Revenge is sort of a screwball romantic comedy, which is a genre you rarely see in Mainland Chinese filmmaking. Do you think there's a growing desire for Chinese audiences to see a quirky female protagonist?
EJ: I think Chinese audiences are ready for all genres. With the internet, they can watch so many international movies and Hollywood movies. In the Chinese film industry, many genres haven't been well-developed enough. So they're ready for any new genres.
APA: I noticed that there are a lot of culturally specific details in the film, where some of the characters go back and forth between speaking English and Chinese. Is that a reflection on generational changes seen in today's Chinese youth?
EJ: I think so, yeah. The young generations watch lots of American TV series. The younger generation speaks better English than the older. Especially with the market, right now in the big cities, the target audiences are white-collar. Most of them speak pretty good English. So I think it's okay to switch languages like that.
APA: Is that true of your own experiences?
EJ: I learned English in China during high school and middle school, but I couldn't speak that well until I got here [to the US]. And actually, filmmaking helped a lot. As a filmmaker, you have to express yourself and talk a lot.
APA: In terms of the casting choices, one of the lead male actors is Korean [So Ji Sub]. I'm assuming his lines were dubbed into Mandarin?
EJ: Yes, I made him speak Chinese. I had this experience in Sailfish, when we had a Hong Kong actor who preferred to speak Cantonese, and I let her do it. But later in post-production, it was really hard to dub, because the syncing is different and the pronunciation is different. So this time, with Sophie's Revenge, I asked him specifically to speak in Chinese. And he said that's fine, because he doesn't have many lines. So it turned out pretty well.
APA: What about the soundtrack? Some of the songs were sung in English…
EJ: I love bossa nova, so there are a lot of bossa nova songs in there. Also, the music is typical for a Hollywood-style comedy -- the composer works for a lot of Disney movies. So it's pretty easy for him to add that style. And I love bossa nova and French music too, so I think having some Western music makes it a little different.
APA: You mentioned that the movie is very much done in a Hollywood style. Do you think Chinese audiences are able to identify with the same issues in a Hollywood romantic comedy, or are there certain cultural differences that don't translate as well?
EJ: When the movie first came out, lots of people thought it was a Korean movie. Because they aren't used to seeing something so beautiful -- only in Hanju [korean melodrama], do you see romantic, beautiful scenes in there. So some people thought it was made by a Korean director and that it was done in a Korean style. And some people thought it was very Hollywood-style. And I remember saying, "Get used to it. Because it's a Chinese film. We've just started. We'll have more films like this."
They're surprised that we have something like this, because they're not used to it. But I think after Sophie's Revenge, there have been many more romantic comedies that have that quality in China. There's Du Lala [Go Lala Go!], and 20 or 30 others that have come out. You know, it's funny, when we made Sophie's Revenge, we were really worried that Chinese audiences weren't ready for it. Because we didn't want it to be too local. But it turned out all right.
APA: Was that intentional on your part to make it seem more of a transnational production?
EJ: I wrote the script in L.A., the original script was written in English, and the character was originally American. Also, because I studied film here, it's very natural for me to use Hollywood-style storytelling. It's not that I did it on purpose. It's just natural for me.
APA: Nowadays, there are a lot of Chinese American filmmakers who are making more films in Asia, and shooting more on location in Asia, instead of trying to struggle in the Asian American circuit. Was that a conscious decision, to make films in China as opposed to Asian American ones?
EJ: You know, I stayed here for about three or four years, writing every day in a coffee shop. And I heard this story after I graduated, about Ang Lee making his first feature after seven years. And I told myself, I don't want to do that, because seven years is very long, especially for a female director. But I kept writing, because I still had that dream, to make an English film first. Then I got a call from a Chinese producer to make a low-budget, independent Chinese film. I said, "Ok, I'll do it." I thought it would take a couple months, then I'd finish it, and come back, and make more films. Then I realized, after I started to direct the Chinese film, how happy it makes me to be on set, to be a director. After film school, before I made that feature film, it had been three or four years without directing anything.
So I realized as a director, it didn't matter which language it was in -- as long as I'm doing it, I'm happy. So after my first feature in China, I made my decision. I said, "This is the place." Because it's easy to get investors, it's my native language, everything is so easy. So that's how I got the idea to find a script that can be turned into a Chinese production. So that's how I found Sophie's Revenge.
APA: Do you think that's the type of direction Chinese filmmakers are moving in -- co-production? Is that going to continue to grow as a trend?
EJ: Yeah. Actually, with Chinese productions, there's a lot of co-production already happening, so the production team is already pretty good. But the post-production isn't that great. Because most American movies don't want to do their post-production in China. So Chinese filmmakers in post never get the chance to train and practice with a Hollywood team. So I think production standards are still a little behind. We did the entire post-production in Korea. We worked with the people who worked on Oldboy, the whole team, the digital effects, sound design, everything.
APA: Are there challenges or conflicts, though, in terms of the co-production process? Working with US studios, is there still a little bit of a distrust among Chinese filmmakers in terms of getting their ideas or resources exploited?
EJ: Anything with the studio is slow, because there are a lot of processes. But they have a lot of money to make things easier, though sometimes, not really. But Sophie's Revenge is more like an independent film.
APA: This is probably just the sense I got from the movie, but in some places, the film's humor seems quite dark. It seems to almost reflect certain realities with thirtysomethings in China, in finding the right kinds of relationships to settle down in.
EJ: I never really thought about that. I'm pretty dark. I have a dark sense of humor, because I like that. Actually, I can be even darker. But because of censorship, we couldn't do anything too violent, we had to make it more cute, and to use a lot of cartoons.
APA: How did your cartooning experience help develop your filmmaking sensibilities?
EJ: Before I came to the U.S., I published two or three cartoon books, all single-panel. After I studied and made films, I didn't actually have time to draw anything. But when I was rewriting Sophie's Revenge into Chinese, I had to give the main character a job. I was thinking, what kind of job would make a girl have so many fantasies that were sometimes dark, but full of enough humor? So I thought maybe the cartoonist would be a good idea.
APA: What about stylistically and aesthetically, what were some of your influences?
EJ: I really loved Amelie, the French movie. A couple years ago, I watched it eight or ten times. Every time I watched it, I hated myself. I thought, why did I never make a movie like this, or tell stories in this way? So I told myself that I wanted to make something like this, very stylish. That's a big influence. I think it was a revolution for the film industry in terms of storytelling. Lots of films like it came out afterwards. Also, the cartooning. I draw cartoons, so it's very easy for me to have that kind of imagination. Actually, the memory box boy in the movie is an actual dream for me.
APA: What about Zhang Ziyi's role as a producer? A lot of people have said that this film shows a very different side of her persona. Is this why she chose to be involved with this project?
EJ: I think so. This is the kind of character and role she's been looking for. I remember the first time we handed the script to her, very soon, after two weeks, we got a call from her, saying she wanted to meet. We had dinner together, and she was so excited about this character. That's a very good beginning as a filmmaker. She fell in love with the character, which is very important.
APA: How much creative input did she have?
EJ: The script was already very solid at that time. Because I kept writing and rewriting it. She had some suggestions, and she's very professional. Basically, every day we would talk about what we would shoot, and sometimes, most directors are like, "What do you think about saying this? Do you like this line, do you feel comfortable saying it?" Most of the time, I'd say 99% of the time, we were on the same page.
APA: Did she get a chance to improvise?
EJ: Yes, we wanted her to do that. It's a gift from the actor. She did, and was very helpful, and professional.
APA: I read somewhere that you're interested in making a bilingual comedy, or perhaps you're already making it? What kinds of challenges do you face from a marketing standpoint?
EJ: I think you're trying to please two kinds of markets, both Chinese audiences, and the American or international market.
APA: Do you think Chinese audiences are ready for more cross-cultural productions?
EJ: We have lots of that kind of thing lately. Karate Kid is like that -- I mean, it's not bilingual, but most of the characters speak English, and it takes place in China.
APA: Oh, so in your film, are there expat characters then, or foreigners living in China?
EJ: Mine does, yes. There's a guy who goes to China…
APA: How was Sophie's Revenge perceived differently by the Chinese media, versus the international film festival circuit?
EJ: We didn't actually show it in many film festivals, because it's a commercial film. In China, the media is pretty compressed, so it's very important. Because if they don't like it, they will influence the audience. But they liked it, so they helped out a lot.
APA: Are there plans for you to return to English-language filmmaking?
EJ: I would love to make, in my life, at least one English-speaking movie. I'm working on the one you mentioned. Hopefully, I can do it within the next two years.
APA: Will that also be a co-production?
EJ: It's more of a studio film that's shot in China, but yes, a co-production.
For more information about Sophie's Revenge, go to the official website.