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Our dirty questions to Jay Liu

Eoghan Lyng interviews the director of Anywhere the Wind Blows, a ":punchy" and queer love story from Hong Kong; they talk about LGBTQ+ ideologies in the Chinese region, the "guilt of comfort experienced by refugees, Joachim Trier, Robin Campillo, and more!

Jay Liu is a film writer, director, and editor from Hong Kong. He holds a B.A. in Communication (Radio/TV/Film) from Northwestern University, and recently obtained his Master of Fine Arts in Film/TV Production from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. He is particularly passionate about queer romance and domestic realism. He is a UK citizen currently based in Los Angeles.

His latest short film Anywhere the Wind Blows was selected to the American Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival last April. Eoghan Lyng reviewed his short film, which he describes as “a love story built on uncertainty and fear”.

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Eoghan Lyng – Was it a challenge to encapsulate a sophisticated story in such a short runtime?

Jay Liu – Yes and no. It’s a bit hard for me to answer this question because I wasn’t approaching it like a challenge I had to accomplish. It wasn’t like I already had this sprawling story in mind that I had to fit within the confines of 18 minutes. Instead, the story started as a simple premise from a real-life encounter with a friend. It gestated for a long time in my mind, and bits and pieces just started to grow from it. I collected many different inspirations and stories over a year, and by the time I started to write the script, it just flowed from me. I always knew the appropriate length for a USC thesis film is 15 pages, so the idea never exceeded that. So it wasn’t necessarily very hard for me to build the story in the first place – my doubt was more whether or not this complex story, when built, will be successful or not.

EL – Do you think Hong Kong is embracing queer ideologies in a way it didn’t use to?

JL – In terms of culture, I think Hong Kongers, especially youngsters, are embracing queerness more and more. I think there is definitely hope for queer acceptance among people of my generation. But I’d say the state of queer cinema is rather stagnant; there is basically one queer feature made per year, and even though this year’s All Shall Be Well [Ray Yeung] won the Teddy Award at Berlinale – which is a really immense achievement – local audiences have let it flop at the box office. There is some queer visibility in TV and music as the BL (Boys’ Love) genre gains popularity, but I think there are major red flags as to how BL represents queerness, or whether or not BL should be considered queer media at all.

In terms of legal progress, recently, the Court of Final Appeal (the Hong Kong equivalent to the Supreme Court) has made multiple landmark cases in favour of LGBTQ+ rights. Especially, there has been a case that asks the government to recognize same-sex marriage. But because the Court of Final Appeal is currently viewed with so much distrust by the people, I believe that any legal progress should be celebrated with caution.

EL – Can you explain the different character arcs between the two ex-lovers?

JL – For sure. The character arc of Alex, the protagonist, is to find his home. At the start of the movie, even though he has technically moved to America, he is still very unsure of whether he belongs here or not. He hasn’t unpacked, and he is haunted by these memories from Hong Kong. The arrival of Brandon forces Alex to consider where his heart and mind are, which is both a physical and mental thing. At the end of the film, Alex has to choose whether he wants to reunite with this man from his Hong Kong past, or to cleanse those memories and embrace a new, independent life in the US.

For Brandon, his goal at first is to get Alex back and reunite with Alex as a couple. But as he tries to seduce Alex, he also learns that Alex is trying to move on. So the end of his arc is whether or not he can mature as a person and learn to accept Alex’s new state of mind.

EL – The film opens with a surreal image of prisoners shackled to a cell. Is this supposed to reflect the protagonist’s inner guilt?

JL – Yep, these are the fellow activists Alex left behind. I’d say the majority of activists from Hong Kong are currently in jail; those who have fled to the West are only a few. When former colleagues are imprisoned for what seems like indefinitely, the overseas refugees who have settled down face the guilt of their comfort every day.

EL – Midway through the short, audiences see an elaborate set piece that melds violence with a desire to escape. Was this a difficult scene to orchestrate?

JL – Definitely, this is the first time I’ve directed a stunts sequence. There were so many moving parts that I was very overwhelmed by the sheer number of commands I had to give out during a take. Stunts, extras, practical smoke effects, and camera movements were all going off at the same time. But thankfully, I had great producers and an experienced stunts team that helped me out immensely. Even though the first stunts shot took us three hours to set up, once that was done, the rest of the shots actually sailed pretty smoothly. To my surprise, we wrapped early on our stunts day! Doing this project has definitely assuaged my fear of tackling any action sequences in the future.

EL – Please talk to us about short works: are there some stories that benefit from a shorter runtime, and why do they?

JL – To be honest, like a lot of student filmmakers, I am more familiar with the feature world than the shorts world. But I think there are a lot of great short films, and I think they are inherently different from features. One of the most common mistakes made by student filmmakers – including myself – is trying to make a feature within a short’s runtime. I don’t blame us, because a lot of film school curriculum tries to drill the three-act structure into our brains. I think even Anywhere the Wind Blows sometimes falls into that trap. But the difference in length means that a short cannot be expected to pull off the whole journey of a feature. Instead, I think the goal of a short is really just to land a really strong emotion and impression with the audience. It doesn’t necessarily have to tell a story – even more so than for features, emotion is king. So shorts have more space to play with structure and form, to be more impressionistic. There is more capacity for experimentation in the shorts world, which is exciting to me.

EL – The differences between the more grounded sequences and the more fantastical is pleasantly reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil [1985]. Has Gilliam influenced your work, and if not, who has?

JL – Thank you, I’ve seen Brazil a few years ago, but I think that was quite distant in my memory. My influences for this project are more contemporary. I’m always influenced by the amazing domestic realism of Andrew Haigh, especially his Weekend [2011], which is one of my favourite films of all time. There’s a lot of that film in the apartment scenes of my film. I came up with the dream sequence when watching The Worst Person in the World [Joachim Trier, 2021] and then I realised the great French film 120 BPM (120 Battements par Minute) [Robin Campillo, 2017] actually has a pretty similar ending to it. So I was definitely trying to learn from those two films. And finally, the dinner scene that takes up the first half of the film is influenced by Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster [2013], which has a very important restaurant scene as the climax of the film. I was definitely trying to capture the simplicity and emotionality of that dialogue scene. I think my influences ended up being very varied, so I hope my combination of them ends up being unique.

EL – Do you think the emotional undercurrents will appeal to audiences all over the world?

JL – I hope so. I’m definitely more than aware that the situation in Hong Kong is a news item of the past. So to me, it was never really about topicality. I’ve always maintained that my film is more of a love story than a political story, and I think romance elements like longing, regret, and heartbreak are universal. So even though I don’t stop my film to explain its context, I have faith that all audiences are able to understand and feel the story.

EL – What do you hope viewers will take away from this project?

JL – I hope viewers take away a sense of hope for the future, even when situations are extremely dire. I also hope they remember that there are many small individuals who are making immense sacrifices, both physically and emotionally, to make our world a better place. There are always people continuing the fight, and they deserve to be remembered.

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Jay Liu is pictured at the top and also in the middle of this article.


By Eoghan Lyng - 21-06-2024

Throughout a journey found through his own writings and the writings of other filmmakers, Eoghan has taken to the spirit of the surreal to find greater meaning from the real. He finds it far easier to...

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