The first film I was drawn to in the pre-CAAMFest screener list was Julia Kwan’s EVERYTHING WILL BE. I’d loved her narrative feature EVE AND THE FIREHORSE, and was deeply interested in her first documentary feature and its subject – a changing Chinatown in Vancouver, B.C. Her film has already been nominated for and won a slew of awards, and will hold a lot of meaning for us here in the Bay Area, as we face the same issues of change, loss, gentrification, preservation and adaptation. It’s a movie about a neighborhood, but it has a deeply affecting spiritual and humane core. I encourage everyone to see the film at CCSF in the heart of Chinatown on Saturday, March 12th at 2 pm. Julia Kwan was kind enough to answer a few questions by email.
I very much enjoyed your film, EVERYTHING WILL BE. It was actually the first film I screened this year, as I was so intrigued by the topic. Can you tell me a little bit about the inception for this project, your first documentary feature?
The project came to me quite serendipitously. David Christensen, a producer at the National Film Board, approached me about this project. At the time, they were looking to work with a feature dramatic director who might be interested in making a feature documentary exploring the theme of greed. I initially turned away the idea of making a doc because it seemed like such a daunting endeavour but a germ of an idea developed as I was walking through the streets of Chinatown one day and observed the many shuttered Chinese shops within a 2 block radius and I found I wanted to explore the changes further. Through development, the theme of greed evolved into a meditation on change, loss, and memory. I am fortunate for a government funded arts organization like National Film Board, which has a long history in stellar documentary filmmaking and to be encouraged to explore and experiment with another genre was wonderful.
I loved the cinematography, which reminded me of still shots I’ve taken in Chinatowns – it just brought a real sense of place. Each vignette held its own, and in succession created a elegiac mosaic of time, place and change. I actually had just seen Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS, and I know he was an influence. Maybe you can describe that influence more, and your other influences in determining your overall narrative.
Thanks! Lots of credit to the talented cinematographer, Patrick MacLaughlin, who won a Canadian Screen Award (Canadian Oscars) for Best Cinematography for his wonderful work.
Yes, Wiseman was definitely an influence. I remember watching High School and Hospital in film school and being immersed into the film, which was nuanced and open. I love the observational documentary style and felt the Chinatown doc should have that same immersive experience. I felt it shouldn’t be a prescriptive film with an authoritative voice-over because of the complexity of the issues at hand, like identity, culture, revitalization, and gentrification.
Another wonderful thing about working with the NFB is having access to a huge library of documentary DVDs and I spent months watching docs. (Yes, it’s a great job!) I was also really drawn to a beautifully shot, observational documentary by Harald Friedl called OUT OF TIME, about several Mom and Pop shops on the cusp of disappearing in Vienna. The film is a subtle observation about gentrification even though that word is not uttered once in the film.
In addition to referencing films, the look of the film was inspired by the images of Vancouver photographer, Fred Herzog, who took candid Kodachromatic photos of street life in the 50’s and 60’s. Like Herzog, I wanted to capture the grittiness and humanity through a thoughtful and compassionate eye. The grittiness is awash with Herzog’s warm, Kodachrome glow. Patrick and I poured through Herzog’s photography books prior to shooting.
How was IN JACKSON HEIGHTS?
It was amazing. Though clocking in at three hours, I was rapt the entire time! I wish more people would see films like yours and his…I think there were at least three options in the face of change that various characters held. One, held by the 90-year old woman selling newspapers whose “punch could knock out a tiger” and also the Italian grocery store owner – holding fast to tradition, a tradition that will likely die out with them. Another – held by the artist and the developer, of adapting to change and trying to reconfigure trajectory with the past’s influence. And third – perhaps a spiritual view of letting go completely, movingly embodied by Olivia Cheung of Treasure Green Tea. How did these possibilities play out in your own mind, and where do you stand now?
Great observation. For all the subjects, I wanted to reveal, in some small way, his or her philosophy on change, memory and letting go. Overall, I felt like most of my subjects were dealing with the changes in Chinatown with a quiet resignation. Yes, Ms. Kwan, the newspaper vendor, talks about her fierce punch but at the same time, she speaks reflectively about the business of newspapers, which is a sunset industry and how the next generation of Chinese Canadians can’t even read Chinese anymore. Rennie, the condo marketer, collects mementos from Chinatown’s past but do we want to turn Chinatown into a museum? Olivia spoke profoundly about detachment and letting go. For me, I don’t want Chinatown to be turned into this cultural touchstone. I am not against change because I understand that is the natural evolution of any neighbourhood. It was only in making this doc that I realized Chinatown used to be Little Italy until that community moved east. Change is inevitable but I think we have to hold steadfast to that vitality and that sense of community in Chinatown, especially for the seniors.
As you’re probably aware, gentrification, increasing rent and housing issues, and so forth are changing San Francisco as well, making your film very important to us here. Wiseman had a strong editorial bent in his recent film, but I sensed your film was more descriptive rather than prescriptive. Perhaps it’s telling that you adapted the title of the neon art piece “Everything Will Be Alright” to just “Everything Will Be.” Could you tell me about that? And did you know you might have been giving a subtle shout-out to Kendrick Lamar?
Yes, the film is not a polemic. It’s descriptive rather than prescriptive and strives for neutrality or as much neutrality as a film can have. One of my favourite reviews described it as a Rorschach test of a movie. Depending on your own personal history and opinions, you might find yourself debating the film for hours on end after the screening. I’ve had people upset at me because they thought I portrayed Rennie in too positive a light and I’ve had others who were upset that I portrayed him too negatively! Personally, I respond better to documentaries where the “message” isn’t spoonfed and, on the contrary, the film provokes thought and dialogue.
Ha, I’m an oldie so I don’t know the reference to Kendrick Lamar! The neon art installation by London artist, Martin Creed, was very controversial when it was installed on the roof of Rennie’s building. The installation towered over Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood and some people found the sentiment patronizing. The title, Everything Will Be, is more reflective of the film because it is a very Zen way of thinking, this acceptance of the idea that everything is susceptible to change. You see Mr. and Mrs. Lai, the herbalists, open and close shop, day in and day out. They just go with the ebb and flow. I like the title because it is very open whereas you can construe the title of Everything is Going to be Alright as either optimistic or ironic.
Your first Narrative Feature was the award-winning EVE AND THE FIREHORSE (SFIAAFF 2006). This also dealt with cultural conflict and change. Any thematic connections that tie your work together, that you are interested in exploring?
With both these films, I was interested in exploring large, pervasive issues like religion or gentrification/change through the very personal gaze of a young girl, in the case of Eve & the Fire Horse and the local denizens of Chinatown in EWB. For me, both these films started from a very personal place. A friend of mine said something very lovely after watching the doc. She told me that the film made her heart ache for the Chinatown of her past. I guess the film grew from that ache she talked about. I remember the bustling, vibrant Chinatown from my childhood. I remember my Mother only ever seemed like she was in her element in Chinatown. She would say hi to so many people and she told us to address everyone as Auntie or Uncle, even though we weren’t related. Those are my memories that I hold – the sense of connection and community and that’s what I tried to show in the film.
Thanks so much!
EVERYTHING WILL BE at CAAMFest
City College of San Francisco-Chinatown/North Beach Campus
March 12, 2016 2:00 pm
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Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com, and find out about his upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, and his e-book on Asian American Anger, now available for free download. More CAAMFest MOSF (Memoirs of a Superfan) blog posts can be found here and here.