Memoirs of a Superfan Vol 11.10 – Q&A with “Pali Road”

"Pali Road" exemplifies the best in indie work this year and opens in theaters on April 29th.

Memoirs of a Superfan Vol 11.10

An Interview with Pali Road’s Director and Producer

CAAMFest 2016 featured many amazing films, including Pali Road, which won the Honorable Mention Jury Prize for Narrative Feature. The jury commented, “Playing off familiar conventions, Pali Road seamlessly blurs the lines between fantasy and reality within a story not defined by the ethnicity of the characters, contributing a fresh take on the thriller genre.” Starring Taiwanese superstar Michelle Chen, and notable American actors Sung Kang (the Fast and Furious franchise), Jackson Rathbone (Twilight) and Henry Ian Cusick (Lost, The 100), this film had many delights. Set in Hawaii and featuring a strong multi-ethnic cast and a production team that crossed borders, Pali Road exemplifies the best in indie work this year. Best of all, it’s due to open on April 29th nationwide in AMC, Regal and Consolidated theaters.

I sat down with Director Jonathan Lim and Producer and Actor Daxing Zhang during CAAMFest to ask them about their story’s development, their actors, and what they learned about love while making their film. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!).

-Ravi Chandra

The story and dealing with China’s censors

RC: I loved your film that was about love and regret, and finding your truth. And, it’s also a medical thriller, which I like, because I’m a psychiatrist. I really appreciated the psychological angles. Of course it’s about relationships. How did you choose the story, and how did it evolve and develop?

JL: Initially we had gone with a script and it started off like a bit of a horror-type of thing, the idea of this patient who was in a coma, and yet he was reaching out from the coma world to the real world. But, as we went further into it we realized we were going to have censorship problems with China [Pali Road was produced in partnership with Chinese companies]. China would say, “There’s not such thing as ghosts; there’s no spirituality thing.”

DZ: It’s for after 1949, when the current leadership is in place. There has never been a ghost (in film).

RC: So, the supernatural can’t really be in the film, I see.

DZ: In ancient China, that’s okay. But the people today, we want a movie that’s modern. All the ghost stories are about the old days, so we couldn’t do that.

JL: So in the modern day, these ghosts can’t exist or something. It’s kind of strange, but we were still, we were like, “Oh, well, that’s not going to work.” We were trying to find ways around that initially. Putting thematically what I was trying to say, in terms of what you said, love and grand decisions we make, what had happened was that then I just started going into research. I think every filmmaker does that; the more research they do, one day something is going to happen, and I stumbled on some articles that spoke to me. It was about this coma patient, and there’s a couple of them. What had happened is they had gone into a coma, not knowing they were pregnant at the time, and even delivered the baby while in a coma. When they woke up from the coma, the kid’s already a couple of months old. They didn’t even know they had a baby! They went through this whole term of pregnancy.

That just blew me away. I thought, “That’s impossible”, but it actually happened. It’s happened to several coma patients. I said, “Wow, imagine trying to take that idea and craft a story around it, but without giving away the ending,” so that was a really big challenge as a filmmaker, with the writers, the producers, trying to figure out how do we do that. At the same time, have that…I’m sure everyone has dreams, and there are times when the dreams seem so real, and you don’t know why; and you’re a psychiatrist, so I’m sure you listen to people say, “What I dreamed last night…” I’m sure a lot of times they don’t understand why, but it bothers them. It’s this lingering thing. I’ve had that happen to me recently, you know, where you’re just, “Why did I dream that? It makes no sense; why am I dreaming about being with that girl,” or something. All these other weird things happen.

My wife, every time she’s pregnant, her dreams elevate to the next level. I was doing research about that. Each trimester a woman will go through different types of dream states. So, there are books and research about dreams and stuff like that, and the meaning of them and how they affect us. It’s the weirdest thing, because they said you can dream about that rose and flower, and that means something, why you’re dreaming that. So, we try to put that imagery, those ideas into the pictures, so when you watch the film you see certain images that actually have meaning if you look them up. The birds, and the water, that’s all type of…the idea of giving chase, the confusion, these are things that happen often in dreams. I don’t know how many dreams I’ve had where I’m being chased. I don’t know why, but … we try to hold onto that feeling.

At the same time, the dreams mean something, but I also wanted to bring in some of the ideas of the spirituality, without really saying that. Maybe there’s something more going on. I don’t know if you believe in the afterlife or near death experience.

RC: Yeah, sure.

JL: I do, personally. I believe in all that, and sometimes it used to bother me a lot in China that no one does, and they’re not allowed to, even. So I was going, I have to try to be true to myself and maybe I can incorporate that in without being censored, but kind of saying it in between the lines. There are certain shots, certain scenes to me…you know, there’s a scene where she actually gets to marry Neil. For me that’s like, as a Christian I would interpret that as, she’s at the gates of heaven. She gets to see him for that moment. It’s like a near death experience. She gets to marry him, kiss him, and then…but yet, she’s not ready to go there. I just say it out, you know what I mean. But those kind of images, that is what was happening for me. Other people have read it differently, but at the end of the day, it’s a dream. For China, we just say, “It’s a dream,” and we get through censorship. I’m not going to tell them that, “Oh, this is what I really meant.” There are people who have come to me and asked me about that, and they get it. So, I’m happy that it’s there.

RC: Are there other things that you would worry about, in terms of troubling the censors?

DZ: Yeah, the technicality of how many crew members from China have been working on it, so on and so forth…

Director Jonathan Lim.
Director Jonathan Lim.

Will this film appeal to more than Asians and Asian Americans?

JL: We’re at CAAMFest; it’s an Asian American film festival, but we feel that it could go broader. Hopefully people look beyond the fact that it’s Asian American and they don’t tag it, like, “Oh, this is for Asian Americans to watch.” I don’t know, do you think it’s something that…?

RC: Oh sure, absolutely. I always think that a lot of films at CAAMFest could have broader appeal. Maybe that’s the other internal censor that American audiences have.

JL: That’s very interesting. You pigeonhole yourself.

RC: Right, audiences say, “Oh, we want to see stuff that’s ‘about us’,” but I think you have a very human story, and it’s a love story, so I think it should be very…

DZ: So, people were saying that diversity includes mainstream. The effort, the battle is just as hard, if not harder. You try to tell your own…there is Chinese-ness, there’s Chinese stories, there’s all that, and we were trying to incorporate that so there’s a bigger reach of your audience for your message. That’s much harder than, say, “I’m Chinese, or I’m whatever minority, and my life is just miserable.” People go, “Yeah, great.”

RC: Right, I think to broaden it to a human experience is so important, and of course there’s been so much controversy with not having that representation, so it’s great. You work with some great star power, some people who have already been known in the U.S. pretty well, like Sung Kang, but Michelle Chen probably isn’t as known in the U.S. Tell me about working with all of your star power. How did that come about?

About working with Michelle Chen, Jackson Rathbone and Sung Kang

JL: Michelle is known for her…she’s a girl next door in China. She’s a very likable, sweet girl. She was interesting, because at the same time we wanted to make this film in English. I think it’s very hard for a Chinese-Chinese film to go wide in the U.S. or something. But in China, they’re used to watching English films dubbed with Chinese subtitles, so we said, “Okay, we’re going to make this in English.” Our investors and producer have been very supportive of that. They allowed us to do that, so I’m very happy. But then we had to find an actress who could be real, and not be conscious of her English and all that stuff. Michelle actually studied out here; she was actually a foreign student, so she had those life experiences. She studied, I think, at U.S.C., right? I remember a couple of years she lived in California.

DZ: In high school, yeah.

JL: …and then she has those strict Taiwanese parents. You know, those…the Tiger Moms, right? We talked to her about that, and she just fit. I like her look because she’s not like some of those Chinese actresses…some of those Chinese actresses now look like models, like they’re just perfect. Like, almost intimidating perfect. But I think Michelle is approachable. She’s got that look, very approachable, like she’s a real person.

RC: She looks like she could be your doctor. (She plays a doctor in the film.)

JL: Exactly, absolutely.

RC: Not to say that all doctors aren’t good-looking. (And Michelle is very good looking!)

Sung Kang in Pali Road.
Sung Kang in Pali Road.

JL: I mean, it’s true. I see a lot of these Chinese films where you’re just like, “What is a girl like that doing? She can’t be the girl next door.” This girl is like, so pretty, right, ridiculous. Sometimes people cast because they’re just popular, not really if they’re right for the role. We really fought for trying to find people who made sense and were believable in their roles. That started off with Michelle; she had all the ingredients and her English is good. It’s solid compared to some Chinese actresses who would still struggle. That was her.

Then when we went to looking for the male, we just wanted a guy who was very, very likable. He had a bit of a…he could do that type of teacher, guy-next-door kind of thing in a weird way. We didn’t want him to be like this big hunk… Someone who could be truthful, and innocent, and fun, and light-hearted and believable that way. Then Jackson’s name came up, and we just started watching his stuff and it was like, wow, he’s very likable. I said, “Dude, every time you smile like that, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, he just lights up the room.’ It’s kind of ridiculous, can you stop doing that?”

RC: He’s a very wholesome character.

JL: Then, when it came to play Sung, Sung’s role, the doctor, we just wanted someone who had that very seriousness about them, in contrast from Jackson’s light-hearted character; we need someone who is opposite. So, when we were looking at those types of Asian American actors and stuff, so to speak, there’s not a lot of them to choose from, in a way. But Sung was like, he is the epitome of cool, right? He’s just got that…he is probably the strongest alpha male – Asian alpha male – I’ve seen on screen in a big studio picture. So, he just seemed right. That’s how he came about, he just gave that big contrast and you can take him very seriously. What I was impressed about with Sung, for our film, is that he was still able to be…he was very sensitive in his role, too. He has that side. So, that was nice to see that part. It was very different from some of the other things I think he’s done.

And then, the final person is probably…the parents were great. I think they’re familiar faces; they can bring that sternness and believability. Elizabeth (Sung) and Tzi (Ma) are so talented as actors. And of course, our police officer here as well. I don’t think you recognized him. He’s the sheriff, the Hawaiian sheriff. He looks Hawaiian. I said, “Oh my God, you look Hawaiian. I’m a little over budget now, so can you come and do this?” Daxing has been in many big movies.

DZ: I just want to say one thing to finish with what Jon said about Michelle. We didn’t know her, but when we first met her…Before that, our Chinese investor was very big on having her, so we were like, “Well, we have to use her, probably.” Then when we first…day one when we met her it was like, I looked at her and I said, “We have our movie,” because she is not the kind of gorgeous, gorgeous actress, you know, the perfect plastic surgery, but then she does capture the eye. She does capture the camera. As an actor, she is very, very hard working. There was a scene…I don’t think I told you this. There was a scene where I wrestle with her. That was like 13 months ago, and I have just about recovered! (Massaging his hand where Michelle twisted it.)

RC: So, she really got into character!

DZ: She is a teeny little thing, right? I’m a big, supposed to be a Samoan, a cop, right?

Producer and actor Daxing Zhang.
Producer and actor Daxing Zhang.

What did you learn about love?

RC: What did you as a director, or maybe even your actors, learn about love in the process of making this film?

JL: The one we choose to love can have a huge impact, effect on our lives and stuff. That’s where I actually remember a day where, talking to Michelle about that, because there was a really tough scene coming up, where she just had to be real, when you realize this person, even though they’ve done everything for you, you just can’t seem to love this person. So I said, “I need you to connect with that if you’ve ever had that experience.” I think everyone has, and everyone has regrets in their life. Sometimes they thought, “The road not taken, the grass is always greener; what if I had just taken that pill and gone that way?” That was something I think we all explored. And I was not trying to say that that world was necessarily bad. I think that’s why we take…and that was Sung’s idea, which is really interesting. I give him credit for that. Initially … his character was written where he’s the bad guy. But then, in his world, he’s the good guy. Sung Kang’s the good guy in this film.

RC: Dependable and …

JL: Yeah, he’s the good guy, actually. So, even though she’s in Sung Kang’s world, he’s actually the good guy. He’s trying to help her through the whole thing, he’s just trying to love her. He’s just trying to have her stay in this world. That was a huge change in the script that we did, and in a lot of ways that made it a lot more…I think in a lot of ways that added to the conflict, the emotional conflict, that one has, because it’s not about this guy’s better for you, or that guy’s better for you. Each guy gives you something different. And, each woman gives you something different, right. We may never know. I’ve flip-flopped so many times; I’m sure everyone has about who they’re with and they wonder what would have happened. That’s what we learned about love.

RC: Okay. Other films this year have also been about forging reality and identity in the face of the expectations of others. In some sense, owning our own desires and intentions is this creative act. This is maybe similar to the last question, but in that sense, choosing or owning your desires and intentions, and how did that play out for you as you wrote this film?

JL: It’s interesting, because as a filmmaker, we all have our back stories too, right. I started off into the film world rather late. I was working for my family business and they were very successful, but then you sometimes…

RC: Doing what?

JL: We were retail, we had a public company and all that stuff. It’s an Asian family, so business-oriented. So, the expectation is that you would continue that, and just do that, and hopefully you feel fulfilled. I think everyone, sometimes they feel a calling, there’s real desire and need to be doing something. Maybe that’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s not, because it doesn’t meet up to someone else’s expectations. In terms of your parents, they have this vision for you. Parts of that’s within the story; you have to…it’s tough trying to get your parents to…and I think it would be even more harder to get Asian parents to because they are not very vocal or emotional about how they express themselves. It’s hard for them to say things. They don’t talk how we talk in this generation. They’re holding things in, and maybe by their actions you can interpret them, “I think that was an apology.” That’s what I learned, and it’s in there too, for the film, where Lily is struggling with trying to live up to their expectations and what they want versus what will make her, probably, more happier. That’s what holds her back from saying yes initially.

Future projects

RC: What are each of your next projects?

JL: For me, I’m focusing on…I was doing some reading and I stumbled upon some, like, the Chinatowns of San Francisco and Los Angeles, in California, and just in general I was doing this history check about the Chinatowns. It’s an election year as well, so it’s kind of interesting because I stumbled upon all these racial riots in the 1800s in the Chinatowns. Like, racist politicians, and it was, “Wow, it’s weird how this makes sense today.” I started going into that research and I thought this was very interesting, but I didn’t want to do it as a drama, because I thought that it’s a little hard for dramas to get funding in China, if we were to do work with China. The idea was…Have you ever seen that old TV series “Kung Fu” with David Carradine?

RC: Yeah, yeah.

JL: I thought, maybe we could do something like a modern day…not a modern day revamp of that time period. So the idea was, we’d do…My next film would be something like “Kung Fu Cowboys”; it’s a mashup between the martial arts – kung fu – and the wild, wild west, a western. So, having these two types of tones and feels and mish-mashing them would be kind of interesting. Only that film’s done it, I think. Today’s audience has not seen that. And I kind of miss seeing kung fu in that traditional way. All the fighting scenes are like, it’s all that UFC stuff, right, and that type of fighting, but the traditional kung fu, I miss those type of movements and styles, the way of fighting.

RC: And you?

DZ: I have a project that is going to be a co-production with the actor Xu Zheng, who is like the number one comedian in China.

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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, 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 blog posts can be found here and here.