Working across cultural boundaries is no easy thing for a director trying to merge different and distinctive styles of filmmaking, themes and visual forms, but Ang Lee is one of the few to have worked extensively both in Chinese cinema as well as European and American movies. Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu may be a few years behind Lee, but as this enjoyable conversation between them at the Berlinale shows, working across international boundaries has much to offer filmmakers.
Uploaded for seven days as part of the We Are One online festival, the two directors, who greatly admire each other’s work, are given the opportunity to quiz one another on their process and intentions while rhapsodising about each other’s finished films. Lee chose Hirokazu as his guest for the discussion and talks with enthusiasm about the formative influence of Japanese cinema in China, which entirely captures Eastern themes of sadness and kindness that infiltrate through the mood and decisions of the film in way not really seen in European and American filmmaking.
While later in the interview Lee insists that moviemaking is an international experience and a shared language that defies allusions to East or West, he recognises the verbal language and experience of filming an Austen novel were very specific, and notes being intimidated by Alan Rickman when providing monosyllabic notes on the set of Sense and Sensibility.
Given an opportunity to ask the questions, Hirokazu focuses largely on Brokeback Mountain and Lee explains the three-year process that took him from the short story, through making Hulk to feeling ready to retire. Acknowledging that the experience of US sheep herders couldn’t be further from his own life, Lee was haunted by the characters’ attempts to return to a feeling they couldn’t recapture, creating both the physical space necessary to the Western and a non-verbalised space or pauses between moments that are essential to his style of storytelling.
Hirokazu, dubbed by a translator, explained how his documentary background informs the construction of his fictional films, looking for new things to explore within the filming process and focusing on the small moments or opportunities as they arise. This is facilitated, he explained, by his close involvement in the simultaneous writing, shooting and editing process, often producing scripts the day before in what is an integrated process of filming and revision.
Lee concludes by noting that Hirokazu is reluctant to talk about his own films which this conversation amusingly bears out as many of Hirokazu’s answers return to his admiration for Brokeback Mountain and Lee’s style of filmmaking. Inspired by Hirokazu’s film After Life which this talk preceded, Lee leaves the audience with a fascinating but unanswered question to ponder: are directors just ‘ferrymen’ taking the audience on a journey or should they engage with the emotional heart of the film they are creating?
Available here until 12 June 2020