Shanghai-born film director Sherwood Hu’s latest offering is a 3D fantasy basketball film “Amazing,” set in Shanghai and featuring NBA stars.
“It is not a film just about basketball. It’s a film about youth, dreams and love. We’re telling the world Chinese stories,” the Chinese American director told Shanghai Daily in a recent telephone interview, as he prepared for the film’s premiere on September 28.
“The film explores emotional problems of today’s Chinese young people ... and people’s relationship with the virtual, cyber world,” he said.
The film is in both Mandarin and English and has both Mandarin and English subtitles.
It features Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Scottie Pippen and Yi Jianlian in supporting roles. The story revolves around Chinese boys’ dream of becoming basketball stars.
The 53-year-old director and producer earned a PhD in directing in the United States and is among the few Chinese directors with a good understanding of both Chinese and American cultures and film industries. He was the first Chinese mainland director to make an English-language Hollywood film. His 1998 “Lani Loa — The Passage” was ghost-cop story about a woman murdered on her wedding day who returns to haunt her murderers.
Hu’s films have a universal appeal drawing on elements of both the Orient and the West. The Hollywood Reporter called him “one of the most exciting and dynamic directors to emerge from China.”
Hu was born into a performing arts family in Shanghai. He’s the son of celebrated stage director Hu Weimin and actress Gu Menghua. In 1987 he moved to the United States to study film directing, receiving his master’s degree from New York State University and his PhD from the University of Hawaii.
He directed the stage production “The Legend of Prince Lanling,” which received honorable mention at the Kennedy Performing Arts Center. It was adapted into his first feature film “Warrior Lanling.”
His 2006 epic “Prince of the Himalayas,” an adaptation of “Hamlet,” has been widely praised.
He says that despite a boom at the box office, Chinese film industry still has at least a 20-year gap with that of the United States and urgently needs creativity and original content.
As the president of the School of Film and Television at Shanghai Theatre Academy, he fosters young directors.
Hu is interested in new film screening and cinematography technology and plans to focus on fulldome, immersive theater experience that combines film, theater, computer arts and digital science. He was artistic director of the World Expo Shanghai 2010 Shanghai Pavilion that featured a fulldome experience.
Q: What kind of challenges did you face in making “Amazing?”
A: It cost us two and a half years to make this film. It is an exciting experience for me as I am also a big basketball fan. We have basketball legends in the film, which received big support from National Basketball Association.
It was a challenge to coordinate schedules with the crew.
NBA stars had very busy schedules and had only had a few days in Shanghai for the movie. So we had to shoot scenes for them first.
When I studied film directing in the US in the late 1980s, I was amazed at NBA basketball, Hollywood movies and Michael Jackson music videos. Basketball is a game which is not decided till the final seconds. It is very similar to the suspense of a movie.
Q: What’s special about “Amazing?” What’s the message?
A: It is not a film just about basketball; it’s a film about youth, dreams and love. We’re telling the world Chinese stories. The film explores emotional problems of today’s Chinese young people. We also includes cyber games, which are very popular among the young generation. The film discusses people’s relationship with the virtual cyber world.
Q: How have film studies and working experience in the US impacted your directing?
A: It is a rewarding experience. I had the opportunity to immerse myself in American culture, and merge Chinese and American cultures in film and theater. I never consider myself only a Chinese film maker. I am a film director. And the director’s job is to talk to the world with camera footage. This experience has also made me a director with a global vision.
I decided to make my first film “Warrior Lanling” (1995) because of an opera mask of Lanling. When I saw the mask at my mentor’s office, it occurred to me why not put this Oriental legend onto the big screen. However, based on the Oriental story, what the film actually discusses is the persona, a Western philosophical term. In the eyes of Carl Jung, the persona is the mask or appearance one presents to the world and on the other hand it conceals the true nature of the individual.
“Prince of the Himalayas” (2006) is also a blend of Western and Eastern cultures. The film is an Oriental interpretation of “Hamlet.” Finally the prince doesn’t take revenge, but chooses to forgive. Traditional Chinese culture considers forgiveness a virtue.
Q: China’s film industry is thriving and the film market is growing. In what ways does it lag behind US filmmaking?
A: There’s at least a 20-year gap between China and the United States. The gap is not just technological, but conceptual. A lot of Chinese films lack original ideas and imagination. Most of them are not future-oriented. A good movie should have a power to ignite the dream in you. In Hollywood, you will find that even the historical film “Lincoln” is foresighted and filled with inspirational quotes that people today can learn from.
Q: Small and moderate budget Chinese films have been doing very well. What’s your view?
A: It is a good sign. Chinese cinema always needs diversity. But China is also required to set up its own standard of film production and viewing. We should not just pursue box office success. The Oscars is Hollywood’s way to set up their standards of filmmaking. The movies honored annually are both commercially successful and thought-provoking. That is also my criteria for a good movie.
Q: At the Shanghai Theatre Academy, how do you foster young filmmakers?
A: Shanghai is the cradle of Chinese film. As a Shanghai-born director, I find myself responsible for the city’s film industry. I have told my students not to be short-sighted. They must develop all-around abilities as they need to do multiple jobs in filmmaking.
And the first thing they learn about being a good director is always to be a good person. We have also founded a film studio for young local first-time directors to make experimental movies. Practice is essential for film education.
Q: What are your plans?
A: I will begin shooting my new film “The King of Shanghai” later this year. (It’s the adaptation of a novel about a young woman’s involvement with three gangsters in old Shanghai.) But in the future, I will focus more on the production of fulldome films. Nowadays there are about 200 fulldome projection screens around the world. Fulldome display will be a cinematic technology widely used in the industry as it can offer the audience a more immersive experience at theaters.