A while ago our reporter Curt Wiser got the opportunity to see Release, from Henry Liu. He then followed that up with an interview where Liu covers everything from returning to China and taking 27 cuts to get scene right.
Curt Wiser: Where did the concept of Release come from?
Henry Liu: In 2015, I went back to Beijing, I haven’t been back for about 6 years, and I was overwhelmed and shocked by the changes of contemporary Chinese society. The huge gap between the rich and the poor, the growing anxiety of the middle class, the government officials’ pressure due to the anti-corruption movement, the difficulty of getting hospitalized when people are sick…all of those things mixed together become the inspiration of this short film. Qing Ping is like a mirror, I’m trying reflect the current situation of the society through her by using simple characters and images.
CW: The job and setting of a Karaoke bar with a man in a private room with a female entertainer like Qing Ping is not something we have in the United States. I got the feeling more goes on there than just singing, is that correct?
HL: You’re right, some of the karaoke bars in China provide “special services”, when you go there, the “Mommy” will bring many girls to your room and let you choose, the girl will keep you company, singing, drinking, flirting, playing games…Some of the girls can be taken out and of course, you need to pay for it.
CW: The scene when Qing Ping irons food against a pan to feed Shishi since her stove is broken was particularly interesting. Where did the idea for that scene come from? Is there a story behind it?
HL: For me, the most interesting thing is observing how people behave or react when they’re in trouble or dilemma. Qing Ping is struggling to take care of her family. Think about the situation: her mom is hospitalized and still in coma, she owes other people a lot of money, the roof is leaking, her son is starving, she can’t cook on the stove because she forgot to pay the gas bill, a normal person will break down, but she doesn’t, when she’s cooking with the irons, her love for her son is shining with guilty and self-blame.
It took me a long time to figure out how to deal with this scene, one day when I saw the irons in the room, I know I found the solution.
CW: In the second scene at the Karaoke Bar I noticed gobo lighting on the walls that looked like abstract fish. Was that that your idea, or a suggestion by your Cinematographer Mitchell Sturm?
HL: That’s very interesting interpretation, we can’t do too much change/decoration at the karaoke bar location, and Mitchell did a great job by lighting the interesting structures at the location.
CW: Since you also edited Release, how did that inform the way you directed? Did you edit in your head, or did you shoot a lot and found it during the edit?
HL: Since the very beginning when I wrote the script, I know that I’ll only shoot/use one long take to cover each scene, so the pacing, rhythm and consistence (Consistence! Thank god my advanced directing class Professor Everett Lewis emphasized it many times before the production) are super important, I got almost all of the takes I wanted, because the connections between the scene are not very strong/nonlinear, so it gives me a lot of room to play with.
In the editing room, I suddenly found that the idea of one long take covering each scene is cool but very dangerous, because there is no way back, and no way to fix. For example, for the scene of Qing Ping talking to her former lover in the karaoke bar is way too long, the original take is about 4 mins, and there was no way to cut some part off, because by doing that, it becomes jump cut, the style is totally ruined. Finally and luckily, I found a take of the kid watching the fish in the fish tank, which was not planned, I put it in the middle of karaoke bar scene, then boom, I was able to cut off most of the redundant conversation part.
I have 27 different versions of cut, and finally decided to use the 27th cut for the picture lock.
CW: For filmmakers, short films can have different purposes. It could be to prove their ability to make a feature, add to their work to further their career, or have the freedom to make what they want. What did making Release mean to you?
HL: Release is very special to me, I went to the film school at University of Southern California, which emphasizes on commercial films, you know, Hollywood blockbusters. One day the Taiwan film master Hou Hsiao-Hsien came to our school, and gave us a short speech, he said that what you see on the big screen is very straightforward, simple and basic, what he tried to do during his career is adding extra layer of story, emotion, subtext, and rhythm off the screen, which is very inspiring to me. How to make a film with the mysterious extra layer, even you don’t see it, but still can feel it, that’s the challenge to me when I make Release.
Through the lens, we saw Qing Ping’s silence and other people’s endless talk, we saw her lonely back bathing in the warm afternoon sunshine in a peaceful garden. What the lens can’t see, is the bustling crowd and the increasing insecurity and distrust……
CW: If you direct a feature film, do you think you will want to make any more short films after that?
HL: Yes, I’ll definitely make more short films if I can. Great short films are very concise and powerful, like hitting on the nose.
CW: I read that you have written feature length screenplays, what is next for you?
HL: Next project probably would be a web series, based on a novel named Six Thousand Nights.