My parents and I emigrated to America when I was six years old. We didn’t go to movies for a few years as my mother and I didn’t speak English. My father attended the University of Miami for his PhD and they had these movie nights for Chinese students where they would project Chinese movies from the mainland or Hong Kong. It was an event night and it was great for them because there was a sense of community.
I remember being very young – seven or eight – and my parents took me to see Raise the Red Lantern  by Zhang Yimou. It was a pretty dark and inappropriate film for me. But all my early movie experiences usually involved my parents taking me to inappropriate movies. My father had us all go see Die Hard  as he loved action films. I hid the whole time. My mum would ask: “What’s happening? Who’s the bad guy? I thought he was the bad guy…” And my dad would be shushing us quiet.
I have so many favourite movie theatres now. In New York, the Angelika; and the Sunshine, which closed recently. In LA, I love the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. They do throwback screenings of older films and specific programmes on one filmmaker a month. During awards seasons, they’ll screen foreign films and bring in the directors to talk about them. It was a big part of my film education because I didn’t go to film school.
My favourite thing is when I don’t know much about a movie. Then you relinquish control and let yourself be transported. It’s like travelling somewhere without an itinerary.
Now we can watch whatever we want at home. Your dad might be watching something in one room, so you’ll just go and watch something else on your iPad. Some people say that’s great that we have all these choices, but we’re getting further and further away from each other. It’s not about you just watching what you want to watch – even the act of choosing something together, having to compromise and then experience it together; that’s important. We can’t be so individualistic that we lose these shared experiences.
I’m really worried about the situation for theatres in the US. I one hundred per cent think there should be a bailout for them. It’s a tricky question of what is essential to our society. Is it just a roof over your head and having your basic needs met? I think that art is what makes us specifically human. I’ve always had a major issue with how little this government values art in terms of funding for artists and filmmakers and for the development of arts programmes and schools.
With the pandemic we see how easy it is to just watch films at home. But it’s incredibly worrying that people have the ability to check in and out and not be fully immersed and relinquish control. As a filmmaker, it’s really scary that you feel like you have to compete for attention because there’s so many distractions. That’s a scary place to create from.
The best stories unfold like an onion – you peel them back layer after layer. If you know you’re competing with a million other things that are happening in that house, what do you do? And now we have all this data that tracks how people watch films. It’s really troublesome to judge the quality of art by the number of minutes people tune in to. I don’t want that to be the marker of how good a film is.
- Lulu Wang was talking to Isabel Stevens
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