Filmmaker Johnny Ma Wants You to Fall in Love With ’90s Chinese Cinema

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    Filmmaker Johnny Ma Wants You to Fall in Love With ’90s Chinese Cinema

    A Chinese “psychic” once told me… or, more specifically, it was my uncle, who used to run the Beijing department of the “People with Specials Powers” (as it was called officially by the government at the time). After observing me for 10 minutes without saying a word, my uncle finally broke the silence and proclaimed that in order for me to succeed as a filmmaker, I had to learn how to explore the “in-between” of the two cultures I was from. I thought about it for a moment and asked my uncle if he knew this because he also had some psychic powers based on where he worked. He replied plainly, no.

    To my uncle and other Chinese people that I have met, I am one of the “in-betweens.” Although I was born a Chinese, I look, sound, and feel like a foreigner. Even though I had spent most of my formative years (from age 10 onwards) in Toronto and Vancouver, I am still often asked, “Yeah, but where are you from originally?” For many years I told people both answers, to the point where I didn’t really know.

    I carried this confusion of identity with me when I first began to make films in the late 2000s. At first, I attempted short films in Australia (The Robbery), the United States (Play), and even Brazil (O Genio de Quintino) — basically anywhere that was not where I was from. Something was keeping me from exploring the world where I was born and know best, out of fear of failing at attempting something truly personal. Maybe it was a belief that no one would find my stories interesting, given my lack of belonging to any one real place.

    It was perhaps this lack of belonging that led me to pursue a career in filmmaking, where you often end up planted across the world for months at a time. I set Old Stone, my first feature (screening at Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival on January 14 and 16 at TIFF Bell Lightbox), in a small, dusty third-tier city in China. It is a story about a Chinese taxi driver who commits a good deed to save another person’s life, but then is punished for it to the point of turning evil. I wanted to make a cautionary tale of how difficult it is to stay empathetic in a world where self-interest has become the number one motivating factor for how we all behave.

    When I first thought of the idea, I wanted to set the story in the West. At one point, I even tried to jumpstart the project with the idea of Detroit as the setting and Michael Shannon playing the lead. When people asked why I wanted to take the story out of China, I explained that the film would inevitably be depicting a negative society. Since China was such a hot topic in the West, I didn’t want that to be the main discussion over the story’s universal theme. That was partially true — I was also just deeply afraid. Afraid of facing a world and people painfully familiar to me who I still felt alienated from. My worst nightmare would be if I was not able to make the film as well as a local Chinese filmmaker would.

    In many ways, the journey to where I am now, a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker with one finished feature under his belt (getting ready for his second), really began with a decision back in 2012 when I was still a film student. I wanted to take a long trip to China and to make a short film called Grand Canal. If you would indulge me and read on, I’ll reflect on that particular time of my life and how three movies helped me to both fall deeply in love with ’90s Chinese cinema and find my voice.

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