Cannes: Anthony Chen talks about 'The Breaking Ice', his cinematic love letter to Chinese youth

Cannes: Anthony Chen talks about ‘The Breaking Ice’, his cinematic love letter to Chinese youth

In June 2021, Singaporean director Anthony Chen, acclaimed for his intimate realist dramas Ilo Ilo (2013) e Wet season (2019), was invited to be a jury member of the Shanghai International Film Festival. As part of his attendance at the event, he was asked to give a series of interviews to local Chinese journalists and critics. During one such session, a Chinese writer began by praising the director’s family dramas as unusually “mature and precise” for a director of his age — Chen is 39 today, but was only 29 when he became the first Singaporean to win Cannes Camera d’Or Award with Ilo Ilo in 2013, but also challenged Chen by asking, “What do you think your films would be like if you let go of control and worked with a freer spirit?”

Related stories

When the director wrapped up his stint in Shanghai and returned to London, where he was living at the time, the question almost haunted him, he says. “I spent three years developing the scripts for each of my first two films, and I was kind of a control freak in the way I worked,” he says. “So what he said stayed with me for so long.”

That same summer, Chen was slated to begin production on his first English-language feature film, Driftbut due to his actors’ other busy schedules, the project was pushed back to spring 2022. Suddenly, he had a lot of time on his hands.

“We had just gotten through the pandemic lockdowns and I was dying to shoot something.”

The answer to the Shanghai critic’s question, he decided, was to make a film entirely in China for the first time, and to do it about the frustrations and yearnings of Chinese youth.

Chen had followed a steady stream in international press coverage of China’s ongoing social changes: the country’s Gen Z youth were facing soaring unemployment rates and often felt stuck, or adrift, in their lives.

“I was reading a lot of articles about how young Chinese these days are struggling, because they feel they are not fulfilling their dreams – they feel defeated by the system, or defeated by tradition, and are struggling to find a sense of identity,” Chen explains. “And I got really excited about making a film that gives that voice a voice.”

Chen then called his former collaborator and producer in Beijing, Meng Xie, founder of pioneering independent sales and financing firm Rediance. Lui told Meng that he needed to shoot a film in China as soon as possible.

“We started in July, with no script, no actors on board – nothing – and we were supposed to finish in January, so I could prepare my other film, DriftChen says (Chen then finished that film in late 2022 and it premiered at Sundance this year to mostly warm reviews). “But I was ready to do something crazy. I needed to make this film to know I existed as a director.”

He decided that for nearly every creative choice on the project, he was going to push him far outside his usual comfort zone. For example, since the film is most likely to be shot in December, why not set it in one of the coldest parts of China? Hence, Chen set the story in Dōngběi, remote northeastern China, bordering North Korea. “I’m from Singapore; I grew up in the tropics; and I’ve never shot anything in the winter,” says Chen. “Where we were going, it could be as cold as -20 degrees.”

With only the vaguest notions of state of mind for a screenplay, Chen then looked back to one of his favorite youth films, François Truffaut Julius and Jim. Like that cinematic landmark, she concluded that her Chinese feature would be about an improvised love triangle: two boys and a girl.

He then began calling Chinese actors that he had come to know over the years. The first was his eventual female lead, Zhou Dongyu (whom Chen had worked with in his segment of the omnibus film, The year of the eternal storm, which premiered at Cannes in 2021). She agreed quickly despite the confusion in her tone. Next up was Liu Haoran, best known for starring in the hit buddy comedy series, Chinatown Detectives (the three installments, released between 2015 and 2021, grossed $1.4 billion in China). Chen saw in Liu another opportunity for creative challenge, especially if she were to cast him as the more moody character of the trio. He asked himself, “What if you cast a commercially inclined actor in an art-house film?”

The third star would be Qu Chuxiao (known for his work in the sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth), actor Chen’s producer Meng admired. Chen would not fully convince Qu to take the part until he traveled to China himself a few weeks later.

But simply getting into China during that pandemic time wasn’t easy. Chen did not get a Chinese visa until the end of September 2021, and finally arrived in China on October 3. positions or wrote a script. At the time, China still required a 14-day quarantine for anyone entering the country. Upon arrival, Chen attempted to use the enforced isolation of his two-week stay in a small Shanghai hotel room to write.

“There were moments where I just couldn’t get anything out of the way and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that was a really bad idea,’” she recalls. “The actors were all texting me saying, ‘How’s it going? We’re reserving our timeslots for you, but do you think we might see a script soon?” He says he considered using “the simplest and best excuse”: tell everyone he had caught COVID and had to withdraw from everything.But he continued to write.

By the end of the 14 days, Chen had only produced a two-page treatment, but he had the outlines of his characters and felt he had arrived at the essence of the film he wanted to capture. He would be centered on the ice metaphor.

“When water solidifies into ice, it’s often such a fast and transformative process,” he explains. “But then with just a little heat, everything melts so fast. This is what I wanted to capture in my characters. You have three people who are fundamentally strangers, who meet by chance and develop a deep bond of understanding in a very short period of time. Then that moment suddenly dissolves and everyone separates: what remains are the emotions they went through and how they were changed by each other.

A few more reasons have emerged from his agonizing research and writing about quarantine. Looking at northeast China on Google Maps, Chen was intrigued by Mount Changbai, which straddles the China-North Korea border and famously contains, on its crater top, the majestic Heaven Lake, the largest volcanic body of water top of the world. The mountain features prominently in ancient Chinese and Korean literature and mythology, elements that Chen decided would capture the imagination of one of his characters, prompting the trio to travel to Changbai Mountain in the film’s final act.

After coming out of quarantine, Chen, Meng, art director and assistant, traveled to northeast China to explore the border towns near the base of the mountain.

“We hired a local tour guide who had this tiny minivan, and pretty much everything we saw in those few days is what’s in the movie,” Chen says. “It’s such a unique place — very chill, and everything is a mix of Korean and Chinese, visually and culturally — and the food is amazing. We were so inspired by our time there.

Chen also knew contemporary Chinese cinema well enough to understand that he would go against the grain with his thematic intentions in Dōngběi. Films set in remote northeastern China — archetype is Diao Yinan’s 2014 Berlin Golden Bear winner Black coal, thin ice – tend to be gritty thrillers or realist dramas, depicting the region as desolate, impoverished and hostile. Instead, Chen would use Dōngběi as the backdrop for a story about youthful, vibrant longing.

When they returned to Beijing, Chen had three days to hire a crew. With only his treatment to offer, he was able to convince some of the best artisans in Chinese industry to join the project, such as acclaimed director Lou Ye’s regular production designer Shaoying Peng (Spring fever, Blind massage) and costume designer Hua Li, known for her work with Jia Zhangke (Ash is the purest white) and Diao Yinan (Wild Goose Lake). As his cinematographer, he hired Yu Jing-Pin (by director Derek Tsang’s 2019 Oscar nominee Better days), known for her expressive freehand work. Chen had decided that he would enhance the youthful improvisational theme of the film by shooting mostly in a handheld style, even challenging himself to use only one lens throughout the entire production. As composer, he hired 28-year-old ambient electronic artist Kin Leonn, a colleague from Singapore who had never written anything before (Chen had simply come across Leonn’s music on Spotify, loved it, and contacted him). . And although the director’s previous work contains very little music, he fixed it The Breaking the Ice would be covered in emotional, poignant synths throughout. With the rest of his crew, he hired the youngest people he could find: his assistant directors were Chinese industry wannabes in their early twenties.

Eventually, Chen and Meng approached Chinese studios to finance the film, which still had no script.

“It was just me who pitched the idea of ​​these three young men and how they form a connection, and going up this mountain – and maybe even meeting a bear, like in the old legends,” he recalls. To her surprise, “everyone was like, ‘wow, that looks very glamorous. What is this movie? We’ve never seen anything like this in Chinese movies before.’” With limited time, Hangzhou-based Huace Pictures embarked on the film as lead producer and financier.

After a few weeks of preparation in the northeastern border town of Yibai, Chen finally finished the script 10 days before production was to begin, the same morning the lead actors were due to arrive on set for their first read.

“That night was the first time anyone from the project had read the entire story. We were all very moved, and then we embarked on this crazy adventure together to make a special film in the cold together.

Chen says he sees the finished film as his “love letter to China’s youth.” He adds, “It was the most liberating thing I’ve done.”