The Illusions of Idolatry: An Interview with Alex Wu

CW: Suicide

Idol, competing as part of 2020 Sydney Film Festival’s Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films, can be a challenging watch. It’s a film which slowly sinks viewers into its murky moral morass, observing a Chinese pop star as he deals with the fallout of a fan’s suicide. Over the course of a single 18 minute-long take, writer-director Alex Wu (a recent graduate from the Victorian College of the Arts) captures the walls of Asia’s ‘Idol Industry’ closing in on its protagonist, Wan Ran, who is forced to confront the consequences of his own stardom.

Ahead of its festival release and Australian premiere, Jamie Tram spoke to Alex Wu about his short film, the one-take structure and being influenced by Lee Chang-Dong and Asghar Farhadi.

Jamie Tram: As a second-generation Chinese-Australian, what sort of struggles did you face creating a short that was set in China and spoken entirely in Mandarin?

Alex Wu: I don’t speak Mandarin very well. Growing up in Australia I was pretty averse to it because I wanted to fit in culturally. I’m not embarrassed by that part of myself anymore. I’ve hit a critical junction where I’m very eager to express it — eager to be proud of that part of myself. I wanted to show that Asian people share the same emotions, anxieties, and humanity as everyone else.

I met a producer at the VCA, Jiapei Wu, who originally is from China. She was my right-hand partner in making this film; she helped facilitate auditions, find crew members, and also help with translating the script, which I wrote in English… It was a whole back and forth. Luckily I didn’t have to learn Mandarin on the fly.

JT: I wanted to talk about the one-take structure of the film. Was this a purely formal decision or did you make a conscious choice to evoke the kind of languid visual language prevalent in arthouse Asian cinema?

AW: It definitely crossed my mind. A big influence on Idol in terms of tone would be the films of Lee Chang-Dong, who I was writing a thesis on as part of my Honours degree. He’s so delicate with his cinematography. You don’t notice cuts, you don’t notice if it’s been a long take. Everything felt so deliberate, that’s what I wanted to capture. It was really about trying to immerse the audience as much into the protagonist’s experience, make it as claustrophobic as possible. I wanted the camera essentially to stay there without leaving his point of view; you never even see the other person he’s talking to. As a result, neither you or Wan Ran get a break.

JT: Your film focuses on familiar issues surrounding the business and culture of Asia’s idol industry. Why were you drawn to this particular subject matter, and how did you try to present this story in a way that looked beyond the headlines?

AW: What’s interesting about the idol industry to me is that it’s built upon this loyal affection, this intense love from fans to the point where these stars have essentially become commodities. They exist to bring people happiness, a promise or an illusion. But the idols are so restricted in their appearance and not allowed to date other people, they’re kind of victims of their own making.

I didn’t want to paint anyone as bad or take a strong moral stance. They’re all just fighting for their own self-preservation or their own desires. But because of the industry he’s a part of, Wan Ran’s actions have deep consequences that he wasn’t aware of. And I think that’s something as well that I pulled from directors like Lee Chang-Dong and Asghar Farhadi, who managed to pull out these amazing moral dilemmas. There’s not exactly one entity to blame; these are extremely difficult situations to rub your head around but it’s still populated with living, breathing people who feel and get damaged in the process.  

JT: The sort of Asian entertainment news that filters into Western publications tend to be the biggest scandals. When doing research for the film, were you ever worried about being limited by this outsider’s perspective which predominantly focused on the most lurid aspects of the industry?

AW: Absolutely. I would never say that this film shows the entire industry as a whole, it’s not reflective of entire fanbases, but it’s still something that I feel like we don’t know how to address properly.

Having an outsider’s perspective was ultimately a benefit I think, because on one hand, I was keeping in mind that my audience was also going to be predominantly outsiders, having little to no prior knowledge of the industry. It allowed me to boil things down to an essence, rather than getting bogged down in jargon or exact replication. Kind of like why I think Walkabout (1971) and Wake in Fright (1971) paint the best portraits of Australia, despite having foreign directors — they weren’t having trouble seeing the forest for the trees.

I’d be curious to know how people who are deeply embedded in idol culture would react to my film — whether or not they’d be immediately averse to it, like my drummer friends who can’t stand to watch Whiplash (2014).

Idol screens as part of Sydney Film Festival’s Virtual Edition and Awards from June 10–21 2020. More info here.

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Jamie Tram is a writer, filmmaker, and screwball obsessive from Melbourne, Australia. His writing lurks at Senses of Cinema, Kill Your Darlings, and other places. You can direct all your complaints to @sameytram.

Jamie Tram