Wen Muye: Ready to Direct

Director Wen Muye and actor Zhang Yu interact with fans during a roadshow of Dying to Survive in Jinan, capital of Shandong Province. VCG

Many have said that Wen Muye was born to be a director.

On July 5, 2018, the Chinese comedy film Dying to Survive hit cinemas across China, making its director Wen Muye a household name.

Despite the fact that Dying to Survive is Wen’s debut feature, no trace of inexperience can be found in his sophisticated and fluent presentation. The acting is excellent, and the tightly crafted plot focuses on both entertainment and philosophy.

However, the previous creations in his career as a director are only a handful of short films.

Directing with Courage and Insight

Acclaimed Chinese director Jia Zhangke opined that a director must honestly and solemnly capture and present the ups and downs happening on the land they live as well as the people’s daily worries.

Wen has always been fascinated by realistic themes and stories. Most of the short films he shot during his early days in university depict deep realistic and humanistic concerns. Famous film critic Huang Shixian commented that it takes courage and insight to create such works.

April 12, 2018: Director Wen Muye attends the premiere of Dying to Survive in Beijing. IC

April 12, 2018: Director Wen Muye attends the

premiere of Dying to Survive in Beijing. IC

Ning Hao, the producer of Dying to Survive, said that by watching Wen’s short films he determined that the director excellently depicted marginalized people with humanist values, so he recruited him to direct the feature film.

The film is based on the true story of Lu Yong, a leukemia patient from China’s eastern Jiangsu Province, who needs Gleevec, a Swiss medication, to survive. The patented medicine costs him nearly 300,000 yuan a year, which he can’t hope to afford.

Eventually Lu discovers Indian generics that cost only one-twentieth of the price of the name-brand drug. After using it, he recommends the alternative to other cancer patients. However, because the Indian generic drugs have not received official approval in China, they are deemed fake medicine—a real-world paradox.

It took a total of two years just to revise and adjust the script. During that time, Wen endured a lot of “self-struggle.” He continuously edited the script over and over again to balance commercial interests, entertainment value and realism.

“To ensure that the realistic film is interesting rather than boring and sad, we have to add commercial elements into the realistic theme without damaging its core,” he explained.

 Wen hopes more people watch the film and connect with the humanity in the story. “I have always remained dedicated to making warm and touching films with a sincere attitude, so that when the spectators step out of the theater, they are filled with hope and courage to face the difficulties in life,” he beamed.

“Just Keep Shooting”

Wen still remembers standing before the entrance to Beijing Film Academy as a postgraduate student who came to register for enrollment. The young man was shaking with excitement. “For me, the academy was the Promised Land,” Wen recalls. His passion for film blossomed as a freshman in university after he learned that “shooting earned dignity.”

In the early 21st century, many Chinese universities began launching radio and TV editing and directing departments. Wen was among the first 120 undergraduate students to major in the field at Northeast Normal University in 2004. They lacked seasoned upperclassmen and experienced teachers, having only some equipment at their disposal.

During his four years at Northeast Normal University, Wen shot five short films. In four years following graduation, he shot three more. Later, during postgraduate studies at Beijing Film Academy, Wen made two more shorts. “Since the day I first arrived at university, my life has been film-centered,” he notes. “I wrote a script and turned it into a film. Then I wrote another script and made it a film. My life continues to repeat this cycle to this day. Most recently, I wrote a feature-length screenplay and shot a feature film. The whole time, I have fully utilized every minute of my life, seamlessly transiting from one film project to another.”

To a large extent, continuous and tireless creation makes Wen the person he is today.

Every time he finished a short film, Wen searched online for relevant contests in which he could participate. Eventually, two of his short films won international awards and attracted massive domestic attention. “Attending international film festivals is the fastest way to be noticed.”

At the FIRST International Film Festival, held annually in Xining City, Qinghai Province, Wen once revealed that he dreamed of winning an Oscar. “When I look back on that goal today, I prefer to see China’s own ‘Oscar’ emerge in my lifetime,” he says. “China should construct a system to export its core culture and values. I feel a greater sense of responsibility to my countrymen and nation as a Chinese filmmaker.”

Even if he hadn’t been admitted to Beijing Film Academy, Wen believes he would still be shooting films today. “You just keep shooting and never stop,” he stresses. “It is the most important way to hone your abilities in self expression and communication while establishing your own style.”

“Clear” Is Key

“Clear” has been an especially important word for Wen during his evolution as a director. From setting the goal of becoming a director to releasing his first feature, Wen has remained clear on his intentions the entire time.

Wen ensures the set is exquisitely designed before filming almost every scene. His directions for actors are quite clear: “Slow the whole tempo down a little bit, and you can be a little bit more exaggerated when slumping down to the floor.”

Despite the fact that Dying to Survive is Wen Muye’s debut feature, the film earned revenues of nearly 3 billion yuan in its first 25 days of release.
Despite the fact that Dying to Survive is Wen Muye’s debut feature, the film earned revenues of nearly 3 billion yuan in its first 25 days of release.

Tan Zhuo, an actress in Dying to Survive, was impressed, declaring, “We were surprised the director was so prepared.”

Wen has everything he could possibly need at his fingertips during work, due to his thorough preparation. Long before shooting started, the actors gathered at least four times to read through the script. Two weeks before shooting, every actor was called for rehearsals of every scene from first to last.

“I ask everything to be clear, which I believe is the normal process for shooting a movie,” Wen explains. “If you don’t know what to do on set, you’re in the wrong place. All problems that emerge during shooting are the result of inadequate early preparation.That’s for sure.”

Wen believes that the biggest obstacle impeding the development of young directors is lack of self-knowledge. Many young directors don’t have a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses or what steps they need to take.

“People in any era may face the same objective problems of that specific era,” Wen argues. “How to handle new problems is an important issue. Young directors should first be clear about what kind of director they want to be or which road suits them. The second thing is methods, which is how to proceed on that road. After these things are clear, the road ahead will become smoother.”

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