Interview with Jordan Schiele Cinephile and Sinophile
San Fu Tian (三伏天) is an impressive piece of new Chinese cinema made by New York filmmaker, Jordan Schiele. The film follows the journey of Lulu, who works as a dancer in a cheap night club, to look for her child, that disappeared along with her boyfriend Bai Long. I talked to Jordan Schiele about his mixed identity and profound affection for China and Chinese cinema. This interview which was done while switching back and forth from English to Chinese was a fantastic cross-cultural experience.
How come you speak Chinese so well?
I started studying Chinese as an undergrad, and then I studied abroad at Oxford University where I studied Mandarin Chinese intensely, including classical Chinese at the Oriental Institute there. Afterwards I moved to Shanghai and lived there for a year. I then lived in Singapore studying for three years at the film school, where I have friends who speak Chinese as well. After that I moved to Beijing. I thoroughly enjoy to immerse myself in the Chinese language and often hang out with local friends.
How did you come to this project about the young mother's plight of losing her child?
It began with personal stories of people whom I became friends with in Beijing. One source of inspiration was a friend who is a single mother of my age and could be called a Bei Piao (北漂, A term for a group of mostly young Chinese that flock from all over the country to Beijing in search of fame, riches or both.). Raising the kid on her own, having two jobs and being separated from the husband whom she was really in love with are such humane and difficult experiences. I think I took this more personal than she did. In China there is this endearing that you don't see elsewhere, which I find interesting. Whereas in the US having a good life is about building a career and stability and a lot of people feel isolated from and unsupported by their family, in China family is really everything that matters – even in modern China. It's about sitting together at the table and sharing food. On a personal note, I was raised by women as well, my mom and elder sister, who created an extremely supportive environment for me, so in a way I can understand the context very well.
How do you see yourself as an American filmmaker making Chinese cinema?
That's a great question. I don't see myself as just an American filmmaker. I will always be a foreigner in China, partially because Chinese is too difficult and wonderful of a language to master. In a way my identity as a New Yorker really opens up different cultures for me. New York is not just an American city but also a world city. A lot of New Yorkers look at identities in a very different light just because they are surrounded by people from all over the world. Although I have never made any film in New York, I have absorbed a lot of things there, such as colours, smells and cultures. In China, I continued absorbing everything as a filmmaker. I lived in a Hutong (胡同) courtyard home and I loved it. My Chinese friends used to laugh at me and say that I am the type of ”Gulou” or “Lama Temple foreigner” (鼓楼老外/永和宮老外). I love coming out of the traditional courtyard and listening to people around me. There's so much life there and they all have tons of stories. Living there is an experience which stays with me all my life.
My heart is in China now. Although I still have the perspective of outsiders and find banal things fascinating, part of my identity is Chinese. Not having a clearly defined identity is what defines me. I want to be authentic and stay true to that in my filmmaking.
Your film feels like it could’ve been by a Chinese director. I find it especially interesting how you seem to be in love with transportation means in China. In San Fu Tian you have shown a wide range of them, from motorbikes, pallet trucks, taxis, to trains and busses.
That's amazing. I really appreciate you saying that. There were even more transportation means which we edited out! China is very dynamic and partially because of the transportation. People are always moving. This is not a road film of course, but the mother has to use all means, including transportation means, to search for her child.
You mentioned that you want your film to look authentic. Does that also mean that you had the Chinese audience in mind when you made it?
There are a lot of foreigners who make films in China which are never meant for Chinese audience. At the end of the day I hope that this is a universal story which has an impact everywhere. I believe that film and any kind of art is about culture exchange. I wish I can be a small part of exchange between the US and China and other parts of the world.