Zhu Wen appeared in person at the screening of Thomas Mao at the Vancouver International Film Festival and explained the peculiar genesis of the film. Mao Yan and Thomas Rohdewald are real people. Mao Yan is one of Chinas most celebrated artists. Thomas Rohdewald is a Luxembourgeois who lives in China where he is an attache at the Luxembourg Embassy and most recently curator of the 2010 Luxembourg Pavilion. Rohdewald has been Mao Yans model since 1999 and the two have struck up a close friendship during that time (which Zhu Wen had to stress several times does not mean a gay relationship). It is worth searching out Mao Yans portraits of Rohdewald online some of which play over the end credits of the film accompanied by a song they have a hauntingly luminous, sometimes three-dimensional abstract impressionist quality.
Zhu Wen had been friends with both Rohdewald and Mao Yan and sought to depict their unique relationship on film. He sees the relationship between the two as a metaphor for East-West relationships (the original Chinese title translates as something akin to East-West but also has other meanings). The means he eventually came up with was by speculating that they had known each other in past lives. Even though it is set contemporary (against the backdrop of the 2008 Beijing Olympics), this past story plays out in the first three-quarters of the film. The last quarter of the film is a fictionalised dramatisation where Rohdewald visits Mao Yans studio and they enjoy a cup of tea, while Mao chases out a strange man who claims to be an alien.
The two (or perhaps one-and-a-bit) stories give the film an odd structure. The scenes in Maos studio are too brief to attain their own story and do not stand on their own until the nature of the real-life relationship is explained by Zhu Wen. The first story naturally works the best because more time is devoted to it. Here Zhu Wen uses the lake, bare plain and inn (which was in fact built in Mongolia where the production even diverted a river to create the lake) as a backdrop to highlight the two characters. Zhu directs in a natural, realist manner and with a slow contemplative ease it is a very laidback and unhurried film. There is a charming appeal and often absurdist nonchalance to the humour between the two characters Mao Yans attempts to cook dinner that goes awry, the drinking session, the dog in heat, the two standing against the sun peeing in unison. The two performances are surprisingly good where both actors, despite being non-professionals, do an excellent job in inhabiting their characters and seeming at home on screen. One of the oddest aspects of this story is how the two men seem to understand each others language without any need for what each is saying to the other to be translated.
Thomas Mao has slight fantasy content, which lends to its inclusion here. Zhu Wen includes a sequence that seems intended as a parody of Wu Xia flying swordsmen scenes a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) with a man and a woman dancing around a bare plane and fighting with swords, before hacking each others arms off. The scenes are choreographed more as a bizarre ballet than a fight sequence and the characters turn into butterflies at the end. Thomas and Mao are shown sleeping during the interlude and this seems to echo the opening quote of the proverb by the philosopher Zhuangzi about the man wondering if he was dreaming he was a butterfly or it was a butterfly dreaming that it was a man, which Zhu Wen sees as metaphor for the two mirrored stories in the film. The other bizarre fantastical sequence is where Thomas idly wonders whether there is intelligent life out there and a few scenes later a UFO appears over the lake and aliens enter the inn. Both of these sequences seem fairly random and are not well integrated into the story more than anything they seem like capricious and playful whimsies added on Zhu Wens part simply because he felt like it.
(Screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival)