My People My Country and Liu Haoran

With anthology film My People My Country two weeks into its run (and at the point where we can evaluate it), thought it would be a good time to do a dedicated post to the movie, which will primarily focus on:

1) Background on the development of the project and the filming process

2) The movie’s significance to Chinese cinema and why it’s so cool Haoran got to be a part of this

3) Box office, mostly because there are a couple of really cool facts that have resulted from the surprise box office returns (I’ll update this post with the final numbers once the film ends its run),

4) Translation of Haoran’s personal analysis of his character Wodele, and why this was a meaningful role to him.

The fourth is actually a transcription of an oral account (audio recording) that Haoran did, which was released a couple of weeks ago. My assumption is that since he wasn’t able to participate in promotions for the film due to Detective Chinatown 3 filming, they asked him to share his thoughts via a recording instead as he is a main lead for one of the seven stories.

I actually originally started writing this post just for part 4, but realized it might be worth touching on 1 and 2 as well, as there may be people who are interested. (We also subbed the audio – thanks to blackdaisy for timing/encoding!)

For those who don’t care about the first 3 parts, feel free to just skip to part 4 – I’ve broken this out into three sections via headings so you can just scroll down to the third.

Background and Production/Filming Process

For those who’ve been following Haoran for a while now, you’ll know that in February 2019, it was rumored that Haoran would be starring in a new Chen Kaige project. In early March 2019, Huang Jianxin disclosed at a film event that Chen Kaige would be helming a new anthology film for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the PRC, so everyone’s first thought was ah, this must be it (we later found out the rumor was not referring to his, haha).

In mid-March, the film revealed its name My Motherland and I (later given an official English title of My People My Country) and held a huge-scale official launch event for the project. Six of the seven directors were in attendance (with Xu Zheng calling in from Russia), along with producer Huang Jianxin, the chairmans of various film and actors associations, the CEO and executives of China’s largest film production companies, and of course government officials.

Since the beginning, the focus and main selling point of the film has been the directors, and the aim to tell the stories of some of the PRC’s most significant historical events through the perspective of regular people. The cast wasn’t revealed until much later, and at first people thought maybe they’d even use non-celebs in a documentary-style type of film.

When a screenshot from a marketing powerpoint for the film surfaced later that night with Huang Bo, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Wang Qianyuan, and Haoran listed on it, everyone scoffed at it and said it had to be fake.

Very, very quickly, people ate crow, as Huang Bo and Wang Qianyuan were spotted filming Guan Hu’s part at Hengdian just a day later, and a few days after that, Haoran and Chen Feiyu both flew to Dunhuang for filming (soon after, we learned Tian Zhuangzhuang was there too).

The directors had a very short amount of time to get this done. They only received the invitation to take part in late January/February. Some were in the middle of projects, or were preparing to start one, but everyone made time. Because of the timing, most of them used lead actors they were familiar with.

For Chen Kaige, we know now he had been preparing for his next film Youth (Flowers Bloom In the Ashes) for a while, and he made the decision to just use his male leads from that project for the anthology film. He also called in favors from Tian Zhuangzhuang to be the veteran acting presence, and from award winning cinematographer Cao Dun (also Yao Chen’s husband), who worked on Legend of the Demon Cat and also on Youth.

The original guess by netizens was that Chen Kaige would be telling the story of the Two Bombs, One Satellite project, but when the official announcement finally happened in August, we learned that the story was on the Shenzhou 11 instead (and poverty in rural/isolated areas of China). According to a later interview, it was disclosed that he actually did originally have the Two Bombs, One Satellite project, but gave it to Zhang Yibai after the latter shared he’d like to shoot it.

The cast and crew spent two weeks filming in Dunhuang under pretty harsh conditions. To provide some context, Dunhuang is in northwest China and is surrounded by desert, which is where most of filming took place. Though this was “just” one of seven parts in the film, the cast and crew worked immensely hard, as seen in the BTS video below.

They wrapped up in mid April, and Haoran returned with just two weeks to spare before entering his next project in Youth.

The Importance of the Film

Even before the film because a surprise (huge) box office hit, it was apparent that it was going to be one of the most important films of the year, if not for Chinese cinematic history.

Firstly – the list of directors. Aside from Chen Kaige, who is a top 2 director in mainland China, and producer Huang Jianxin, who is an award winning producer and director in his own right (co-produced The Founding trilogy, which was why he was tasked with this), the other six are very well known in the Chinese film industry.

  • Ning Hao, director of the Crazy Stone series and head of the Dirty Monkeys Studio, who in 2017 announced an initative to revolutionize the film industry, starting with signing a number of young and unproven directors and giving them a platform to create. The young directors included in that? Lu Yang (Brotherhood of Blades, the upcoming Assassin In Red) and Wen Muye (Dying to Survive), who is also on this list.
  • Zhang Yibai, probably the one least liked by netizens due to a prior drug scandal and who typically specializes in romance films, but also boasts quite the network and always has A-listers starring in his films
  • Guan Hu is a sixth generation director and best known commercially for Mr. Six. He hasn’t been very active as a director in recent years, but is a well recognized name.
  • Xue Xiaolu is one of China’s most prominent female directors, who started out as a screenwriter (she co-wrote the screenplay of Chen Kaige’s Together, with the director himself) and is best known for Ocean Heaven and Finding Mr. Right
  • Xu Zheng, who is recognized as both an A-list actor and director of the successful Lost In franchise; he’s also been active in film production and co-produced successful films like Dying to Survive and Lei Jiayin/Tong Liya’s How Long Will I Love U (he and Ning Hao are bffs)
  • Wen Muye is the youngest of the directors, is part of Ning Hao’s Dirty Monkey Studio, and only has one long feature film to his name, but what a debut it was – Dying to Survive (which starred Xu Zheng in his most critically acclaimed performance thus far) is currently sitting at #8 in Chinese box office history. Fun fact, he’s also one of Tian Zhuangzhuang’s favorite students.

(You can see what I mean when I say the mainstream film industry is extremely close knit, heh.)

Adding one more name here because it’s surprising they didn’t get him as a director instead: Tian Zhuangzhuang, who starred in Chen Kaige’s part of the film and became incredibly fond of Haoran, who he met for the first time (they were spotted having lunch together just recently).

Aside from being Chen Kaige’s childhood friend and classmates to both him and Zhang Yimou at the Beijing Film Academy, Tian Zhuangzhuang is an accomplished 5th generation director in his own right (his film The Horse Thief was named by Martin Scorsese as his favorite movie of the 90s) and has also influenced a generation of new directors as he was the chairman of the graduate program for the directing major at the Beijing Film Academy since 2002.

All of this means that as a cast member, you’re being “introduced” to all of these famous directors, if you didn’t know them before – essentially it’s building your network, and the same applies for the production companies involved.

Because this is a government commissioned film, it’s jointly produced by China’s largest film production companies, including China Film Group, Bona, Enlight Media, etc.

For the actors who were chosen to take part in the film, just being chosen is a validation of sorts, given the importance of the movie. Especially for Haoran and Chen Feiyu, being able to not just take part, but to star in one of the segments, is such an honor (most of the other leads are A-listers and veteran actors).

In a way, this is like auditioning for the entire industry, because it’s one of those movies that everyone will see. Haoran already went through this once, with The Founding of An Army, which is what propelled his acting reputation up another notch, but this was on an even bigger scale given that it became the box office hit it is.

For the younger actors, they’re going to be overshadowed by award winning and seasoned actors like Ge You and Huang Bo, who are household names and beloved by the public, but as long as they hold up their part and do well, that’s enough to prove themselves. And they’re being seen by all the major directors and producers, not just in film, but for dramaland as well, as well as government officials.

And finally – I said before, box office didn’t matter for this movie, just like it didn’t matter for “The Founding” trilogy, because being government commissioned will naturally give it a place in Chinese cinematic history, but facts are facts – it did become a huge box office hit.

With that in mind, this also meant you had people of all ages flocking to the theaters to watch it. Grandparents, parents, working adults, college students, teens, even younger kids. That’s a huge amount of general public exposure right there, even if they don’t all remember your name – they’ll remember the rebellious, lonely, crippled youth.

For Haoran on a personal level, as you’ll see in his oral account, this role was unlike one he has ever played, and it gave us a glimpse of the ever-growing possibilities that lie ahead for him as an actor.

Box Office and Significance

Writing as of today, My Motherland and I has surpassed 2.7 billion RMB at the Chinese box office and and now in the 9th spot in Chinese box office history. That would mean at least in October 2019, Haoran has starred (not just been in, but as a main lead) in two films in China’s top 10 highest grossing films of all time.

Undoubtedly, My People My Country and even Detective Chinatown 2 will be bumped off the list eventually (possibly even in the next few months), as Chinese movies continue to set records due to more people going to the movie theaters than ever.

China’s film market – as defined by the number of movie tickets sold – is expected to exceed the US’ to become the largest in the world by 2020, according to projections from PricewaterhouseCoopers. For additional context, seven of the top ten right now are from 2018 or 2019. But for now, that’s a pretty amazing Haoran fact. A reminder here – he’s only (just turned) 22.

Another cool fact that I’m shamelessly tracking, for those who follow this account’s CC, is Haoran’s personal box office gross. For convenience, we are using Maoyan’s stats and ranking chart to track this, though there are definitely some issues with the way they tally actors’ personal box office gross, because there are some who are given box office numbers for movies they had a supporting role in (which recently caused a big discussion on Weibo).

For Haoran though – it’s pretty cut and dry; he is a main lead in the six movies Maoyan currently accounts for in his box office gross, including the two anthology films. Maoyan does not include Legend of the Demon Cat or The Founding of An Army for Haoran, though when CCTV6, the official movie channel, did in their short mention last year.

As of today, Haoran is at 7.74 RMB for the box office gross of movies he’s starred in, and is at #14 among all Chinese actors/actresses, including Hong Kong and Taiwanese, in terms of total box office gross for movies they’ve had a starring role in. To put that into context a little more – Haoran is the youngest male actor in the top 100 Maoyan chart (which does include Hollywood actors’ Chinese box office gross).

Which means he is now quite close to that 10 billion number – something that has only been achieved by five Chinese actors so far, including box office kings Wu Jing, Huang Bo, Deng Chao, and Shen Teng, and most recently, Du Jiang, who has soared in the film industry the last couple of years as he took part in four box office hits. Wang Baoqiang will mostly likely be the sixth with Detective Chinatown 3 (he is only 300 million away).

The point being: it’s a very short and exclusive list, and Haoran is very likely to join it before his 25th birthday (being very conservative with my comments because box office numbers are a tricky, tricky thing to predict, and a lot hinges on how DC3 does).

He not only has DC3 coming, but also Chen Kaige’s Youth, and his project after DC3 will most likely be a film as well, based on what he’s hinted at, and rumors.

Liu Haoran on Wodele

(Liu Haoran’s oral account released 9.27.19)

The role I’m playing this time is Wodele, the eldest in a pair of brothers. These two brothers, as I did in my own character analysis, are youths that never really received a traditional family education. But he is the senior member in his family, so he isn’t very mature, but he is responsible for the decision making. He is a leader of objections, but he also doesn’t have the capability to be a proper leader. He’s a child who grew up very naturally.

Compared to Halibu (his brother), he is the one leading objections and making decisions. For those who been gone through normal educations, I feel like most will have some sort of comfort zone. We call it “comfort zone”, but I think we can also count it as a sort of restriction. It will control you.

To raise a simple example, I’m dieting, but dieting doesn’t mean I don’t want to eat, I do. But I know to say ok, what I need to do next doesn’t allow for weight gain, so I must control my food intake. That kind of control there, these two kids haven’t been pinned down by this.

The way they work is “I’m the younger one so I’ll listen to my older brother”, “It’s enough to just be happy”, “If I’m comfortable it’s fine”, “If I can survive, that’s enough”, “I won’t worry about other things”.

For this type of person, you could say they will have a lot of inner conflict, or that the colors of their personality will be stronger. In a lot of works or roles, there will be at least shadows of this type of chracter. I think maybe not as strong (in definition) as the characters that Feiyu and I play here, but most roles will have traces (of this type of personality).

Li (the elderly man they encounter) does not draw a circle around these two kids. He doesn’t tell them to not go out. Li’s method is to point in a direction , to say head there, so you know from the bottom of your heart what you want, and what the right thing to do is.

Even the director, in his heart, didn’t really know how I’d perform, because it’s so different. None of the characters I’ve ever played have been like this one. The day of the character styling, after seeing it. the director probably knew how I’d be. And after I looked in the mirror, I knew in my heart what it’d be like too.

Especially since as we were doing the character styling, I shared some of my own suggestions with the stylist. For example, putting a small scar in my eyebrow, and splitting it (the eyebrow), because my own eyebrows are very apparent. I feel that eyebrows are what can change a person’s aura the most. Everyone will think the scar probably came from a fight, something left from a fight with ruffians. I think it helps to show the character’s colorful personality.

It was after I saw the styling that I knew how to act (it). I had no idea before, because I’ve never acted this way before. The makeup and costume helped this role immensely.

This also reminds me of something quite hilarious. I’ve never met or worked with Teacher Zhuangzhuang (Tian Zhuangzhuang) before, and then found something really funny. Our facial hair and wig was put on, but Teacher Zhuangzhuang’s was his own. I think Teacher Zhuangzhuang has already injected acting into his body. Acting is quite pure.

I’ve always been interested in space and technology, and sci-fi makes up a big portion of the books that I read. I’ve played a similar character for an ad before (Pepsi ad – he played an astronaut). But it’s very different here.

My character isn’t here to teach everyone something, nor to deliver a message. I’m like an audience member – I am just here to witness. As a person, I exist as an individual. But I belong to this country, as part of a greater collection of beings

Shooting star – it represents the most important element of this story. In the eyes of that A Po who saw it, the space shuttle returning home was a shooting star. And maybe in many people’s hearts, it really was a shooting star. It crossed our sky and our hearts.

A shooting star represents hope, just like how the A Po wanted to see the shooting star, and remained there in fear that if she was distracted, she’d miss it. It’s like how people feel when they wish upon a shooting star. It represents the hope in our hearts, the romanticism.

Daylight + shooting star…there’s a contrast between these two terms. Because you can’t see shooting stars in daylight. So this title is also quite romantic, incredibly so. I can’t think of a title more befitting for our story.

The memorable parts of my life…the parts that have truly made me recognize this era: the (2018) Olympics, the (2008) Wenchuan Earthquake. Those were moments where you really felt the unification as a group. During that time, you didn’t feel like you existed as an individual. It was a very strong feeling.

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