Jun Geng’s droll Chinese comedy, FREE AND EASY, just completed a successful debut at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, receiving a special jury prize for “Cinematic Vision.” The film introduces a unique cast of characters among its con artists, masquerading as a soap salesman and a monk, and low-level government officials to both comic effect, as well as a knowing commentary on Chinese society in what amounts to that country’s “rust belt.” The film has seen Geng be compared to a host of directors in reviews of the film, including Jarmusch, Cassavetes, Kaurismaki, the Coen Brothers, and Tarkovsky among them, such is the sure-handed style and yes, “cinematic vision” exhibited in the film.
1 The title “Free and Easy” comes from an idiom in northeastern China that you say reminds you of a bygone past. Would you describe the film itself as something of a “throwback” to an earlier time or do you think it reflects a very contemporary Chines outlook?
The setting in the film is important. This is the landscape of a desolation row in post-Socialist China. In fact, the 30-year superfast development of China’s industry left behind us a wasteland where the past glory and prosperity became almost the source of anxiety and frustration of our generation, namely the forty-somethings in the film. They live with a painful memory of a bygone past, yet they refuse to throw themselves back to the earlier time often associated with a point of no return, their hometown -which they felt they rebelled with a cause. To a certain extent, the film is indeed a reflection upon contemporary China at a crossroads.
2 FREE AND EASY is a comedy, but comedy comes in many different forms, from dry wit to silly slap stick. What are a couple comedy films that literally made you laugh out loud?
Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights and Modern Times.
3 You interweave the stories and concerns of multiple characters pretty evenly throughout the film. Was it difficult to not favor one or two characters over the others when you were in the editing process or was it easy to keep the ensemble flavor throughout?
It’s determined by the screenplay to keep the ensemble flavor throughout. As I conceived the idea/screenplay, I have decided to represent the multiple dimensions, dilemma, and their struggle and compromise, and fates of these characters, which constitute the collective sense of absurdity.
4 One of the delightful aspects lending itself to the comedy of the film is the remarkable lack of judgment from any of the characters toward one another. Everyone just seems to accept the other, regardless of their situation or failings. Is that something that comes naturally to you personally?
It’s something that comes naturally to me, and based on my personal observations in my everyday life where there exist an individual or a group of individuals always ready to watch from behind and pass moral judgments, but superficially, they have to accept each other. In writing the screenplay I omitted the obnoxious part, but readily allow the characters to understand and accept each other in a most romanticizing manner.
5 You have said that FREE AND EASY is your “reaction against the age of mutual destruction.” I find that fascinating, and guessing that it would lead to a never ending series of comic scenarios. Can you elaborate on that theme?
A society of mutual destruction refers to one in which people of all class backgrounds exploit and hurt one another. It represents an everyday sense of sin, because everyone is involved; in addition, it destroys the fabric of meaning of our community, the basic sense of morality, and order, as well as our environment.
6 Why soap?
Because the soap has a sense of humor and allows people to think more.
7 The actors you work with are “non-pros” and yet you have worked with them for 10 years. Are you selfishly just keeping them (and their talents) to yourself (and your films)?
True, I’ve worked with my “non-pro” buddies for long, yet they managed to have presented the best of their performance every time they appear in my work, which gives me lots of fun and excitement. In between different productions, they live their own lives, and manage to observe and understand what life has offered them. They are quite capable to exude the meaning and nutrients which may contribute to their artistic output. I enjoy every minute I spend with them. We understand and respect each other. I hope that they can also be “discovered” by other directors, and are cast into roles in films better than great.
8 You have spoken about the realities of shooting a film on a very low budget. Can you give an example using FREE AND EASY of a time during shooting a scene for the film when you had to change your approach due to a lack of budget and yet the scene came out better than you expected?
When shooting the scene “dead men walking’ in hell”, I wanted to bring out that sense of inferno. My photographer and I were quite frustrated due to the lack of lighting equipment, and because of this my photographer designed a hellish green, where the entrance is visually presented with a dark yellowish lighting effect, which creates the impression that all the characters were walking as if they were ghosts. But this most minimalism design proved to be much better that expected. To make things better, it began to snow when we started shooting. It was hellishly beautiful.
9 Similar to the scene in the movie, if you are in bed with someone and they have bad breath, who has to move to the foot of the bed you or them?
If I am in bed with someone, who happened to have bad breath, I will not wake him up. I will move to the foot of the bed.
10 Popcorn or Candy?
It’s neither popcorn nor candy. It’s a sugar coated bullet.