The New Zealand/Chinese filmmaker discusses her debut feature film, which just premiered at MIFF.
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29 Jul 2011 - 10:34 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

In 2005, Roseanne Liang produced the autobiographical documentary, Banana In a Nutshell. The film was an intimate and raw portrait of Liang's struggle with the expectations of her traditional Chinese parents and her six-year, secret romance with Stephen, a relationship her parents would not accept. The story has now been adapted into a feature film, My Wedding and Other Secrets.

The road to Liang's first feature film is the stuff of dreams. Following a screening of her debut documentary at The New Zealand International Film Festival, Liang was approached by producer John Barnett (Whale Rider), who asked her to adapt her story into a dramatic feature.

Liang knew it was necessary to distance herself from her story, which was still unresolved in real life. For the task of transforming her documentary into fiction, Liang chose to work with a co-writer, Angeline Loo. “The very first thing we did was rename the characters, to get some perspective on events,” Liang says. “Then we could go from there. We kept the bones of the story and the ideas the same. Creative license in fiction drama is wonderful for that reason. My Wedding and Other Secrets does stray from true events, but not from the feeling of those events or the heart of the themes in the documentary.”

Writing the script was cathartic for Liang. “I used the process to work through personal things,” she admits. Liang gives the example of the way her parents originally found out she was making a documentary – when it screened at its first film festival. “I realised that I'd done something wrong there. I bowled through and just assumed that if the film showed at a film festival they wouldn't know or care. I got a chance to readdress that.

“I needed to get over myself to tell the right story. I started the process thinking my parents were hard on me. I wondered why they couldn't just be happy for me. By the time I was writing the feature film I realised that Chinese parents show their love in a different way. Everything they've done is about love but I was too wrapped up in my own individualistic notions to realise it.”

Liang was also in the uncomfortable position of seeing her actions through the eyes of her collaborators. “We had a script editor, [Rachel Lang] and we'd discuss what the story was about. She'd say, 'This story is about a well meaning but essentially selfish girl who takes everyone who loves her for granted.' She was talking about Emily, the lead character, but actually she was talking about me. I'd protest. I'd say, 'Are you sure it's really about a selfish girl? Are you sure it's about a girl who is self-obsessed and wants to be the every woman with the career, and the love of her family, and the love of a good man?' She'd say, 'Yes, this is the story of a selfish girl'.”

Liang cast two first-time leads in the roles of Emily and James, Michelle Ang and Matt Whelan, and both actors found parallels with their real-life counterparts. “Michelle is incredibly glamorous in person and she usually plays quite sexy, confident roles but during her audition she captured the idea of the Chinese nerd really well,” Liang says. In the same way, Liang found that Whelan had more in common with her husband than initially met the eye. “He really captures a lot of Stephen's mannerisms as well as his look,” Liang says. “Matt did his audition and introduced himself in perfect Mandarin. I thought, how much more perfect could this guy be? It turned out that he was actually a closet nerd as well.”

For the roles of Emily's parents, Liang cast veteran Hong Kong actors Cheng Pei Pei (Come Drink With Me, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Kenneth Tsang (A Better Tomorrow, The Replacement Killers). “What I wanted above all was authenticity,” Liang says. “All of the New Zealand and Australian Chinese actors were Chinese people who had grown up in New Zealand or Australia. I wanted actors who could speak Hong Kong-accented Cantonese as well as Cantonese-accented English.”

Liang admits it was a daunting process working with such high profile stars. “They have been working for decades and have worked together many times. I already have a problem with authority and Kenneth, in particular, can be quite severe,” Liang admits. “As a Chinese girl, the default is always to defer to your elders, especially male elders. It was difficult, because as a director I have to have a vision and say what I want because there's nothing worse than a director who doesn't know what they're doing. In the end, they have been working for decades for a reason. They are consummate professionals. They listen and they add their own advice but if you decide that you would like to go your way, they'll do it for you. They'll try it your way as well."