Roseanne Liang

From 30 with Guyon Espiner, 3:00 pm on 24 April 2024

Roseanne Liang is a New Zealand film director going global. She’s gained cult status for dystopian web series Creamerie, and WWII creature-feature Shadow in the Cloud

But the action movie aficionado first made her name with a very personal story - her own love story with her Pākeha husband. My Wedding and Other Secrets became something of a cultural touchstone for the experience of many Asian New Zealanders. 

As she talks with Guyon Espiner about her life so far, Liang is preparing to call action on her next movie - a high-octane Hollywood action flick starring Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry.  

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“Oh god! I can't tell you that much about it. It is a closely guarded Warner Brothers studio movie. It’s a spy versus spy, thriller, action fun movie, which is been described as a Bond versus Bourne mash-up. It's my cup of tea."

“It was a confluence of really some really amazing events. When a short action movie that I made called Do No Harm screened in Sundance and SXSW that year, I signed with one of the biggest agencies in America called WME. Then my former agent left WME to become Halle [Berry]’s business partner. She always remembered me, and when this project came across their desk, they reached out to me. I talked to both of these incredible women [Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry.]  And we decided that we'd step out and make this this movie together.  

It's a big studio movie, La Femme Nikita meets Mission Impossible. It’s very much a modern movie about gender equality, women and feminism, but also just a great, muscular action movie that happens to star two of the most incredible female action stars of our time."

Doctor or Director? 

"There’s a Sliding Doors-type moment around the late 90s, where I'm about to commit to seven years of undergrad at medical school. Then I got seduced by the dark side of the arts and gave up my place in medical school. I haven't looked back since then. And honestly, I think about the other version of me who's a doctor right now, and I'm quite happy with this particular reality for me." 

Parental Guidance 

"I was very geared towards receiving good grades and yes, some of that work ethic was instilled in me by my parents. But I was also a bit of a self-flagellator as well. I really wanted to do a good job. My two sisters were very, you know, “scary,” like very impressive. They were both Dux of St Cuthberts before me.  

The best thing about being the youngest of three daughters is that the expectations get, you know, chipped away, as you get down the line!  In fact, I credit my sisters with asking me, ‘why are you going to medical school?’ And I was like, ‘I don't know. Because you guys are doing it?’ And they were like, ‘that's a terrible reason to become a doctor! Maybe you should think about doing something that you choose.’"

“I realised I'd been a film lover since I was like, three years old and telling my dad how much I loved The Empire Strikes Back. When I was 16 years old, I pretended not to speak English, to get into Pulp Fiction, because it won the Palme d'Or that year. I cashed in on my appearance to get an R18 ticket to watch it! And that was a seminal experience for me. What an incredible film. And when I went to university and studied critical theory, I realised that I could deep dive and swim in this for the rest of my life." 

"I have to credit the University's Film and TV teachers and lecturers and staff in instilling in me that I could actually do this. I've loved it for the longest time, I’m a consumer, but I can actually do this.  

You don't do it for the money. You don't do it for the glory. You do it because you’re genuinely obsessed with it. It sustains you and it keeps your energy up."  

Reaction to Banana in A Nutshell 

"[Banana] is a racial term, used by - in my case – the Chinese to describe a Chinese person that's grown up in a western society. “Banana” refers to white on the inside, yellow on the outside. It's a problematic term, and not used in the nicest of ways. I wanted to reclaim it! So that's why I put it in the title."

"It was a very tense time in my life, and I made the documentary almost as a way of understanding why this was happening to me, and why my parents weren't communicating to me in a way that I was used to. Other parents said, ‘I love you, and I'm proud of you’ to their children. I saw them do it. But then my parents never said that to me. And I wanted to know, do you actually not like me? Why are you treating me like this?  Why are you putting so many roadblocks in my way?  

Then I realised through the process of making the movie, that I'm the dick here. They've been saying they love me all this time. They push me on my grades, because they know that I'm capable of it. They know that I can be excellent. So that's the absolute least that they'll accept from me. The first thing my mother would ask when I got home, was, ‘are you hungry.’ That is a way of saying ‘I love you.’ And I hadn't seen it all this time. I had been blind.  And that became quite a sense of embarrassment for me through making that movie. And in a way the movie became a love letter to them to say, ‘I see you; I hear you now.’"

My Wedding and Other Secrets 

"South Pacific Pictures came to me when they when they saw the documentary. Then they said, ‘do you want to make this into a feature film? And of course, this is a dream!  I'm a few years out of film school and to have the studio that made Whale Rider coming to you and saying, 'do you want to make a film?’ Absolute dream."

Roseanne Liang in studio for '30 with Guyon Espiner'

Roseanne Liang in studio for '30 with Guyon Espiner' Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Cross-cultural tensions, then and now 

"I think the societal and generational issues still exist for some people, but then other people have moved on. You just never know. I think people are still discovering Banana in a Nutshell, and My Wedding and Other Secrets, and I know this because they send me emails and they'll say, ‘I'm going through this with my partner.’ And it's not just kiwi Chinese with kiwi Caucasians, people will see their own relationships [in the film,] whether it's a queer relationship, or Israeli with Palestinian. These cross-cultural divides happen all over the world."  

Is Taika Waititi right? Is New Zealand a deeply racist place? 

"That's such a loaded statement. It's such a loaded question, because I can't win. It feels like a lose-lose situation. 

There are racial divides in this country that have not been solved yet. And some of them are getting worse. But there are leaps and bounds that have also been made. So, I'm not going to sit here and say, ‘New Zealand is a racist country.’ There are racist people, and there's more of them than is safe."

"But I also need to acknowledge that my experience is different to Tangata Whenua, which is generational. 

I've had so many great opportunities in my lifetime from New Zealand that I'm so grateful for. But I'm also very aware that there are generational issues for others that have not been dealt with, and are in danger of never being dealt with, and are actually getting worse." 

Culture Wars  

"When we learned about the civil rights movement in America, at school in the 90s, I thought, ‘in the 1960s, the civil rights movement was solved.’ But from 2016, and before that, but especially 2016, that has proven not to be the case. History is a cycle, and frighteningly so. We have to be ever vigilant, like the Constant Gardener. We have to be constantly gardening and still sowing the seeds and watering the seeds and growing this garden, you know. We have to be constantly vigilant so that we don't go backwards."  

Politics and filmmaking 

"No one wants to be force fed things that are “good for them,” if you know what I mean. I go to the movies because I want to commune with humanity. And I want to have hope for humanity.  And I'm not interested in seeing movies that are primarily about humans eating each other. Because I see that on the news every day. I see that in my feed every day. I don't need that in my movies."

"Panicky animals"

“I am fascinated with violence and action. Violence is part of being human, and it's going to visit us whether we like it or not. The threat of violence is always around me. When I walk to my car at night, when I'm in my car at the traffic lights. Violence is something that I think about subconsciously all the time." 

“There is a dark heart in every human. Like, within seconds, we could be trying to kill each other, in the right circumstances. We can become the most savage versions of ourselves in very little time.

I've talked to people in the army and special forces. And it's very scary. Humans are panicky animals. There's a great line from Men in Black, where Will Smith’s character asks, ‘why can we just tell people that aliens exist? People are smart.’ And Tommy Lee-Jones goes, 'a person can be smart, but people are panicky animals, and you know it.’ You can't trust humanity as a whole, because we're a big race of panicky animals." 

“Most action cinema is very escapist and superficial. But the movies that I watch again and again are from that very thin strata of action movies that hit on spectacle, heart and smarts. Films like Terminator 2, and Aliens, because they deal with this idea that despite our violent hearts, humanity has value. And I think that's when action really speaks to me." 

“Cinema is a mirror of humanity, a date with our darkest dreams and our deepest fears. Our fantasies for a better life and a better existence. I think it's unwise to sort of dismiss all action movies as dross that we can forget about. Yes, some of them we forget about but some of them stay with us for forever.” 

Roseanne Liang on the set of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Roseanne Liang on the set of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Photo: Roseanne Liang

Success of Creamerie 

“I was delighted. I think I every time I make something, I wish that it could have the same effect as season one of Creamerie had. It doesn't always happen, and I become disappointed, but I tell myself that the work is its own reward. This time the work was its own reward and it seemed to really resonate with people."

“I really wanted to say something similar to what Jonathan Glazer mentioned in his very controversial speech at the Oscars. Trying to fix the world without becoming the thing that we're trying to fix. How do we resist dehumanisation? That’s more urgent now than it has ever been. We’ve got season 3 all outlined. It'll be the final season, so with that, we'll wrap up the story.” 

Is the world heading for a real apocalypse? 

“As far as I can tell, yes! I don't know how we're going to get out of it. Like, if it's not people eating each other, it's the climate changing on us and the world dying, because we can't change it, even though we know what's happening. It's like the Greek Cassandra myth. We're doomed to know what is going to happen to us. Fate is coming for us, and it feels like there's nothing we can do.” 

AI and the future of filmmaking 

“It could put people out of jobs. But I think that I'm not panicking about it right now. Because it's got some ways to go. This is the inception, this is the beginning, the emergence. 

It's an infant, and it's definitely going to grow. And yes, people are saying, it'll be writing scripts [indistinguishable from human-written scripts.] But AI hasn't lived my life. It's hard enough for a human to write a good script!"

“I haven’t yet seen AI scoop something out of the ether of human experience that says something to me about humanity that I've always known, but I've never seen expressed in that way. I don't know if AI can do it. And when, or if, it does it, if it helps me understand more about what it is to be a human and to exist in this realm of reality? Bring it on. 

If you can blow my mind with a story that's written by AI and it's really good, and it means something and it transforms me like a piece of [human] art could transform me, I don't care where it comes from.”  

Making your dream movie 

“Yeah, I might get the chance! I am in the process of getting to make it now. I once had the great fortune to interview James Cameron and I told him point blank. Terminator 2 is the pinnacle of the mountain that I'm climbing. If I could make a movie like Terminator 2, then that would be it for me. I could die happy after that.”  

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