“I WOULDN’T be here but for Bob Hawke,” says 26-year-old Alex Wu, recent winner of the Sydney Film Festival’s $7000 “Dendy Live Action Short Award” for best Australian short film for “Idol”.
That’s quite literally true, since under the one-child policy in China, his parents, while living in Harbin in north-east China, already had a daughter, meaning that if they hadn’t moved to Australia, they would never have been able to give birth to him.
“It’s one of those interesting junctures in history that allowed me to be,” Wu says.
His father, a noted educationist who went on to found the Chinese-Australian school in Canberra and became a leading figure in multicultural affairs here, came to do his PhD at the University of Queensland in the late 1980s. In the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Bob Hawke allowed Chinese students to stay on so he brought his wife here, did several other degrees and they both ended up as senior public servants in Canberra.
“My parents were enamoured of Australia, hard-working, warm, loving people but not artistically inclined,” he says. Having a film director for a son was the last thing on their minds.
Wu went to Gold Creek Primary then to Lyneham High, where his sister was school captain. He went on to become vice captain, but fell in with the school’s music culture and played a leading comic in the Elton John-Tim Rice musical “Aida”.
“I even got to sing a solo,” he says.
He spent a lot of time at home in Ngunnawal watching old Jackie Chan movies and ducking out to the DVD rental shops every day.
“By the time I was 15 or 16 I’d developed a particular taste, I guess… My favourite film was “Before Sunrise” directed by Richard Linklater, where two ordinary people meet on a train then spend the night walking around.”
He was also fascinated with the Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai.
“It’s a cliché that immigrants want their son to be a doctor or lawyer so they‘ll have a good lifestyle,” he says. “Since day one when my parents found out I was gravitating towards music and film, they were proud and supportive.”
In years 11 and 12 at Narrabundah College, where Wu studied double specialist maths, he came under the influence of veteran media teacher Celia Stott, who opened up for the first time the possibility of a career path in film.
“She had a whole lot of old Super 8 cameras with real film in them and said, ‘go out and make something, splice it by hand, get a feel for it’. It energised me like nothing before. Narrabundah’s a great environment, you work hard, you feel pushed… and it made me feel like I could become a filmmaker.”
In 2011 while still at Narrabundah, he made a western, “Compass”, inspired by a Clint Eastwood movie. That won the Audience Choice Award at the 2011 Canberra Short Film Festival and top prize at the 2011 Leonid Film Awards. He also made music videos on Super8 for the 2012 Canberra Short Film Festival.
A fellow Canberran student and filmmaker, Josie Baynes, told him about a degree at the Victorian College of the Arts, which sounded like the perfect course for him. To his amazement he got in straight out of college.
While studying from 2013 to 2015 he spent time working at Hoyts and volunteered at Sydney Film Festival, so feels he’s come full circle in winning an award.
In 2015 Wu’s work “Beneath the Cotton Clouds” got into the LA Indie Film Festival and Toronto Student Film Festival. In 2016, his film “Motown” had its world premiere at the 60th BFI London Film Festival, then last year he returned to do an honours year and as part of the course made his Sydney winner – “Idol”, shot in a single day at the VCA.
“Idol” is not intended as an attack on the film industry but as a peek into its darker aspects.
Ostensibly set in a big city like Beijing or Shanghai, “Idol” shows a very handsome young screen celebrity, Wan Ran, played by Kyle Chen, being dressed down in the green room by his terrifying Big Sister-style manager (Jiapei Wu) after a teenage fan commits suicide when she learns that he has a private love-interest.
Wu made the film entirely in Mandarin, a language in which he admits he’s not fluent.
“When I was younger I was reticent to explore the Chinese side of myself, but now I want audiences to know that Asian people have the same feelings as everyone else, this is a very human, compelling story that shows what people go through.
“In the ‘Idol’ entertainment industry managers control the celebrities, who don’t own their phones or their private lives, their friendships aren’t real, they’re inventions or productions, like the snake that eats its own tail,” he says.
“As the main character’s situation unravels, I made a conscious choice to present what the audience sees, to make the film immersive, in the moment, putting the audience into the shoes of the idol – it’s more like a play, very performance-driven.”
“I really enjoyed directing in Mandarin, paying attention to how the words sounded, the pitch, the tempo, the silences in-between and the emotions showing on the person’s face… it’s an immediate emotional experience.”
Wu is naturally thrilled to have won a jury prize at Sydney Film Festival and his film now qualifies for Oscar consideration, but although the $7,000 will buy him creative time and help him pay the rent, he has no illusions about the film industry.
“I’ve tried my best, but like Sisyphus, I’m pushing a giant boulder up the hill and getting pulled down… But winning a big award helps remind me that I’m on the right path.
“Ultimately film is all I want to do.”