Walking a Journey of Love

Writer-director Ann Hu charts her personal path to making her latest feature, Confetti, which is out now in theaters.

I was born and raised in Communist China. Growing up, though I only watched a few local propaganda films, I never failed to be bewildered by the power of cinema. It was magical, bigger than life, and beyond my comprehension.

In 1979, right after Cultural Revolution, I left China and came to America. I got a business degree from New York University, then was hired by an international conglomerate and within two years became their top profit generator; not only I was able to send money to my parents back home, I also managed to establish myself financially.

Ann Hu as a new immigrant in the U.S.

Yet all this would change when I met my first filmmaker friend, Chen, at a New York City gallery opening in 1988. Though eventually he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Chen was then just a young, passionate, inspiring film director from Beijing who had a few films under his belt. Watching him trying to raise money for his projects, pitching over and over to potential investors about how he wanted to tell his story, my fascination grew out of proportion. Gradually, film was no longer a faraway dream to me, but a concrete reality that could be accomplished through hard work. What was more, I didn’t see anything Chen was doing that I couldn’t do myself – at least, that’s what I believed. I love to write, and was very inspired by the idea of writing visually! I could no longer sit still at my desk at work, as my imagination was going wild with all sorts of crazy film ideas. Eventually, I quit my job, went back to NYU — to film school, this time — where I wrote a few pages of a script, and made my first short film, Dream and Memory.

Dream and Memory reflected my conviction at the time about art and reality. I remember writing dialogue like, “Real art should not have any practical use, they are like fog spread over the field, like the light on your hair …” The film, which reflected what I deeply believed at that point as an artist and filmmaker, received a lot of critical acclaim.

Encouraged, I began the journey of making my first feature, Shadow Magic, which took me five years to bring to screen. Set at the turn of last century, the story was about how a Western showman brought to China the newest Western invention – cinema – and through his friendship with a local young photographer, they brought about the birth of the first Chinese film. There was apparently a lot of me in it. Career, success, ambition, filmmaking, how change happens when West meets East …

Ann Hu, with her D.P. Nancy Schreiber, shooting Shadow Magic on the Great Wall of China.

The film won a Golden Rooster Award, the Chinese equivalent of an Academy Award (as well as other awards around the world), was one of the highest-grossing films in China that year and was distributed by Sony Pictures Classics in the U.S. and worldwide. I relished the commercial aspect of the film’s success, and I wanted more. This was the period of my greatest ambition. I aspired to make films with bigger budgets and bigger stars, to swim with the sharks. I was determined to show that the “West meets East” could become a genre. I myself was a successful example of a hybrid, a bridge between two cultures.

Sadly, life took another unexpected turn. To my great surprise and dismay, my dream marriage – a deep bond formed 20 years ago, during the days of the Cultural Revolution – fell apart. I was profoundly hurt and disillusioned. I made another film, Beauty Remains, which was all about men and women. The opening narration was: “We have a choice at birth — to be a woman, or man. Some become men. And I don’t understand why, some choose to be women.” The film portrays four stages in female emotional growth at different ages, and how doomed and pathetic their fate can be. But, in the end, only when I managed to let these female characters redeem themselves, and gave the film a hopeful ending, did the story come together. In working through the storytelling, I found compassion in my heart and was liberated from the bondage of my own pain.

Vivian Wu in Ann Hu’s 2005 film Beauty Remains.

Fifteen years ago, I became a mother. With that little wonder baby, Michelle, I was suddenly subject to a kind of unconditional love that I had never experienced before, and consequently I began the most blessed years of my life.

Michelle never failed to amaze me. When she was three, her English teacher told me that she suspected that Michelle had dyslexia. I’d never heard of it before, and the research I did online failed to give me a concrete understanding of it either. How far would a mother go to rescue the fate for her child? That question, and the journey it would take me on, became the inspiration of my new film, Confetti, about a mother who travels with her 9-year-old daughter from their small town in China to New York City so that her dyslexic daughter can have a good life. The title refers to the rich, creative world that dyslexic children see, which is beyond what normal people experience. If we stop judging people and are free from prejudice, we can have confetti in our lives as well.

Confetti was probably the most challenging film I’ve made in my entire career. Needless to say, every film is challenging in many ways, but Confetti topped them all. While shooting on location in China the first time, I was shocked when the female and male lead broke their contracts by leaving the film just three days in production, which led to us losing the entire Chinese budget. I remember my producer Josh Green and I were sitting in a small shabby local restaurant under the dim light, desperation written all over our faces, trying to encourage each other by sharing our near-death experiences in life and trying to remind ourselves that we weren’t dead yet! I repeatedly told myself that in order to survive the situation, I had to find love in my heart, I had to find the strength to understand and forgive the people who had wronged me. I could not lose my compassion.

Amy Irving, Harmonie He and Zhu Zhu in Ann Hu’s Confetti.

I am not religious at all. But I believe that if there is a God – regardless of religion – God is love. If we find that love in our heart, we find God.

We ended up returning to China about six months later. Summer changed to winter, but we fought every day like it was the last day of our lives. When we finished the last shot, which was confetti floating in the wind, there was so much confetti falling everywhere. On that bleached winter day, we suddenly saw ourselves in a world covered with confetti and that was so magical … When I called, “That’s a wrap,” for the final time, our crew roared. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I suddenly realized I was crying.

With love in our heart, our life and work become the journey of love.

Writer and director Ann Hu‘s latest film, Confetti, starring Zhu Zhu, Amy Irving and Helen Slater and based on Hu’s personal story., is out now in theaters. Her debut feature, Shadow Magic (2000), premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival and was released by Sony Classics in 2001; the film won both the Chinese Academy Award and Presidential Award in China for Best Film and was one of the top box office hits in China that year. In 2005, Ann Hu produced and directed Beauty Remains, which played at numerous film festivals and was released internationally by Emerging Pictures in 2005. Hu serves as trustee at IndieCollect, and was a board member at Film at Lincoln Center. (Photo by Jasmine Clarke.)