Exclusive Q&A: Two-time Oscar documentary “shortlistee” Chen Weixi, Part 1
Issue #18: We ride the tide with news documentary star Chen Weixi, covering his decade of work from making documentaries at legacy news outlets to international collaborations
It’s Beimeng here. This week, I’m taking over Far & Near with an extended conversation featuring documentary filmmaker Chen Weixi. A two-time Oscar “shortlistee,” you may not be familiar with the name but you are very likely to have watched his debut film 76 Days (2020), where Chen gained unparalleled access to a Wuhan hospital in the early days of the COVID pandemic. Chen shared co-directing credit with an anonymous filmmaker and Hao Wu, the US-based veteran documentarian best known then for People’s Republic of Desire (2018).
Between 2015 and 2018, as a Caixin video journalist, Chen did his time parsing China’s complex social realities by running headlong into every single major news story. “Just floods alone, I covered four of them, four,” he told me. Chen stands apart from his peers, thanks to his extraordinary ability to be in the right place at the right time. The trajectory of his career perfectly mirrors how the Chinese news doc industry has developed over the past decade.
I was curious about his meteoric rise and the backstories to his award-winning films, of course, but I was equally interested in the insights he’s gained as a career video journalist in China.
We are publishing our conversation in two parts. In Part One, we focus on Chen’s latest short film, Happiness Is £4 Million, which was shortlisted for the Documentary Short Film Oscar in December 2022. The film, about an intern’s tricky assignment to interview China’s most successful real estate investor, premiered in the New York Times’ Op-Doc section and in the non-fiction publication Sting Like A Bee 故事硬核.
In Part Two, we will talk about 76 Days, and delve into how he seems to always make the right call, from gaining access to impossible places to making smart career moves. The conversation has been edited for brevity.
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Watch Happiness Is £4 Million here
Beimeng: Your previous films mostly focus on regular or marginalized people. Why were you interested in a real estate speculator?
Weixi: Ou Chengxiao, the subject of the film, runs a website called Reservoir Forum that teaches Chinese netizens how to speculate on real estate. He is the most successful real estate speculator in China, claiming to have 70 apartments. If you just go around and ask your middle-class friends, they all know about Ou.
We saw him on Douyin and heard that Reservoir Forum was going to be banned. We thought that people like him, who make a living through selling ideas on these platforms, must be desperate to get some media exposure, and he did accept our request for filming.
Beimeng: He's one of the most famous people among real estate speculators, isn't he?
Weixi: That's right. There's a famous Chinese investor, Zhu Xiaohu, who is the boss of Sequoia Capital, and Ou's wife is Zhu Xiaohu's sister. In the eyes of his supporters, Ou’s the real hot shit. For them, he is someone who understands the law of the jungle. A lucky man married into wealth, sure, but he also has the wits to step up to the occasion. Through him, my team and I thought we'd be able to have a look into China's real estate bubble over the last 20 years, and what kind of people his devotees are.
But the moment you meet him, he'd throw you off completely regardless of what you thought of him. He says the darkest and most ugly things in such a self-righteous way. It made me doubt myself.
I asked him: "Which do you think is more important, diligent hard work or proactively seizing opportunities?”
He said both. I said, "Don't you think your story seems to be more about being in the right place at the right time?”
He replied: “I can tell you for sure that in 5 or 10 years, you’ll still be a photographer while I will be a man who’s above other men. And the gap between our offspring will widen even more.”
I asked him: “How do you judge if you are more successful than most people?”
He said: “I am absolutely free to do whatever I want, while you can only take pictures or make videos.”
“Don’t you think it would make someone happier if he or she has a profession in the arts or in history?”
“I wouldn’t let my daughter study art and history. That’s the lowest profession of them all in society.”
So why did he accept my filming request? His answer: “I need your publicity, the brand name.”
I asked him why people need so much money. He said he just enjoys living a life of luxury. But when we were at his house, we saw buckets of instant noodles, and he was always in the same pajamas. He only has three or five pairs of shoes. Even I have 10 pairs.
Beimeng: I wanted to ask you a question about ethics. The film rests on this tension between the seasoned real estate investor and the young female journalist named Wu. I felt uneasy watching their interactions. Throughout the film, I was not sure if the young journalist had the power to decide how she wanted to appear in this film, and this portrayal of her—honest, maybe too honest and trusting—might make her vulnerable to ridicule. This raises questions about power dynamics between filmmakers and their subjects and your choice in making her a part of the story. Why have a recent graduate interview an old fox (老油条）?
Weixi: When this story idea was shared in the editorial meeting, it was not received positively. Very few people thought it was going to be a good story. At the time, Wu was in her internship/probation period and wasn't working on any stories. She was asked to take on the project. She had her doubts, but she bravely accepted the assignment.
Perhaps this was my negligence. I did not look at it from a feminist perspective. Her being a woman was not the focus of the film. Rather, she represents a group of people with a perspective and value that’s closer to ours, the imagined audience. You could say it’s a bit idealistic.
I appreciated her lines of questioning, and I kind of appreciated her self-doubt as well. I think that was the most sincere state a person can be in. On the other hand, Ou's performance was particularly painful to watch. I felt that he was performing every word, every act and expression. He was not real at all.
Despite this, I don't think the relationship between Wu and Ou felt forced. I think the film shows the wealth gap between the rich and the hard-working people in China. The clash of values is what I want to express through the film.
Beimeng: After watching the film, I got the feeling that it’s primarily about the journalist, with Ou serving more as a reflection of her character. However, I understand that the story begins with Ou.
Weixi: The reason the film leaves such an impression is due to a lack of material on Ou. But the discomfort you describe did cross my mind. Some photojournalist friends also mentioned feeling the same sentiment. I agree that ethics in documentary filmmaking is a discussion that never ends.
Beimeng: Despite the debates surrounding the film, it has been a great success. The film has been widely viewed both domestically and internationally. It also received a lot of comments. How have audiences responded?
Weixi: It's difficult to define what success looks like for a film. In the best-case scenario, a successful documentary film can lead to some form of reconciliation. Still, there are many interpretations of what that means. For example, if this film can help people like Ou to better understand Wu, and vice versa, that’s a version of success. Or maybe in 10 years, a film will be rediscovered by many viewers. That would be another version of success.
In China, the film received a rating of 6.4 on Douban [which is not very high]. There’s a lot of criticism towards the journalist, likely due to social Darwinist beliefs in China. But I wanted to show in the film that I was on the same side as the reporter.
The video got over 100 comments on the NYT Op-Doc, and most of them are sympathetic toward Wu. It's interesting to see that viewers can relate to Wu and understand the film's message, despite cultural differences. I'm pleased that the audience comprehends my intentions.
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Beimeng: You are one of the most prominent filmmakers among this new generation of documentarians. How did you start making documentaries？
Weixi: I studied journalism as an undergraduate and joined the school newspaper, but I never went to class. Starting from my sophomore year, I interned everywhere. Before I went to Caixin, I basically worked for all the mainstream print media in China, like China Youth Daily, the Southern Metropolis Daily, and Beijing News. At that time I only wanted to be a photojournalist. In 2012, Chinese print media started their pivots to audio and video. But in just a few years they had already begun to decline. Those who graduated in 2013 and 14 caught print media’s golden tail.
At Caixin, my colleague Xia Weicong and I filmed, recorded, edited, colored, and added subtitles ourselves. It made us grow quickly. Then other video platforms and publications like Paper Video, Pear Video, Arrow Factory, AHA were established as well. I just learned my way through the scene by chatting up, collaborating with and learning from peers, and I covered every major event I could in China from 2015 to 2018.
Beimeng: How did you go from working as a video journalist doing shorts at Caixin to non-fiction long-form work at studios like Sting Like a Bee 故事硬核?
Weixi: When I was at Caixin, I felt a mismatch between news stories and documentary filmmaking. By the time you arrive to document many breaking news stories, they have already happened. All you can do is interview people and add some b-roll footage. In some cases, like floods or earthquakes, you can follow the aftermath and document that. After a few years I felt limited by this. I could say I was producing good journalism, but I was not making good documentary films.
My current collaborator, Du Qiang, is a well established non-fiction writer and editor. We realized that long-form non-fiction writing goes well with documentary short films, in terms of finding story ideas and storytelling styles. I proposed that I join his team’s editorial meeting to see if there are any good stories that would make good documentary films, and I tag along on reporting trips with text journalists. I have a lot of freedom in deciding what story to work on. There’s no quota for me to meet, and I have a fixed salary.
Beimeng: How would you compare your own work with other documentary directors such as Zhou Hao and Xu Tong?
Weixi: To be honest, I think my film is quite unfashionable (土). Among our generation, many directors have developed their own style and voice. For example, Sean Wang’s A Marble Travelogue (2021) has a more aestheticized style than mine. Weichao Xu is much better at approaching big topics through documentary films. I’m better than Weichao at getting access and capturing the moment—I can say that because we’re close collaborators. Guo Rongfei has shifted her focus on fictional feature films. Chen Dongnan’s Singing in the Wilderness has a delicate touch that’s unique to female filmmakers. (Side note: Chen Dongnan’s The Trail From Xinjiang (2013), a fearless and empathetic documentation of a group of young wanderers, is one of Beimeng’s favorite Chinese documentary films.)
My films are very direct. I’d say my work is closest to Zhou Hao’s, but my visual style is better than his, partly because he didn’t have good equipment back then. I can say this because we’re very close friends - I feel like he sometimes forgets that he’s making a film when he’s in the middle of a scene, but I won’t.
Beimeng: Would you prefer a more artistic style? Or, are you struggling with the style you have right now?
Weixi: No. I don’t think I actually have the ability to achieve that kind of aesthetic for my films, but it’s also not something that distinguishes the film. It has something to do with the motivation to make a documentary. Some people, including Fan Jian, really care about a complete and dramatic story arc, but I think my motivation for making documentaries is to participate in something real, to capture real people and emotions. Everything else is secondary.
Who we are:
Yan Cong is formerly a photojournalist currently pursuing a research MA in new media and digital culture in Amsterdam.
Beimeng Fu is a video journalist based in Shanghai. She is a lover of languages and documentaries.
Ye Charlotte Ming is a journalist and visual editor covering stories about culture, history, and identity. She’s based in Berlin.
Interviewer: Beimeng Fu; Editor and Translator: Yan Cong and Ye Charlotte Ming; Copy editor: Krish Raghav
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