MC: Since you mentioned your parents, how do you understand your own heritage and ancestry?
IJ: I think in West Indian culture, you have access to it – but a part of it is also cut off, that part connected to slavery. You have access to it – that is not in a formal sense, but more associative – more in the kind of manner where it’s not written down and oral. I’m very aware that what I’m doing is very much about the idea of looking at movement, and that it is in the movement that one has the identity – that there’s one’s identity. All of those things gravitate further and move me towards that sort of work.
MC: So what was it like being a West Indian man in China? Did you know anything about China before you first went?
IJ: It took me a long time to familiarise myself with China because I didn’t really know the place whatsoever. There are versions of Chinese culture in England but you know that’s not the country. I’m very familiar with China as a diaspora – there is a strong Chinese diaspora in the West Indies. Also, whether I’m in Moscow, Eastern Europe, or parts of the States, there will always be a certain experience that you’re going to have. I have to say my experience in China was pretty amazing; what I think when I go there is that if there’s a curiosity in me, I can accept it. When I go to Moscow, there’s a certain curiosity I can’t accept, that’s literally saying to you ‘vanish!’ – I’m talking about an aggressivity and I didn’t have that in China – ever. There’s a white ghost, and I’m a black ghost, and I’m just going to take it for granted that I am – and I’m not going to pretend.
MC: Was the challenge of making a film about a sensitive incident concerning Chinese nationals abroad daunting for a British auteur? Was showing the piece to the native Chinese in their homeland even more of a concern?
IJ: Of course. I think that’s why it took me so long to make it, because I didn’t feel confident. I think I slowly built up the confidence. It took a longer period to make than other works because of my unfamiliarity – then I began to feel my way through, in my various collaborations with people who I met on the journey through making it – in a way I was being guided, because it was slower.
As we’re settling in, Isaac’s assistant brings in four full archive boxes, and I’m informed that three years of research went into the project before filming even started.
IJ: There is so much research, this whole thesis which I wrote, as well as (Isaac shows me the book) ‘Cosmologies of Credit: Transnational Mobility and the Politics of Destination in China’ by Julie Y Chu. I came across it when I was in Santa Cruz, and we did tons of visual research before we shot anything. These sorts of photographs (Isaac shows me Polaroid shots of traditional costumes), I took them for two years, that was before I shot anything, and then a lot of visual research on costumes, the recreation of Zhao Tao’s character from The Goddess and you know…Maggie Still, who I collaborated with on the film as a producer, she’s got a company called Xanadu, and they’ve been making works in China for over 15 years – basically she works exclusively on projects in China, and in a way, she negotiated a lot of things for me.
MC: Tell us more about how the project developed?
IJ: I started going to China in 2006. I met Wang Ping, when I was teaching at Pittsburgh, she was a professor of English at Macalaster University. She gave a poetry reading and I thought I’ve got to get her to work on this project. In 2006, I brought her to Morecambe Bay along with Colin McCabe (the British writer and film producer). One year later, in 2007 I received the poem called ‘Small Boat’. By the time shooting came, we had of course done a lot more research and that’s when we discovered the Mazu legend – which is how we chose the initial island. We then went to the Guangxi province – a kind of mythical space – not that it was exactly like the Fujian province but it basically had that sense of mythologised landscape. I then invited Wang Ping to write the second poem that was a Mazu poem, and in a way that poem would be written to the film.
Isaac pulled off a coup by bringing the Chinese screen siren Maggie Cheung out of retirement to play the lead role of Mazu, the legendary and revered Goddess of the Sea. He first came across her myth when doing research about the Fujian province at The British Museum in London. She was worshipped during the Ming dynasty, and still maintains a huge following around the world today, particularly in South East Asia and China.
MC: Why cast an established figure like Maggie Cheung instead of a young up and coming actress to play these historical roles?
IJ: For me, someone like Maggie Cheung is a true screen goddess, and so her playing of Mazu already resonates.
MC: Did the Chinese think that too?
IJ: Absolutely, one of the things that was really interesting about showing the work and what the crew were really excited about, was the fact that someone like Maggie Cheung would work on a project like this – so it gave a certain kind of resonance to it.
MC: Has she appeared in any other art projects?