Han Han On the Road

On July 21, 2014, Han Han spoke to a group of curious journalists who have just watched his debut film The Continent at a press conference, talking about his childhood dreams.

His voice was a bit trembling.

“When I was little, I had four dreams: to become a scientist, to become a good writer, to become a champion car racer and to become a filmmaker. My first dream turned out a nightmare when I failed mathematics in high school. My second dream came true at 17 when I found my copyright novels actually sold less than those pirated copies.  Ten years after I took my first car-racing, I became a pro and earned seven annual championships.”

He continued to say that at 20, he had a vision to realize a film after 30. He did a few music videos in his 20s and appeared in Jia Zhangke’s documentary I Wish I Knew four years ago.

He will be 32 in a month and his first feature film raked in over 600 million RMB this summer.

The Continent is a film about a road trip of adventure, disillusion and self-discovery of young islanders exploring a vast continent. Three buddies drive from the very east of China to the far west. One gets lost once the trip starts; another (Jiang He) is caught in a fleeting romance while the third is disillusioned by a hitchhiker they picked up in the woods. They are somehow frustrated by this strange and dramatic outside world. In the end, however, Jiang He becomes a successful writer and manages to retrace that romance.

Han Han refused to admit it an autobiographical film, yet stating each of the character shows one aspect of him.

The story is considered fragmented but the dialogue is as witty as that in Han’s novels. He has been good at the wordplay.

Wooed or booed by different groups of audience, Han is never short of fanatic fans: he has 40 million followers on Weibo, who make creative comments under each status of his. No long after he posted pictures of his then 2-year-old cute little daughter last year, he was hailed “Father-in-Law of the Nation” and fans became even more addicted to anything he’d post; comments grew like a snowball.

Han Han has been a national icon for almost 15 years, ever since he dropped out high school at 17 and labeled as a “rebel” after appearing in a national talk show, openly criticizing the rigid Chinese education system. Praise and criticism flew from all corners of China, some applauded for his prematurity and quick wit; others worried about his future. His first novel Triple Door sold more than two million copies, and thus began what the local media called “Han Han fever”.

Han did not perch on the altar and smile at fans’ worship. As he went on writing, he moved to Beijing, in the hope of becoming a pro car-racer. In difficult times, he once stayed in a basement room: car racing cost a fortune.

A cultural celebrity as a rookie in the racing team, Han started anew. It took him several years to go for a real race.

Fast and furious, he won one championship after another.

Citizen Han Han started blogging about China’s various social problems and was crowned a Gongzhi, public intellectual. Time magazine listed him as one of “World’s Most Influential People in 2010”.

The off-road rally races took him to all parts of China, which later proves quite a convenience for location scouting of the film.

Han described a passion for films since little: when writing novels, he’d have clear images about each scene; when composing dialogues, he’d have both parties in mind talking to each other. So it is natural that he makes a film of his own. After all, it is just an alternative way to have a conversation with the world.

Writers can be sensitive and emotional, but car racing demands one to be cool and collected, abided by rules and regulations. Han Han tries to find a balance between the two and this balance turns essential during his filmmaking. He used two pairs of words to describe this film: nostalgia and humor, confessions and departures.

The Continentproject started when Han Han felt that he was ready. That was the May Day of 2013: his publisher Lu Jinbo and veteran art film producer Fang Li inked the deal. Han wrote the script in six months, during which the location scouting was also finished.

Budget ready. Cast on set. Fine weather. Camera ready.

Action!

As much as Han sees the film’s potential flaws, he is proud of its industrial procedure: a crew of 200 finished shooting the film in about two months; they spent 20 days in traveling from the east of the nation to the very west and back, with assorted equipment and props, and finally completed the post-production within 40 days, a mission almost impossible to most local film crews.

On set, he was relentless and persuasive. He learned to adjust actor’s performance and pacing, to locate and work with the right talent, and most importantly, he established his own visual style.

Han believed a director should be an absolute dictator after assiduous study and careful listening.

He did not get mad at people but trusted soft conversations better solutions once in conflict.

He disliked close-ups, thinking them quite disruptive.

He did not use hand-held filming unless in a real need.

He thought an informative long shot would look much better than a disorienting moving shot.

He generally did not accept actors to make impromptu change of lines on set.

He had Japanese musician Takeshi Kobayashi on board for the film’s soundtrack.

At the end of shooting, he admitted a yearning for writing, because he realized filming was too restricted by the weather and other unpredictable thing.

The film finished shooting on May 26 and announced to have the national release on July 24 – not much time left for marketing anymore.

Han invited Pu Shu to sing the film’s theme song. Also a national sensation, singer Pu Shu has not published any new songs in the past ten years and offered a Demo he wrote recently.

Han later recalled that it was an instant decision.

“I once conquered the mountain and crossed the sea and came across all kinds of people; I once owned everything, which then disappeared in a minute; I was once frustrated, disappointed and disoriented, until I realize the ordinary is the only answer,” thus wrote Han Han in the lyrics.

The song went viral partly because people missed Pu Shu’s music so much, partly because what the song delivered. Upon release, the song was shared on Weibo, WeChat and all other social media. It has already branded the most successful marketing mavericks of the year.

Moreover, an Instagram account that Han Han himself built 15 weeks ago had gathered 59 million followers: an astounding number in China, because there were not so many Chinese users on Instagram, and some registered only to follow him. He posted pictures of the setting, the cast and once again his daughter, his cult status as the “Father-in-Law of the Nation” was confirmed. The posts, comments and jokes converted into real purchase of film tickets when The Continent hit the cinema.

Han Han fulfilled his role as a director in the publicity period, traveling among cities to thank the fans, attend press conferences, and accept interviews. People have long forgotten the label “rebel”, who defied all sorts of conventions.

Han traced his earliest film experience when his father bought a VCR and rent four tapes of movie: SpeedTrue LiesJurassic Park and The Terminator 2: Judgment Day in his boyhood. He watched the four movies over one night and was totally shocked. He valued the pace of these four films and was impressed by their humanistic touch. He also confessed that the four movies had an impact on his writings: he could not bear a page of dull words.

American films and Hong Kong films were cited as the big influence, together with some Taiwan films.

In early August, as the fans were still mesmerized in the thrill of the film and the media celebrating Han’s another triumph, Han Han has left quietly for his next race.

The Han Dynasty has just begun.

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