By David Pountain
Through three parallel narratives set in Paris, Bangkok and LA, Rooth Tang’s dreamy and disorienting Sway affectingly observes new forms of emotional and physical detachment in the increasingly globalised Information Age. Boasting an ensemble cast that spans the nations of Thailand, the US, China and Japan, the compelling new feature thoughtfully probes the connections that we hold to people, places and cultures across considerable (sometimes insurmountable) distances, while poignantly highlighting the universal language of the human face.
Speaking to FilmDoo, director Rooth Tang recalls his experiences working on this immersive and inventive picture.
What inspired you to make Sway?
I was traveling through Asia after working primarily as a TV editor in Los Angeles and ended up in Bangkok early 2010, right at the start of the big Red Shirt protest. During those months, as the protesters were preparing for the inevitable military clash, I learned that my parents were both students at Thammasat University during the 70s. That school was to Thailand what Berkeley was to the US: tons of hippies influenced by the growing communist movement from China. The students there led a massive protest against the government that ended violently as well. We talked about their changing views in politics and why they left for America. I saw the parallels in what they were going through and how their experience reflected my own – an experience I shared with my Asian American friends when I asked them about their history. So I thought I could tell a story portraying three different families that was actually a proxy for one.
Scenes tend to be filmed in an intimate manner, with the camera very close to the actors. What was the thinking behind this choice to foreground the characters so strongly over their various geographical locations?
It was from a conversation I had with Lyn (Moncrief), my cinematographer, and we were discussing Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 and In the Mood for Love and how he told stories with just faces. I also thought of Michael Mann, who tends to shoot very close as well. There’s something intimate and unsettling about it. It kinda forces you to be close to people in a way that you normally might not be. In film we can all be voyeurs without breaking any social taboos or coming off as creeps so I thought I could take advantage of the medium while simultaneously alleviating some production issues as well, since we couldn’t always clear backgrounds of wandering pedestrians or have the production means to dress every location.
This was an unusually ambitious debut feature. Did you ever feel in the process of making it that you’d bitten off more than you could chew?
In unexpected ways, yes. I knew I wanted to be ambitious from the start so I was mentally prepared for it to be tough. But what kind of tough I had no idea. I was lucky to be working with Lyn and Pakk (Hui) who helped me on my previous short films, so there was some comfort in that, but it really felt like I was making three separate movies at some point. And, because we didn’t have a lot of money, we had to rely on time, so it took much longer than expected for everything to come together. But I enjoyed making Sway, as difficult as it was. On my deathbed I’m gonna be thinking Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, and making this film will definitely be one of those memories I recall.
You directed a range of actors of different nationalities for the film, from Thailand star Ananda Everingham to the US’s Kris Wood-Bell. In your experience, does an actor’s cultural background factor perceptibly into their methods?
I didn’t really approach it as a cultural thing so it’s not something I was conscious of during the process. Ananda, Lulu (Huang) and Matt (Wu) are all seasoned vets who’ve done films with more prominent directors than me so they kind of understood everything right away. Everyone has their quirks and I try not to build everything around me. However you get to the destination is up to you. And I can usually get a sense if a person is right for the role during auditions, and fortunately almost everyone in my cast was nice enough to meet a nobody director to read a few lines.
Travelling between continents to film Sway, did you ever find your experiences or emotions mirroring those of your characters?
Yeah. For a start, lots of moments and conversations are lifted from my own experiences with friends and family. Everything Arthur’s mom says in the car about coming to the US and having to live in a tiny one bedroom was from a conversation I had with my mom. These days I’m a lot less settled with being in one place for long periods of time. That’s new, considering I was content owning an empty passport for over a decade. So yeah, like my characters, I feel weirdly lost. But traveling and living abroad will do that to you. Like learning for the first time how they make beef. It’s hard to ever see things the way you used to.
Do you feel that the film shows any optimism about the increasingly globalised state of the world?
There’s studies showing how people are more disconnected now because social media isn’t a good substitute for actual human contact. Or how Facebook causes depression because it creates an illusion that everyone’s life is great but yours. On the other hand, people are getting a bigger platform to express themselves. For media specifically, it’s interesting to see stuff like #OscarsSoWhite and the recent backlash over the casting choices for Dr. Strange and Ghost in the Shell. The mindset isn’t new, it’s just only that before nobody could voice their complaints. Hollywood can be extremely xenophobic and there’s vitriol from all sides. I think we’re all still trying to figure things out so it’ll likely get worse before it gets better. That’s the path of human civilization though so it doesn’t bother me. We’re all kind of stuck on this rock. Pale Blue Dot, right? Like literally, there’s nowhere else to go so we either make each other miserable or learn to be happy together.
I tried to frame all this by having the Paris segment ultimately represent the future of the other two stories. People scattered all over the globe but family or former lovers are only a Skype call or text message away. And as lonely as they feel with each other, there’s still an inherent optimism in their actions. Vivian might not see a future with Arthur but she doesn’t want him to be unhappy. Everyone is kinda operating as a paradox of themselves, hoping for the best outcome that they just haven’t been able to figure out yet.
I’ve read that your next feature may be a sci-fi. What can you tell us about it?
I’m really excited about the new project. We were just recently in Hong Kong for HAF and still in discussion with some of the companies we met there. Basically, there’s a correlation between Buddhism and quantum mechanics/theoretical physics that has to do with us living in an infinite number of parallel universes and the story focuses on a young woman who finds herself with this unique ability to traverse to various iterations of herself. It shares some DNA with Sway…the narrative will take us to different countries, there’s Thai and English mixed together but it also borrows some elements from films like Primer and Inception. I thought it would be cool to do a serious sci-fi set in SE Asia so fingers crossed this will happen sooner than later.