While studying at the Beijing Film Academy, Asian-American writer-director Laurie Tsou says she realized an alarming avoidance of the topic of sexual health in Chinese society. Upon returning to the United States, she channeled her frustrations into a short film that shed some light on the critical subject.
Now four-years later, Tsou has completed a feature-length screenplay "Russian Red #7" that explores the topic of HIV/AIDS in China through the eyes of Luo-yi, a brazen Chinese model living in Paris who falls for an enigmatic French singer.
However, before Luo-yi can love him, she must confront her tragic past in Beijing as a pregnant teen that contracts the HIV virus.
Tsou plans to make "Russian Red #7" into a feature film next year. She recently answered a few questions about her career, the film and its challenging subject matter.
What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
I grew up in a boring and predominantly Caucasian neighborhood where I rarely spoke in school, in fear of my classmates teasing me for my Chinese-Korean-Californian accent. I only found solace in American television. In fact, I could tell you what time of day it was based on the television show that was airing at any given time. I especially loved watching the AMC (American Movie Classics) channel late at night in my grandparent's bedroom. Often, you could find me curled up in my Grandfather's rocking easy-chair with strained eyes, half asleep and half enchanted.
Tell us about your filmmaking training and experience.
I had the privilege of attending film school at the University of Southern California where I learned the fundamentals. From critical studies to production sound, I learned all aspects of modern filmmaking. In 2008, I took an 18-month leave of absence from the MFA Production Program to complete several films.
One film was shot during the semester I studied at the Beijing Film Academy. It is here that I realized that the utter avoidance of the topic of sexual health in contemporary Chinese society. It made me sympathetic but angry and prompted me to channel my frustrations through film. I knew I needed to convey my thoughts on Beijing society while still immersed in this environment and before I went back to the America to finish my MFA at USC. The result was a short film that screened at several international film festivals and shed some light on this critical subject. Four years later, I decided to explore the topic of HIV/AIDS in China in a feature length screenplay.
Who are some filmmakers or artists that have influenced your work? Why?
I vividly remember watching "The Samaritan Girl" (directed by Kim Ki-duk) and being completely floored by the film. A number of things impressed me about the film, but I was most inspired by how much was conveyed without dialogue. It was an incredibly powerful and lasting experience.
Soon thereafter, I set out to watch every movie that Kim Ki-duk directed. When I watched his films, I underwent a shift in my mindset of what one could do with the film medium. There were so many moments of simultaneous tragedy, empathy, wonder, and surprise that now I strive for those moments and think, "I want to make movies like that!"
What kind of themes do you like to explore in your films? Why?
I think this a difficult question for me to answer in terms of theme, but the subject matter that I always come back to is women who struggle with their identity within societal "norms." I think this subject is what I struggled with during my youth and so, it's a comfortable space for me to explore.
Having said that, my last screenplay was about the polio vaccine race in the mid 1950's that centers around Albert Sabin, the virologist that created a competing vaccine to Jonas Salk's first successful polio vaccine. (Although Salk's vaccine was the first vaccine to be created, Sabin's drug was more effective against the virus). In that story, I was writing in the voice of a middle aged Jewish Immigrant scientist that was coming to terms of living his life in the shadows of one of the greatest American heroes.
Inevitably, I just want to tell a good story that is relatable and compelling, no matter what subject or theme I tackle.
Tell us about your upcoming project "Russian Red #7"
The writing of “Russian Red #7” has been my ongoing passion during these two years after moving back to the US from Beijing. We portray the Henan incident as the jump-off point for our film. This headlining tragedy entails the HIV infection of over a million Chinese farmers and peasants through state-run blood collection programs. The consistent reuse of contaminated equipment allowed the disease to run rampant in the rural communities.
Our HIV positive protagonist, Luo-yi, is a brazen Chinese model living in Paris who falls for an enigmatic French singer. However, before she can love him, she must confront her past in Beijing as a pregnant teen that contracts the HIV virus.
She represents the shadowy side of uncertainty that exists in all facets of life in this world. She acts as a warning of how susceptible we are to slight twists in fortune that can destroy one’s positive circumstances. She reminds us that we are able to act in seemingly opposite capacities: good and bad, cruel and compassionate.
By walking in Luo-yi’s footsteps, we look-on helplessly as her life collapses one mistake at a time. Reaching frustration, we then finally see Luo-yi actively confront her repugnant scars and rectify the false narrative she’s been living to liberate herself, her family, and the unexpected love of her life.
What can people do to help support the project?
So far, the momentum for the movie has been incredible. Janet Yang, producer of “Joy Luck Club”, “People vs. Larry Flint”, and “Empire of the Sun” (with Christian Bale and Steven Spielberg) has called the script “impressive”. Anne-Dominique Toussaint, producer of "Caramel" and “The French Kissers,” characterizes the screenplay as “very modern, authentic, unexpected, universal” and praises its “style.” Backers of the film include a science writer for the LA Times and a former hospital director, among others. We've also spoken to distribution representatives from CBS Films, ABLO.INC, FOX Searchlight/FIP, and ECI Talent & Management.
This is amazing news and I want to build on this strength. More specifically, I would love to engage American audiences and get them excited about this international film. This audience would include, but not limited to, individuals that are interested in cinema, human rights, world health, French and Chinese culture. I’m hopeful that by experiencing Luo-yi’s story, others will find the courage to start a dialogue about sexual health, discrimination based on medical status and race in not only China or France, but across all nations.
There are a number of ways one can be directly involved in the film. Whether you’d like to donate or invest, there are great incentives in addition to becoming part of the filmmaking family. All donations are tax deductible because we are fiscally sponsored by a non-profit and contributors receive special thanks on the film. Read more about our film and ways to get involved at www.russianred7.com
All that said, I would appreciate any contribution to the project at the level comfortable for you. We have an award-winning crew who’ve worked on major titles ("Dexter," "After Earth," etc.) and we’d love to have your names on the credit roll with them.
I can’t wait to get into production and make you proud to be a part of the film!
When will the project be completed?
This will be contingent on financing, but I want to start principal photography spring of 2014.
Where will the film be released or screened?
Again, the release would be dependent on when we secure financing, but I look forward to submit to prominent international film festivals and film markets all over the world in late 2014 and early 2015.
Special Thanks to Laurie Tsou and John P. Raposas for arranging this interview.