You Tube movie in the works

October 16, 2008 4:13:57 PM PDT
Is there room among the pratfalls and bedroom tirades of YouTube for an experimental, full-length film? On Friday, the director Wayne Wong will premiere his movie "The Princess of Nebraska" on the video sharing site. It will be available to watch for free at the YouTube Screening Room, a recently launched channel for movies:

Wong, who has made both studio films (1993's "The Joy Luck Club") and indies (1995's "Smoke"), is one of the most notable filmmakers to try giving away a film for free online. While it has become standard practice in music for albums to stream for free, movies are generally only available for free illegally.

Last month, Michael Moore released his documentary "Slacker Uprising" for free to stream or download. Coupled with Wong's YouTube release, it's starting to feel like feature-length filmmakers are wading deeper into the Internet.

"This is all accidental, but sometimes accidents are good," said Wong, speaking by phone from Singapore where he was promoting "The Princess of Nebraska" and its sister film "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers."

The 59-year-old, Hong Kong-born director has for more than 25 years vacillated between films made in Asia and ones made in Hollywood. He broke through with his second feature, 1985's "Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart" and later gravitated toward studio fare with movies like 2002's "Maid in Manhattan" and 2006's "Last Holiday."

Recently, he has moved back to his indie roots. "The Princess of Nebraska" was made to accompany "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," which was released to art house cinemas in September.

Both are based on stories by the Chinese-born author Yiyun Li.

"A Thousand Years" revolved around a 40-year-old woman who grew up during China's Cultural Revolution and is devastated by what her family had to go through. Alternatively, "Princess" is about a teenager emigrating from China to America who has no sense of history, only of cell phones and modern technology.

"When I was finishing `Thousand Years,' we had a little bit of money left and I just went ahead and did it," said Wong, who lives in San Francisco.

The film was made quickly with digital video and was "shot like a jazz riff," Wong says. It's hard enough getting one foreign language film into theaters, let alone two - so the opportunities for "Princess" in the U.S. were few.

"When the idea came up, I said, `Well, that makes sense' - even though I didn't intentionally make it for that," said Wong, referring to YouTube. "The film is very much inspired by new media, by watching a lot of things on the Web and YouTube stuff."

In the movie, a pregnant teenager named Sasha (Li Ling) looks to have her baby aborted, all the while sporadically videotaping herself with her cell phone - poetic moments that pace the movie.

It's not a necessarily positive view of youth and technology, making the YouTube release a bit ironic.

"I'm trying not to be judgmental because this is a new generation, this is a new media, this is what YouTube is," said Wong. "I wish there was more substantial information on it."

Wong pointed out that there's a Web page where Sasha's diary is posted, but all the comments from readers are about her attractiveness.

But while the marriage of full-length movies and the Internet might be young, Wong believes it could be a legitimate platform for films made with a sensibility unique to the smaller-sized medium.

(Movies at the YouTube Screening Room are displayed with a "high quality player.") "You kind of have to think differently about it," said Wong.

"It has to move faster, the images have to be tighter, you can't really see a lot of details. If `Thousands Years' was shown on the computer, I would be kind of depressed ... it has to be projected big."

But as the distribution avenues for independent film become fewer, Wong thinks filmmakers need to explore different alternatives and, above all, make better films.

"We as filmmakers need to be smart about the kinds of films that we make and take more chances," he said. "The problem is that most independent films are trying to make Hollywood films.

They're basically straightforward narratives and they're a little more interesting, but not that much more interesting. Take a film like `Blair Witch.' It's not the greatest film, but it's at least something really different."