Five(ish) Questions: Xu Zhang and Mei Liying
Xu Zhang and Mei Liying are filmmakers in Los Angeles, California. Their most recent work is a short film titled Cocoon that has garnered many nominations and awards at a number of film festivals in the recent months. Most notably Cannes, Raindance, Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival, Asian American International Film Festival, among others.
Xu, Mei, and I met up in a cacophonous coffee shop in L.A. to talk about film, Buddhism, controlling emotions, defining failure, cherishing life in all its forms, and the Japanese author, artist, and radical in the mid-20th century Yukio Mishima.
Meet Xu and Mei.
What's your greatest fear?
Mei: My greatest fear is that I will be stuck in this life and I can’t become an eternal life being at the end of this life. Because I’m a Buddhist I have my belief that there is a goal for my life, and in the end, I will become something more eternal. My fear would be that somehow I got stuck in this life circle where I have to be a human, or any other being on this planet, but still in this circle. I want to get out of this life circle. My fear is that I fail that goal.
Me: What happens when you get out of that circle?
Mei: I become Buddha. You can call it Buddha or God or anything. Names are not important. Something more eternal.
Xu: For me it’s more practical. My greatest fear is to waste my time for my whole life and not do anything that’s valuable. Like making good film. Spending time with loved ones. Spending time with family is valuable to me. Bringing joy to other people that I care about.
Me: Do you both feel like you’re on the right paths to achieve those things?
Mei: Yes. Trying to get out of here. [Laughter]
Xu: You get distracted by video games, but you’re trying.
Mei: Oh, yes! Finding my zen in my video games! [Laughter]
What's your greatest accomplishment?
Xu: To be where I am right now. I’m not doing a day job just to make money. I’m living a very modest life, but doing what I want to do. It’s a sacrifice, but it feels great. 80% I’m chilling and 20% I’m writing a feature script. And hopefully it’ll be our first feature out next year .
Well, I don’t regret any decision that I’ve made. That’s my greatest accomplishment. When you’re making a decision, there’s always a chance you can make the wrong one which can affect you or other people negatively. So I’m glad that all those decisions, I always made the right decision. The decision that’s best for all of us; me, my friends, other people around me. Not just myself. The greater good, ultimately. And to be sure, not hurting other people or myself.
What's the most difficult thing you've ever had to do?
Xu: Three days ago, we were in Alhambra. We were driving by a neighborhood and there was a dead animal on the road.
Mei: We didn’t know what it was.
Xu: It was broken and in the middle of the road, probably for a few days. It was really bad. We drove by and looked at each other and were like, “We have to go back and get that animal to the side of the road.”
Mei: He’s in the middle of the street. Flies are all over. It’s rotting.
Xu: In Buddhism, you can’t just…
Mei: You can’t pass by dead animals without taking care of them.
Xu: You’re supposed to bury them or cover them with something. So we looked at each other and decided we had to go back and deal with it.
Once we got out of the car, I just started shaking. I couldn’t even go close and look at it. It was really scary, right?
Mei: It was terrible. Really hard to look at. The cars smashed it, everything was out there. We never touched anything like that. Sometimes squirrels get hit by a car, but their body is whole and complete. But this was just broken, open, and it was huge. It stunk.
Xu: So we stood there and pushed each other for at least a half an hour.
Mei: People were driving by, they probably thought we were crazy.
Xu: In the end, we found a box, an Amazon shipping box, in the trunk. I held the box upside down and she directed me like, “Go forward, move left!” I can still feel it. Then I just dropped it so it was covered, but then we had to get it to the side of the road.
Mei: She had to push it and it was heavy!
Xu: She’s like, “You have to push it with your hands!” And I just couldn’t. Even though it was in the box, I felt like I was still touching the dead body of an animal.
Mei: It was really sad.
Xu: I was really horrified by that. In the end, we found a roll of wallpaper in the car and I used it as a stick to poke it three times. I was so scared.
Mei: She had to take a break between pokes. She would push for two minutes then take a five minute break.
Xu: When I talk about it I’m still shaking.
Me: What about you, Mei? Same?
Mei: That was really difficult and I didn’t do anything! I was chanting though. It was very difficult. But to give a conclusion to that… I’m afraid of death, afraid of dead bodies, and I had this idea when we were on our way back. I thought about this: All the media and the news, everything we see and read, they make death such a light thing. It is a normal thing, everybody has to die. But when you feel it, you touch it, you’re so close to it, you just realize it’s such a terrible thing. Especially accidents or other terrible ways to die. I was thinking about it and telling her that I don’t like the media taking it so lightly. It’s not a light thing.
You know in those super hero movies, people just die like that? As if they’re not important because they’re not the main characters? That’s what I feel about that.
What will you miss the most when you’re gone?
Xu: You answer first.
Mei: That’s a really difficult question.
Xu: I can answer for her. She wouldn’t miss anything. [Laughter] If she’s good enough as a Buddhist, when the time comes, you shouldn’t be missing anything in this life.
Mei: That’s one way to see it. If, luckily, I achieve what I want for my life, when I leave this world, I should not miss anything because there should be no more attachments. To me, as a human being, there are no more attachments. But at the same time, I could miss everything. Everything has a meaning to me. The people I meet. My friends. My family. My parents. The people that I love and I care for. And this world. Every detail or little thing that I liked and can’t hold on to. I would miss everything. No matter if I miss it or not, they’ll be there or they’ll be gone. Nothing’s going to happen just because I miss it, just because I can’t go back.
Xu: I hope I don’t miss anything. If I’ve practiced Buddhism to the point where I’m a good Buddhist, then I should either get out of the circle of life and I’ll be able to see everyone that ever was in this life, and even in a way, help them to get out of their life circle as well. Or… That’s one situation, I’m out of the life circle. The second situation is if I’m still in the life circle. I would be certain that I’m still going to meet everybody I’ve met in this life in my next life circle. But in a different way. Maybe you and I will still be friends in the next life, but you’ll be the coffee shop owner and I’ll be a regular customer.
Mei: You’ll be a girl and she’ll be a boy.
Xu: It’s just different form, but eventually we’re going to meet and people who are close are still going to have a close relationship. In a past life, Mei’s probably my mom.
Mei: I’m still your mom. [Laughter]
Xu: Two lives ago I was probably her mom! And we’re all so close with Claudia [our mutual friend] so we were probably friends in the past lives too.
So I don’t think I’ll miss anything because I’ll see everyone in the next life.
How do you define failure?
Xu: Failure is when after I do something, I feel regret. For me that’s failure.
Me: Do you have moments where you’ve felt deep regret?
Xu: Nothing specifically, but I will come back to this.
Mei: It’s really difficult for me because I’ve never really had a moment of failure in my life yet. Maybe I will later. But right now, I see things as either achieving my expectations or not achieving my expectations. Sometimes not achieving my expectations is not a bad thing, probably my expectation was wrong, or it’s not right at the time. To me I’ve really never had a failure moment yet.
If things are not going the way that I thought, I either alter my thoughts to see the better way to make it better now, or maybe this thing is not for me. Maybe I give it up. Or keep going and finding other things.
Xu: That’s really nice. You’re such a good Buddhist. [Laughter]
All right, I thought of an example. A lot of times, I can’t control my emotions. I get angry sometimes, say, in traffic or work. It’s normal, it happens to everyone. But recently I’ve been training my mind to go around those spots whenever those situations happen. Whenever I’m able to go around it, I think I’ve made a step forward and I succeeded in that moment. But there are moments that I can’t go around anger or stuff. I’m defeated by these emotions and later I feel regret. So those are the moments that are failures. For me.
Me: How do you combat it to get out of that circle? I totally feel you. That feeling of “I fucked up.”
Xu: It’s altering your perspective. To realize that everything is just in your head. And if you think another way then that alternative reality is the truth and you are happy.
Mei: So what’s your practical method to control your emotions?
Xu: This is a good question for you because you’re good at that. I’m not good at it.
Mei: So you’re still looking for your method?
Xu: It’s very specific. Whenever I see myself in that spot, I tell myself, “Don’t get tricked by it. Go around it.” Sometimes I can see it and just go around it.
Me: Do you feel like you’re calling it bullshit? Like it’s not real?
Xu: No, I just go around. I don’t even confront it.
Me: But do you think it comes back later if you don’t confront it?
Me: Really? Interesting.
Mei: My way of dealing with anger—and she and I have talked about this before because she’s told me that she has difficulty controlling her emotions—I was telling her about the books that I read. One of them teaches you how to see your anger. We all get mad, but the ultimate thing is that we have to really feel our anger. Not to control it or fight against it, but to feel the anger. “I’m feeling angry, but what is this anger? Do I feel my body temperature get hot? How do I feel?” Once you start to feel how your body physically reacts to your emotions, you’ll realize your emotions calm down because you’re now aware of it. Then you can try to think about why you’re so angry. Because the easier thing is to blame other people, blame things. “This person’s fucked up” or “This thing is fucked up.” But maybe not. Maybe you should dig deeper and ask, “Why am I so angry?” Because no one else is angry, you are angry. So then you can understand what that trick is that makes you so angry. Once you find out, it’s usually that maybe you’re too self-centered or you didn’t see it from someone else’s perspective. Or maybe you’re too rushed or too aggressive or too passive. That’s why these moments of anger go this way. Because of your you. You’re not saying it’s your fault, it’s just that you played a part in it that caused this anger. That made you angry. So just deal with it and let it go.
Me: It’s taking responsibility for your own emotions. Saying here’s the thing I can control. I can’t control that guy from cutting me off—in the traffic example—but I can control how I respond to that.
Xu: I always tell myself this: It’s not what they are doing to you that’s hurting you. It’s how you feel that’s hurting you. Once you realize that, you can say, “I’m not going to hurt myself anymore.”
What’s one piece of art, music, film, etc that has profoundly affected your life?
Xu: Classical music. Specifically Mozart’s K331. It’s just perfect on every level. It’s emotional. And in a very nice mechanical way put together. It elevated itself to a different level. It’s inspiring, it’s peaceful, it has so much emotion in it.
Mei: There are many pieces of art that have made me feel emotional or inspired. One example is this book from a Japanese author [Yukio Mishima] written in the 1950s. It’s called The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It’s this temple that’s very famous in Kyoto, Japan. It’s made of gold. It’s in the middle of a huge pond. It’s famous because of its historical value and meaning, but the book itself is not really about how this temple was built or anything. It’s a novel about this boy who’s 13 years-old. He inherited the temple. His father’s the main monk in the temple. So the story is around him and his friend and people his age. So the story itself is not really a strong drama, but the language and how he tells the story is very beautiful. That gave me the first idea of beauty, beauty in art. It’s dark. The author himself was very famous in Japan. He committed suicide because he was one of the most provocative…
Xu: He was a fascist.
Mei: Yeah, he was very complicated.
Xu: Not exactly a fascist, but he was involved in the Second World War.
Mei: He was really involved in the intense movements in Japan when they wanted to go back to the old times while everyone else was trying to go liberal.
Mei: Yes, a nationalist. And his movement fell. And at at the same time, he was a very interesting artist. He did paintings, photographs, he did photographs of himself, all different kinds of art. His work was very strong and intense. Just because he was that extreme, the way he sees beauty was very dark and twisted, but also very realistic. You can connect with it because the beauty is not in the air, it’s something that you can connect with. That’s what connected with me. I feel the beauty of the poetry he put in the novel and how he described beautiful things, beautiful people. That inspired me and opened my window to how to appreciate beautiful things.
Xu: The Japanese have a very specific view on beauty. They’re very very precise. And he’s the type of guy who would cut off his—when Japanese samurai commit suicide, they would cut themselves open. He did that. He held it until he saw himself bleed. There’s a documentary about it. It was a very extreme case.
Mei: He was really crazy. But if you see any of his pictures, any of his paintings, you’ll see why he was that extreme. Not saying we all need to be that extreme.
Xu: He wanted everything to be exactly perfect.