Born in 1994 and raised in Beijing, Hongyu Li became one of the most influential film critics in China when he was just 22 years old. He then developed his filmmaking skills at the New York Film Academy before making his directorial debut with the award-winning short film, Waiting For Frank (2017).
Hongyu Li’s second short film, Hank, follows a married man who, scared of losing his relationship, feels forced into agreeing to an open marriage. Hank received an Official Selection at Cannes Short Corner, won the Remi Award at Houston Film Fest, as well as an award at the Hollywood International Moving Picture Film Festival.
Q: I can’t think of many things that explore the subject of open marriages. What led you and co-writer Austin James to tackle this subject. And what did you each bring individually to this story?
A: While we ask people to accept the LGBTQ community, the LGBTQ community often only seems to accept the young, the beautiful, the perfect.
Recently it seems open marriage has become another standard to measure up against. The question being: ‘Do you belong to this “progressive” community or not?’ I began to wonder if the question of opening up the relationship was a dilemma for couples who have been together for many years. So I started to research the lives of older gay men, thinking: ‘How do they struggle with stereotypes?’ And: ‘What do older gay couples, who no longer fit these stereotypes, do when their long term relationships hit hard times?’
Hank explores the challenges older gay men face and the often heartbreaking choices they make to keep their marriages alive.
After I finished the logline, plot, and beat sheet, I found it was very difficult for me to write the dialogue for the character. Because I’m not a native English speaker, so that I always need co-writers to help me. I tried a few writing partners until I met my co-writer Austin James.
Austin brought some funny dialogues and moments into this sad story, which brought my story to another level.
Q: The film comments on the image-obsessed and anxiety-inducing LA lifestyle. What have your experiences been living in California and being a part of that environment?
A: At the age of 22, I moved to Los Angeles from China to study film. Because I came out when I was just 18, in a country not as open to gay culture, I immediately appreciated the diversity of this city.
As an average looking guy who can barely lift a sandbag, it didn’t take long for me to realise that I didn’t fit in with the stereotypical gay men of WeHo. I don’t jog shirtless. I don’t talk about diet plans, juice cleanses and three-week transformations. And I don’t look like every other hot guy on Instagram. These life experiences really inspired me to make this film for average gay men who feels abandoned in our “progressive” LGBT community.
Q: There is a great scene where Hank goes back to a Cowboy bar as he yearns for Texas and his youth. Can you talk more about the conflict Hank is experiencing? Could you relate to it in any way?
A: Actually when I wrote the first draft screenplay, I didn’t decide what type of dances for Hank. But I was pretty sure that this will be a high point of Hank’s character arc. Yes, he’s struggling with the mid-life crisis, the failure of a long term relationship with his husband. But he still deserves this joyful moment.
But then, the story tone turns to the darkness. I think Hank is a very traditional and shy person so he probably won’t go to a popular gay bar, especially since he’s from Texas. My co-writer suggested that maybe he should go to a cowboy bar.
I had NO IDEA about line-dancing until I went to a cowboy bar called Cowboy Palace Saloon in Chatsworth. I saw those elder people dancing in the pool freely and told myself: ‘That’s it!’ I went to that bar more than five times by myself. Just watching and feeling the vibe until the vision came to me. I went to several Zumba classes to capture the nervousness and excitement when you dance with strangers. I think that is the most fantastic part of being a film director.
Q: How did you work with Jason Stuart to capture the dilemma Hank is experiencing?
A: We had a lot of conversations during the pre-production to perfect the performing style since he’s known for his stand-up comedy.
Hank is very special for Jason, because he was in tons of big movies and TV shows for supporting roles, but never a small film where he is the lead role. I can tell Jason loved this story, but it gave him some small challenges. I think the biggest challenge of this project, for him, is that Jason has very big personality in the real life, but Hank always compromises. It took a while for him to get into this character. However, he’s a very experienced actor. All I needed to say was: ‘Jason, remember, Hank won’t do this.’ Or: ‘You are Hank!’ Then he always gave me what I wanted in the second or third takes.
Q: Do you hope ‘Hank’ can be helpful to people going through something similar? What would your general advice be to someone in that situation?
A: I definitely hope Hank emotionally supports more and more people suffering from unequal relationships. Bravely say NO if you don’t feel okay, not only in the open relationships, but any moments when you feel bullied. My advice is: equality is the foundation of a healthy relationship. Everyone deserves it.
Q: If I’m right, you spent some time as Editor In Chief for the Chinese equivalent of IMDb. Can you tell us more about your background and why you wanted to pursue filmmaking?
A: I started my film critic career when I was 18 and was hired as the head editor to decide weekly topics, interview film celebrities and manage almost all Chinese film critics when I was 21.
I watched festival-winning films everyday until the night I watched Whiplash – which tells a story just the same as my life experience when I played percussion in middle school. I had always assumed that, although I love film, I don’t have good stories to tell. But after I watched that film, I realised that: no, I do have good stories but I don’t have good craft to tell them to the audience. The next day I told my parents: ‘I want to go to Hollywood to study filmmaking.’
Q: A quick glance at your IMDb shows that you are extremely busy this year. Have you got any upcoming projects or plans you’d like to tell us about?
A: You’re a stalker! Well, I did a couple of commercials and directed a few narrative shorts. But I mostly spend my time in developing couple feature scripts. They are both topical and also related to what I concern: race, aging, school bully, LGBT. However, the tone will be lighter than Hank. My goal is to create more funny and smart Asian roles.