How easy -or should we say how hard- is to make it in China as a non-Asian actor, director and producer? This is what we talked about with fellow Greek, Sam Voutas, an accomplished filmmaker and actor. Sam is multicultural by birth. He was born in Australia of Greek parents, grew up in Asia, and now calls Beijing home. His latest film is titled “Red Light Revolution”, and was recently showcased at the Santa Barbara Film Festival with great reviews. The story is about a regular unemployed Chinese guy who decides to open a sex shop in order to “get by”. In his exclusive interview with Greek Reporter, Sam talks about making it in China, his film, and his future plans that may include Hollywood. And in case you are wondering… yes he does speak Mandarin fluently.
Where are you from and where did you grow up?
On my father’s side the family is from Kastania, a little village in the hills not far from Neapolis in Lakonia. My Grandfather opened a little café in Canberra, where I was born. Well, I wasn’t born in the café per se, that would make an even better story! My Dad’s name is Anthony, but everyone at the boarding school called him Sam because the last Greek kid who’d been at the school was called Sam. Or at least that’s what they called that other kid. So when I was born, my father decided to give me the name he had at school. When my folks got work overseas I then grew up in a variety of cities in the Asia Pacific, including Manila, Taipei, and Beijing.
How did you end up in China?
I think the travel bug has always been in the family. Whether that’s my Granddad who chose to get on a boat to Australia from Greece, or my Dad who chose to live in Papua New Guinea in the sixties. I don’t see living in China as an end, but rather as part of the trip. I hope to see an awful lot more yet.
What culture had more influence on you?
That’s a tough one. In terms of language it would be Chinese because I’ve spent so long studying it. Can I say it was a bit of both? I reckon that your background has a strong influence on you. For my Dad it was very important to take me to Greece to not only see the family, but also introduce me to its history. I read a lot of Greek mythology as a kid and my folks took me to the Minotaur’s labyrinth in Crete, Mount Olympus, the places from the adventures I’d read about. At Epidavros my Dad encouraged me to deliver lines on the stage, with him in the amphitheater listening. Those early trips to Greece definitely had a strong influence on me.
When did you decide you want to start acting and making movies?
I’ve been performing ever since I was a kid, and not necessarily well either. When I was in university I started auditioning for student short films. And I’d read these scripts, and some were good, but most were terrible. And I’d get rejected at auditions for terrible roles in terrible films. That’s when you know it’s time to change professions. That’s when I started directing. The acting bug is always with me though.
Do you consider yourself more an actor or director?
I think I prefer the focus one needs as an actor. They’ll shoot a take and you essentially need to find that mental and emotional space where you’re natural. It’s so simple that it’s virtually impossible. I really enjoy that challenge, more so because I feel I fail every time and that encourages me. I keep thinking maybe I’ll get it at the next take. But the downside is that a large part of being an actor is waiting for the phone to ring. I’ve learned I’m even worse at that. Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve done it before, I just don’t enjoy the waiting. That’s when the directing comes in, as it gives me something creative to do between acting gigs.
Watch Sam acting in a Chinese film
Did you experience a culture shock when you first moved to China?
When I first moved there in the mid-eighties, there were hardly any Westerners, and Western kids were even more rare. I remember going to the market and folks on the street wanting to touch my hair, pick me up, pinch my cheeks, that wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. But on the other hand everyone was incredibly warm to me as a kid. I felt very welcome. I think I had culture shock when I got back to Australia actually!
How do the Chinese perceive foreigners? The Greeks?
I’ve been thinking about that recently. I had a small role in a Chinese 3D movie last year, a fantasy picture set in Ancient Greece, but it’s shot in China. Standing there next to a plaster of Paris version of the Acropolis, in my Greek warrior’s robes talking about mermaids and monsters, it was a bit of an eye-opener. It was interesting because this Greek world was a fusion of Danish, Roman, and “Lord of The Rings” influences. Ancient Greece had become a Caesar salad with Thousand Island dressing. Fun yes, authentic, no.
Could you describe the Chinese film community in a few sentences?
The Chinese film community can be divided between the independents, or the makers of underground cinema, and the official cinema which gets State approval. Sometimes filmmakers will start out in the independent world and move to the official world, but the two communities rarely collide. It’s not just the filming styles, budgets, and distribution avenues that are different, but also the goals.
How did you get the idea for “Red Light Revolution”?
Walking along the streets basically. I do a lot of walking and noticed more and more adult shops were opening up in my neighborhood. Having lived in Beijing in the eighties, this was a big contrast for me. Something was changing. I was looking for something edgy that would push the envelope, and this ticked the boxes.
What is the story?
It’s a comedy about a regular unemployed guy who decides to open a sex shop in order to get by. Times are hard and he’s forced to take on a job that’s considered quite shameful, but at the same time this type of profession is more and more common in China. So on one hand sex shops are considered bad by his neighbors, but at the same time everyone in his neighborhood is secretly buying these products. So it’s a paradox. It’s really a comedy about the contradictions in modern concepts of morality.
The story in the movie may be controversial for conservative Chinese people. What are the reactions to the movie?
So far it’s been positive, but I really want more people to see it here in China. We’re still pushing for a domestic cinema release, which can be rather like riding a bicycle without a seat when you’re dealing with this type of material.
What festivals have picked up Red light Revolution?
We had our world premiere at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival at the end of last year. It was great to see Brazilians laugh at the jokes in Portuguese subtitles. That’s the biggest question with comedy, will it travel to another culture and language? We then went to Santa Barbara International, and are now doing Cinequest and Cleveland International in March. And I’ve just come back from the Berlinale Talent Campus, which is a workshop and training program run by the Berlin Film Festival. So it’s been a busy slate. The festival circuit is a two-headed beast, very enjoyable but also exhausting and overwhelming.
What are some major differences and similarities (if any) between the Greek and Chinese way of living and doing business?
The biggest similarity would be the importance of family and friendships in getting things done. In China it’s called “guanxi”, which is a term that can be your direct ticket to almost anything or nothing, depending on what side of the coin you’re on. It’s a person-to-person networking thing that I reckon is incredibly similar between the two cultures. You need something done? Let me see who I know and trust, and vice versa. I have Greek relatives who do business in China and they get along like a house on fire with their Chinese business partners. The Chinese love a good banquet to form friendships, as do the Greeks. I think there really is a cultural streak in forming strong relationships that’s similar there. The differences? My Greek relatives will be very direct in their way of doing things. In China it can be a much more subtle, indirect and sometimes winding road to getting things done. Both ways work, but from opposite directions.
Would you like to make a movie in Greece at some point?
Absolutely. I remember going to the Hong Kong Film Festival some years back and talking to Greek producers who were planning a co-production. They were going to do a kung-fu movie in Athens, sounded very cool to me. Greece is definitely a must-shoot.
Any future projects?
I’d love to take an ancient Greek play and film it as a movie with Chinese actors in China. That would be a blast. Then maybe after that take an ancient Chinese play and film it in Greece with Greek actors. Both countries have such strong traditions in theater. I think that would really play with people’s expectations. By mixing things up we could create some sparks.