An Ode to Lady M
While the Lady M craze has since died down in Singapore, it remains exceptionally popular among the Mainland Chinese. Lady M seems to be at the top of their bucket list when visiting New York City. Inspired by Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1990), Singaporean filmmaker Tingerine Liu adopts a similar approach in her latest film My Lady M, which delves into the lives of numerous characters who cross paths.
New York-based Liu is no stranger to the festival, with her short Dinosaur Rider (2016) having screened at the 27th SGIFF Southeast Asian Short Film Competition. When I saw My Lady M on the SGIFF line-up this year, I initially assumed it to be an advertisement for Lady M Confections. Instead, the film actually is a beautiful symphony of slice-of-life vignettes, inspired by the people and their conversations Liu gathered in New York City over the course of a year.
I spoke to Liu to find out more about her process of creating My Lady M.
Adora: Hi Tingerine, thank you for sharing your latest work My Lady M with us. Are you personally a fan of Lady M? What do you think of the Lady M craze among Chinese millennials who visit/live in New York City?
Liu: Late to the Lady M craze, I was only introduced to their cakes by family-friends who visited me in New York. I had not heard of the brand, and I was puzzled and captivated by the strange sight of a long line of Chinese tourists outside this minimalistic boutique bakery by Bryant Park. Looking through the large glass window, I saw mostly Asian faces. I stood in line for 30 minutes in 2 degrees weather for a slice of cake that cost as much as a meal would. Chinese tourists have a reputation in recent years for flocking luxury stores, but this is a different demographic.
Sitting in the crowded cafe and listening to chatters in my mother tongue, I can’t help but notice how young and hip these Chinese “tourists” are. At first I turned my nose up at the Lady M phenomenon, because it represents the shallow, consumerist and materialistic obsessions of Chinese millennials. But after tasting Lady M cakes, which are truly exquisite, a part of me also admires these Chinese hipsters for their savviness and trend-setting intuitions. I mean, the cakes were delicious. They were probably the best cake I have ever had. So there is definitely a love-hate relationship there.
But beyond the cakes, Lady M exposed me to this new generation of Chinese people and the expat lives they lead in New York City. Unlike our parents’ generation and the generations preceding, we did not cross oceans to run deliveries of Chow Mein and fried rice. Instead, we sit in upscale cafes eating gourmet cakes, talking about art, and dreams and culture. This is the “scene” I want to explore with the film.
A: Are the stories and questions inspired by your personal experiences as well as your interactions with Chinese millennials in New York City?
L: All of the stories and conversations are lifted out of my experience or that of my friends. I cast for as long as I wrote the script, which took about a year, as I wanted to find real people with interesting stories. Through the process I met very many interesting people. I lived with a Chinese architect with whom I talked obsessively about cultural differences and what it means to be a Chinese person living in America today. We would talk for hours. I really enjoyed our talks and I wondered if I could make a film made up entirely of conversations. The restaurant scene in the film about the differences between the Beijing and Rio Olympic opening ceremony was inspired by him. That architect friend made a cameo as one of the Chinese hipster tourists in Lady M at the beginning of the film. I have also been yelled at “Ching Chang Chong” and “Chinks” by strangers on the street, which I also wrote into one of the scenes.
A: I really like how you portrayed the Lady M craze using a 1960s/70s aesthetic, cinematography and music. Why did you choose to adopt this approach?
L: Thank you, I am glad you like it. I am really into films from that era. The two major influences for this film were Richard Linklater (in particular his film Slacker), and Eric Rohmer. There is also that 90s TV show Beijingers in New York that was a huge hit in China. Filming with that retro aesthetic in a contemporary setting gives the film a feeling of dissonance, which I like. This dissonance very much represents my experience living in New York as a Chinese alien today. I don’t quite fit with the Chinatown immigrants from an older generation, but the new generation has yet to be defined. This undefinable strangeness is what I hope to capture with this retro camera aesthetic.
A: It also interests me that you are telling the story of the Lady M dream through converging stories of the Chinese millennials in New York City. Where did you draw your inspiration from?
L: The structure was ripped off from Richard Linklater’s 1990 film Slacker, one of my OG (Read: Original Gangster) favorites, which a critic likened to a 14-course meal made up entirely of desserts. In Slacker, just like My Lady M, stories unfold from one to the other through characters crossing paths. There is no central plot, or much narrative to speak of, but it captures the zeitgeist of Austin Texas in the 90’s through these quick character portraits. I loved how at the end of the movie, one feels the bonds and connections that exist between every character. Sitting in the Lady M cafe and studying the other Asian faces, most of them around my age, I cannot help but wonder where they came from and what kind of lives they are leading – do we have any mutual friends, do our parents know each other, etc.? I like the idea that we are all connected in ways unfathomable and unexpected.
The other inspiration for this meandering structure is just the nature of living in New York City. It is a very walkable city. One crosses paths with thousands of people every day without much intention or effort. I like the idea of the meandering “flâneur”, who observes life through walking aimlessly. “Open City” is written through the point of view of such a flâneur, who ponders his trans-national history and identity during his walks in Manhattan.
A: How have you collaborated with Lady M in making this film?
L: Lady M has been super generous and supportive. I wrote to their corporate email with an introduction to my film, and I was honestly surprised to hear back. I was told by their Chief of Staff Alvarez Symonette that they are also genuinely curious about how they have become so popular with Chinese tourists, since they did not advertise specifically towards that demographic. I was invited to their office in Midtown Manhattan where I was shown around and met their chief operatives. As a fresh and tight-knit company, they are very supportive of artists. Many of their employees are also creators in various artistic fields. They let us shoot in one of their cafes, and sponsored their cakes for filming and screenings. I am very grateful for their trust and support.
A: Have you shown Lady M your film and if so, what is their reception like?
L: This will be the first public screening for My Lady M. I hope they like it.
Catch the World Premiere of My Lady M as part of Programme 1 of the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition on 7 December 2018, 7pm with director Tingerine Liu in attendance.