Anthony Chen on ‘The Breaking Ice,’ His Cinematic Love Letter to China’s Youth

In June of 2021, Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen, acclaimed for his intimate, realist dramas Ilo Ilo (2013) and Wet Season (2019), was invited to serve on the jury of the Shanghai International Film Festival. As part of his participation in the event, he was asked to give a round of interviews to local Chinese journalists and critics. During one of these sessions, a Chinese writer began by praising the director’s family dramas by describing them as uncommonly “mature and precise” for a filmmaker of his age — Chen is 39 today, but was just 29 when he became the first Singaporean to win Cannes’ Camera d’Or prize with Ilo Ilo in 2013 — but he also challenged Chen by asking, “What do you think your films would be like if you let go of control and worked with a freer spirit?”

As the filmmaker wrapped up his time in Shanghai and flew back to London, where he was living at the time, the question came to almost haunt him, he says. “I spent three years developing the scripts for each of my first two films, and I was sort of a control freak in the way I worked,” he says. “So what he said just stayed with me for so long.”

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That same summer, Chen was supposed to begin production on his first English-language feature, Drift, but because of his actors’ other commitments, the project got pushed back into the Spring of 2022. Suddenly, he had a lot of time on his hands.

“We had just gone through the lockdowns of the pandemic and I was itching to shoot something.”

The answer to the Shanghai critic’s question, he decided, was to shoot a film entirely in China for the firs time — and to make it about the frustrations and yearnings of Chinese youth.

Chen had been following a regular current in international press coverage of China’s ongoing social changes — the country’s Gen Z youth were facing rising unemployment rates and often feeling stuck, or adrift, in their lives.

“I was reading a lot of articles about how young Chinese people these days are struggling, because they feel like they’re not fulfilling their dreams — they feel defeated by the system, or defeated by tradition, and they’re sort of fighting to find a sense of identity,” Chen explains. “And I got really excited about the idea of doing a film that gives voice to this.”

Chen then called his former collaborator and producer in Beijing, Meng Xie, founder of the pioneering indie sales and financing outfit Rediance. He told Meng he needed to shoot a movie — in China and as soon as possible.

“We started in July, with no script, no actors on board — nothing — and we needed to wrap in January, so I could prep for my other film, Drift,” Chen says (Chen later finished that film in late 2022 and it premiered at Sundance to mostly warm reviews this year). “But I was ready to do something crazy. I needed to make this movie to know that I existed as a filmmaker.”

He decided that for nearly every creative choice on the project, he would push him far outside his usual comfort zone. For example, since the film would most likely shoot in December, why not set it in one of the very coldest parts of China? So, Chen set the story in Dōngběi, China’s remote northeast, bordering with North Korea. “I’m from Singapore; I grew up in the tropics; and I’ve never shot anything in the winter,” Chen says. “Where we were going, it could get as cold as -20 degrees.”

With only the vaguest notions of a mood for a script, Chen then thought back to one of his favorite films about youth, Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Like that cinematic landmark, he concluded his Chinese feature would center on an improvised love triangle — two guys and a girl.

He then started calling up Chinese actors he had come to know over the years. The first was his eventual female lead, Zhou Dongyu (whom Chen had worked with on his segment of the omnibus film, The Year Of The Everlasting Storm, which premiered at Cannes in 2021). She agreed quickly despite the haziness of his pitch. Next was Liu Haoran, best known for starring in the buddy comedy blockbuster franchise, Detective Chinatown (the three installments, released between 2015 and 2021, have grossed $1.4 billion in China). Chen saw another opportunity for creative challenge in Liu, especially if he cast him to play the moodiest character of the trio. He asked himself, “What if I cast a really commercial-leaning actor in an art house film?”

The third star would be Qu Chuxiao (known for his work in the sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth), an actor Chen’s producer, Meng, admired. Chen wouldn’t end up being able to fully convince Qu to take the part until he traveled to China in person some weeks later.

But simply getting into China during that period of the pandemic wasn’t easy. Chen didn’t secure a China visa until late September 2021, and he finally arrived in China on Oct. 3. Shooting needed to begin at the start of December and he still had not fully cast the film, nor hired a full crew, found locations, or written a script. At the time, China still required a 14-day quarantine for anyone entering the country. Upon arrival, Chen attempted to use the enforced isolation of his two-week stay in a small Shanghai hotel room for writing.

“There were times where I couldn’t get anything out, and I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, this was all a terrible idea,’” he remembers. “The actors were all texting me saying, “How’s it going? We’re saving our time slots for you, but do you think we could see a script soon?” He says he considered using “the easiest and best excuse” — tell everyone he had caught COVID and had to withdraw from everything. But he continued writing.

At the end of the 14 days, Chen had produced only a two-page treatment, but he had the outlines of his characters and felt he had arrived at the essence of the film he wanted to capture. It would center on the metaphor of ice.

“When water solidifies into ice, it’s often such a quick, transformative process,” he explains. “But then with just a little heat, it all melts away so quickly. This is what I wanted to capture between my characters. You’ve got three people who are basically strangers, who come together by chance and develop a deep bond of understanding over a very short period of time. Then that moment suddenly melts away and they all go their separate ways — what remains are the emotions they went through and how they were changed by one another.”

A few other motifs emerged from his agonized quarantine research and writing. Looking at Northeastern China on Google Maps, Chen became fascinated with Changbai Mountain, which straddles the border between China and North Korea and famously contains at its cratered summit, the majestic Heaven Lake, the world’s highest volcanic waterbody. The mountain features prominently in ancient Chinese and Korean literature and mythology — elements that Chen decided would capture one of his characters’ imaginations, prompting the trio to travel to Changbai Mountain in the film’s final act.

After he emerged from quarantine, Chen, Meng, an art director and an assistant, traveled to China’s northeast to scout in the border towns near the mountain’s base.

“We hired a local tour guide who had this tiny minivan, and basically whatever we saw during those few days is what’s in the film,” Chen says. “It’s such a unique place — bitterly cold, and everything is a mix of Korean and Chinese, visually and culturally — and the food is amazing. We got so inspired by our time there.”

Chen also knew contemporary Chinese cinema well enough to understand that he would be going against type with his thematic intentions in Dōngběi. Films set in China’s remote northeast — the archetype being Diao Yinan’s 2014 Berlin Golden Bear winner Black Coal, Thin Ice — tend to be gritty thrillers or realist dramas, depicting the region as bleak, impoverished, and forbidding. Instead, Chen would use Dōngběi as the backdrop for a story about vibrant, youthful yearning.

When they returned to Beijing, Chen had three days to hire a crew. With just his treatment to pitch from, he managed to convince some of the Chinese industry’s top craftspeople to join the project, such as acclaimed director Lou Ye’s regular production designer, Shaoying Peng (Spring FeverBlind Massage) and costume designer Hua Li, known for her work with Jia Zhangke (Ash is the Purest White) and Diao Yinan (Wild Goose Lake). As his DP, he hired Yu Jing-Pin (of director Derek Tsang’s 2019 Oscar-nominee Better Days), known for her expressive handheld work. Chen had decided he would enhance the film’s theme of youthful improvisation by shooting mostly in a handheld style, while also challenging himself by using only one lens throughout the entire production. For a composer, he hired 28-year-old ambient electronic artist Kin Leonn, a fellow Singaporean who had never scored anything before (Chen had simply stumbled upon Leonn’s music on Spotify, loved it, and reached out to him). And while the director’s prior work contains very little music, he resolved that The Breaking Ice would be overlaid with emotive and poignant synths throughout. With the remainder of his crew, he hired the youngest people he could find — his assistant directors were Chinese industry aspirants in their early 20s.

Finally, Chen and Meng approached Chinese studios to finance the film — still without a script.

“It was just me pitching the idea of these three young people and how they form a connection, and go to this mountain — and maybe even meet a bear, like in the old legends,” he recalls. To his surprise, “everyone was, like, ‘wow, that sounds quite charming. What is this film? We’ve never seen something like that in Chinese films before.’” With little time to spare, Hangzhou-based Huace Pictures boarded the film as the lead producer and financier.

After a few weeks of prep in the Northeastern border town of Yibai, Chen finally finished the script 10 days before production was scheduled to begin, on the same morning that the lead actors were due to arrive on set for their first table read.

“That evening, it was the first time anyone on the project had read the full story. We were all very moved — and then we went on this crazy adventure together to make a special movie together in the cold.”

Chen says he sees the finished film as his “love letter to the young people of China.” He adds: “It was the most freeing thing I’ve done.”

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