SSIFF interview: Mariko Bobrik (The Taste of Pho)

Japanese director Mariko Bobrik attended film school in Poland and decided to stay. Cédric Succivalli talked to her about what it means to be between cultures, how best to integrate in your new home country, her main actress Lena Nguyen, and what part of Japanese culture we can perhaps find in her film The Taste of Pho.

CS: You have studied at the Lodz film school in Poland. As a Japanese in Poland, what are your own experiences with the kind of struggle your lead character is dealing with, torn between the Vietnamese culture he comes from and the Polish culture he now lives in? Have your experiences been similar?

MB: I have to say, not similar at all. There’s not really a Japanese minority in Poland. If a Japanese person were to come to Poland it would be for a very specific reason, like me coming to study film. So my experiences are not similar to what Long has, but at the same time I can understand what it must feel like to have lots of family or your community near you and have that suddenly vanish. In film school, your film friends are like your family.

CS: Long, the protagonist, was in a mixed marriage with a Polish woman before she died. Given your last name (Bobrik), you seem to be in a mixed relationship as well (correct me if I’m wrong). Was it important for you to have the relationship in the film be mixed, specifically with regards to and in contrast to the Vietnamese couple in the film, Hien and Cuc, of which Cuc doesn’t speak Polish at all? Long (the protagonist) seems very well integrated in Polish society, do you think language is an important part of that integration, in Poland?

MB: Yes, absolutely. Language is absolutely the number one barrier that you must overcome if you want to integrate. It sounds obvious, but it depends on where you are. In Berlin for instance you don’t really have to speak German, you can be part of an international community. But even for me in Poland, I live in an apartment building where a lot of old ladies live, but they don’t treat me at all like I am a foreigner anymore because I’ve lived there for a long time and I speak Polish. So it’s really the language that can be bothersome for foreigners in Poland.

CS: There are obviously frictions between the Polish people in the film and the Vietnamese and other non-Polish ones, as there would be in any such situation. The racism in the film is mostly of a mild variant, rooted in simple ignorance and misunderstanding. The only truly direct racist incident occurs with Long’s neighbor, but she later apologizes and peace is restored. Is your impression that hostility towards foreigners in Poland is lower than what Western media would have us believe, or did you deliberately soften it for the film?

MB: I think that might be a very individual experience, but in my view it is absolutely over-dramatized in Western media. Of course you can get shouted at in the streets, and I’ve had that happen a couple of times, and people look at you in a weird way from time to time. This is so much more about the amount of foreigners living in the country. Obviously in Paris nobody would look at me, but in a village in Poland everybody will. That doesn’t mean that they’re racist. Even after our government changed many years ago, I don’t think people became more racist. Polish society has its own problems, for sure, but it is rather a fight between Polish people. Before the government changed I was also shouted at in the streets, you know? Us human beings, racism is in us, it’s not more so in Poland.

CS: How did you find the delightful young actress Lena Nguyen? It must have been hard casting such a young girl who also had to be of mixed race.

MB: It was very hard to find her. I went to all schools with mixed Vietnamese girls in Warsaw, and casting agents went to other cities as well. I saw her, we sent an email to her parents, and that email went into their spam folder. About a month before the shooting her mother found that email, and she replied that it would be wonderful for Lena to be in the movie. We already had someone else actually, because we had to shoot, so Lena came in really at the last moment.

CS: Did you do a lot of preparation or rehearsal beforehand? I was not so sure if there was room for improvisation or if it was completely scripted.

MB: It was completely scripted, because for people like Lena or Long, amateur actors who came in months before shooting without any understanding about film making, it is more comfortable for them to tell them exactly what to do. Rehearsal was not about practising the lines, but more about understanding what acting might mean, also in front of a camera.

CS: There are some scenes in which I felt a certain ‘Japanese’ aesthetic, if you will, similar to, for instance, films by Hirokazu Kore-eda or Ryusuke Hamaguchi. There is a gentleness to some scenes, like the one where Long walks around the city right before he overhears the talk in the smoking booth. What would you identify as Japanese influences, for instance directors, and what do you think is the Japanese ‘touch’ in your film, if any? In other words, what part of Japanese culture did you bring into the film?

MB: That’s a really hard question, because I don’t know many Kore-eda films, and I don’t know Hamaguchi at all. Of course I know older Japanese films. It’s not that I try to imitate in any way, but I had Ozu in mind a lot, the way he doesn’t criticize, how he is non-judgemental. And in his films the camera is a little bit like a natural force, a bit ‘cold’, but not Western ‘cold’: it doesn’t judge, life goes on. And that is a part of Japanese culture I might be influenced by.