Sunday, August 2, 2009

Wendy Lee's "Happy Family"

Wendy Lee is a graduate of Stanford University and New York University’s Creative Writing Program. She worked for two years in China as a volunteer English teacher and now lives in New York City. Her first novel, Happy Family, was named one of the top ten first novels of 2008 by Booklist.

Here she shares some ideas for cast and director of a cinematic adaptation of Happy Family:
If my book was made into a movie, the two most important roles to cast would be Jane, an art curator who lives with her theater-critic husband in New York; and Hua, the young Chinese immigrant who is hired as the nanny to Jane’s adopted daughter from China. Jane is intelligent and generous, but she is also almost willfully naïve in believing the best about other people. Hua’s heart has been toughened by the many losses in her life, but she responds eagerly to any glimmer of human warmth that comes her way.

I picture Julianne Moore as Jane, not only because both of them have red hair, but because Moore always seemed to me like the quintessential West Village mother. Years ago, before I moved to New York, I read in a magazine about Moore walking around the Village with her director husband and their baby—it just sounded so lovely and wholesome. It also made me want to move to New York so that I might run into Julianne Moore on the street.

Choosing an actress for Hua is harder, because, well, there just aren’t that many well-known Chinese actresses out there. It reminds me of the time I was at a wedding, and someone suggested that we cast the bridal party. The bride got to be played by Jennifer Aniston, and I got to be played by Lucy Liu, of course, because no one could think of any other Chinese-American actresses. But I digress.

I used to think Zhang Ziyi would be perfect as Hua. She’s young, Chinese, can speak English, and she can play both coy and innocent. It would also probably give the actress a welcome respite from playing a Japanese geisha, martial arts goddess, or sidekick to Jackie Chan. Yes, my book could be a Zhang Ziyi vehicle!

Then I saw a short film called The Princess of Nebraska, which is based on a short story by Yiyun Li and directed by Wayne Wang. The actress in it is named Li Ling, and she plays a character not unlike Hua—a Chinese immigrant who finds herself lost, physically and spiritually, in a big American city. I think she could capture Hua’s desperate yearning for connection, as well as her resourcefulness.

Come to think of it, Wayne Wang would be a good choice as director, although the movie version of my book would be more on the level of Dim Sum than The Joy Luck Club. I imagine it as a scrappy little independent picture, and I would be able to watch it at the Angelika downtown.
Read an excerpt from Happy Family, and learn more about the book and author at Wendy Lee's website.

The Page 69 Test: Happy Family.

--Marshal Zeringue