Renee Liang tells the inside story of Inked, Aotearoa’s first Chinese bilingual drama series, which had a scripting and shooting experience like no other.
EXT: MORNING, A CRISP SPRING DAY.
A short Chinese woman approaches a shop, tugging her reluctant teenage daughter behind her. She shoves aside a random man who happens to be in the wrong place and confronts two cowering young Chinese staff.
“Who’s in charge here?” she demands.
“CUT,” says the director.
In October last year, in between lockdowns, I spent a day on the set of Inked filming a cameo as a pissed-off Cantonese mother. Aside from the typecasting – I’ve been asked to play Asian mothers even before I became an Asian mother – it was a wonderful, strange and uplifting day. There were Asians everywhere. Chinese actors having their tattoos applied by Singaporean makeup artists. A Chinese-Malaysian Kiwi guy telling me what to wear. Another passing me my soy beef ribs on rice for lunch. Two Chinese directors discussing the next shots with the lone white camera person.
Inked is a big deal – the very first funded English-Mandarin series made for an Aotearoa-based audience. It’s a dramedy about a young woman, Jiayue, torn between following her dreams of opening a tattoo studio, finishing her studies and staying loyal to her parents. Inked premiered last week on Prime TV to coincide with Chinese language week, and lots of us cried with emotion watching it. It is also available to watch on SkyGo, and arrives on streaming service Neon later this week.
The origins of Inked trace back to 2018 when a consortium of funders and programmers called for proposals from Asian and Pasifika filmmakers for a round of scripted drama. This was the first time proposal requests had specifically targeted filmmakers from the Kiwi-Asian community, despite our numerous self-funded award-winning and festival-selected indie films – from Steven Chow’s Munkie to Nahyeon Lee’s Sixteen – and the success of web series like Flat3 and AFK, also initially self-funded and made off the smell of a deep fried wonton.
It’s fair to say that in the aftermath of that round, NZ On Air, the New Zealand Film Commission and Sky TV would have been left in no doubt about Asian and Pasifika creatives’ hunger to make works that reflected their lives. It felt like everyone in the industry who could apply, did. The result? The successful funding of Asian-led Inked, Māori-Sāmoan comedy Sis and Tongan drama Brutal Lives.
The creators of Inked, Zijun ‘Jimmy’ Yang and Mingjian ‘MJ’ Cui, who had become friends fresh out of film school, were suddenly entrusted with the task of writing Aotearoa’s first homegrown Mandarin-English bilingual series – and on a relatively tiny budget. They quickly signed up producer Ruby Reihana-Wilson, along with associate producer Helen Wu and executive producer Fiona Copland. As they began to map out storylines, Jimmy and MJ enlisted key industry players such as Joss King and Todd Karehana, while classmate Vhari Lennox came on board to help with the pilot script.
Inspiration for writing the characters began with their Chinese friends in Auckland, including the artists at the tattoo studio Dreamhands who had inspired the story, says Cui. They wanted to explore the experience of being ‘1.5ers’, described by Cui as “someone who was not born in New Zealand, but immigrated young enough to spend their formative years here”. Whenever the team hit a wall, they would return to photos of their friends to channel their voices. “It was such an empowering process because we felt we were writing and extrapolating from real-life experience, not characters,” says Cui.
The creative pair drew heavily on their own backgrounds – Yang is from Guangdong in Southern China while Cui comes from Nanjing and, before settling in New Zealand, lived and worked in the US. For Cui, who has had a fraught relationship with her parents over the decision to pursue a less “stable” career in filmmaking, a trip to China with the first draft proved a nerve-wracking experience. “I realised I didn’t understand Chinese parents enough during writing,” she says, “so I really needed them to help me out.”
She recalls her emotion at seeing her mother smiling while reading the episodes in her bedroom, and her father reading along at the dinner table, pencil hovering above every line. They made script suggestions and shared stories from their own life, which Cui says brought her closer to the people that raised her. “It was the first time we got to talk so openly. And I cried so hard later when I was alone. I knew all of the anger and misunderstandings were forgiven, and I felt I understood my parents more.”
Yang similarly recalled moments from his own life to write some of the most deeply affecting scenes in the show. “My parents were utterly against me when I told him I wanted to study film, after I had graduated from business school and worked for a while,” he says. “But I didn’t fight like Jiayue. I sat my parents down at the dinner table and tried to be as casual as possible.” A pivotal scene in Inked relives this moment, when Jiayue’s dad argues that she needs to follow the expected path, otherwise it will reflect badly on him. It’s a conversation familiar to many, including me, and one of the most emotional points in the show.
Although it was important that the characters came from their own perspectives, the creators made the decision to share the writing with non-Asian creatives. Producer Helen Wu says that was crucial to ensure the show would work for a broad audience “We couldn’t have done it without their support, both as people experienced in making films, and as advisers who could tell us how our story was landing,” she says. “While we are consciously trying to cultivate an environment inclusive of Asian filmmakers, we are also not exclusive… Mentorship and guidance from experienced seniors are essential to cultivate growth.”
Beginning as a bilingual script, Inked quickly grew to encompass the reality that many Chinese living in Aotearoa identify with more than one culture. China is hugely diverse, with over 300 languages officially spoken and many more recognised as dialects or regional variations. Add to this the fact that many families are cross-cultural unions and have multiple geographic bases, and you get the gist. The Inked scripts quickly grew to encapsulate this diversity, which Yang adds was also just “much more fun”.
“We were tired of seeing and hearing Chinese characters only speaking standard, formal Chinese language (Mandarin) and also Northern dialects on screens,” he says. “We understand that most Chinese diaspora living in Aotearoa come from a multilingual, multicultural background like us so we wanted to do our best to reflect that.”
Many will relate. When I think of conversations I have with my family, or even with staff at Chinese restaurants, it’s not unusual to start in Cantonese, sub in English when I can’t pull up the right language, and say “thank you” in Mandarin. With Yang also speaking Shiqi Cantonese (a sub-dialect only spoken in his hometown) and Cui speaking Nankinese, in one of the variations spoken in Nanjing, there were plenty of interesting tones and rhythms to draw from, says Yang. For Cui, it was a “freeing” experience. “It helped us dig deeper and more specifically into the world and into the hearts of the characters,” she says.
As each actor was brought on board during the casting process, they were invited to collaborate with the writing, too. Lisa Zhang, who plays Jiayue, tells me that working with Yang and Cui helped her understand her character’s motivations more deeply. “Jiayue’s drive and passion for tattooing felt really relatable in terms of how I felt about acting,” she says. “I could project that desire onto how she approached her determination to continue, even if it meant going against her father’s wishes.”
Actor Jess Hong, who plays Jiayue’s mentor Aifei, had a similar collaborative experience. “As a second-generation Chinese New Zealander I didn’t have far to go when imagining Aifei’s life,” she says. “We talked about my upbringing and relationship with my whānau, my loss of language, and how I related to Aifei.” She felt that she bonded quickly with the creators over the feeling of being “caught between cultures” and that allowed her a lot of input over where she could take the character.
With so many languages (Mandarin, English, Cantonese, Nankinese and Shanghainese) spoken in the script, and even more by cast and by crew, there were some on-set hurdles to overcome – including communication during filming. “It seems like running a bilingual set would have made everything so much harder,” says producer Ruby Reihana-Wilson, “but it’s actually amazing how quickly and easily we sunk into a flow.”
Because the cast and crew spoke diverse languages, and there were three versions of the script circulating in Mandarin-Chinese, English and Pinyin-Chinese, a lot of on-the-fly translation was required. “We made sure to have a Chinese speaker in each department so that there were clear communications at all times,” says Reihana-Wilson. “Set up and blocking would take slightly extra time as we would block the actors speaking Chinese, then that would have to be relayed to some of our crew in English.”
Although it meant mentally taxing shoot days, Reihana-Wilson says the process never became a chore. “It simply was what we had to do and we very easily did it together.” One production assistant helpfully made cue cards, so that actors such as Hong who didn’t understand Mandarin (but whose character did) could react genuinely to their acting partners. Others such as Jeffrey Wu, who plays Jiayue’s best friend Yi, had to learn his Cantonese lines by rote.
The actors were also encouraged to explore the script using their natural language and impulses, leading to spontaneous improvised dialogue and action, something Cui likens to playing jazz. While this led to great discoveries and plenty of laughter, it also made it difficult for the English-speaking crew to follow what was happening. “Our sound recordist David DeNoize Green had to communicate with the directors by the sound of the words,” Reihana-Wilson recalls. “He treated the Chinese language like music, rather than words so, if he had a question, he would sing the tones back to the directors.”
Reihana-Wilson – who identifies as irakē (non-binary) and who is of Māori and Pākehā descent – says they prefer to work with a diverse crew because it enhances the wider on set culture, as well as evening up equity in the industry. “Our philosophy was to prioritise Chinese cast and crew, whilst also bringing our friends from many other backgrounds with us,” Reihana-Wilson says. “It automatically makes for a powerfully inclusive team when you have a mix of people from different demographics.”
They also felt that the usual set protocols were easier to disrupt and adapt when crew were already used to moving between cultures. “It’s so different, the usual hierarchy of Pākehā sets is almost non-existent with diverse crew, so it makes for an actual journey and experience as opposed to just trying to get your work done.”
During the editing process, Reihana-Wilson’s familiarity with the script became even more valuable, as they knew all the beats and said they could intuitively “feel” the story, despite not having all the language: “There are just ways that you know where you are.” It was only on the last round of edits that subtitling could begin – another challenge that took three months and the combined efforts of six people conversant in various combinations of the languages required.
Inked navigated all of this through Covid-19 level changes, all-day Zoom production meetings over many weeks and having to move locations and offices several times (including the entire production team having to work out of the garage of the set house). The final result is a series that reflects both lightness and depth, much like the strokes a tattooist must make on skin. There is comedy throughout, but the observations in Inked – especially of the complex negotiation of family relationships when those involved are trying not to fall into the gaps between cultures – are insightful, deep and above all, real.
The happy coda is that Inked is now one of several of Asian-led works to receive funding and collaborative support from organisations such as NZ On Air. Big broadcasters have shown up to the table repeatedly to meet with Asian filmmakers, and an increasing number of initiatives to build capacity and experience are being announced. Cui and Yang hope that by sharing their experiences making the series, they can inspire other creatives to tell their stories for themselves. Reihana-Wilson is looking even further afield – offshore distribution for Inked, more bilingual content, and even a foray into animation.
Whatever comes next for the Inked team, I will always remember walking off set at the end of that shoot day, and feeling the unique sensation of being included. Even though lots of conversations took place in languages I didn’t speak, I had felt like my difference was normal. By the end of the day, people were calling me ‘Aunty’ and if you’re Chinese (or Pasifika, or Māori, or any one of a number of cultures) you’ll realise what a compliment this is. (I’m glad that it wasn’t Porpor, though this is an even greater compliment).
Beyond that, I remember leaving with the most powerful feeling of all – that something had just happened that was totally new.
Inked is available to watch here on SkyGo, and on Neon from tomorrow