Lulu Wang on How Ren Hang’s Photographs Inspired Her Series Expats

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Lulu Wang
Lulu WangPhotography by Maripol

In the new issue of AnOther Magazine, the director behind The Farewell and Expats talks about her love of the late photographer Ren Hang

This story is taken from the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of AnOther Magazine:

“I keep this photograph by Ren Hang on my screensaver as inspiration because it speaks to me about dreams, desires and freedom. It’s the image of a naked woman casually lying in the middle of an empty road smoking a cigarette, and it sums up the life that I want – an ownership over my body, the open road, a rebellious attitude.

“Hang lived in Beijing, where I was born, and when I discovered his photography it felt so startling. It’s the gaze of a new youth – a new generation. I left China when I was six so I never experienced what it is like to be an adolescent coming of age there. I’ve always thought of China as culturally very conservative, and it was so refreshing to see this gaze that emphasises nature and intimacy and honesty. It’s hard not to look at Hang’s work through the lens of his death and the depression that he suffered – he died in 2017, at the age of 29.

“In China his work was often censored and misinterpreted as crude and pornographic, but to me it has so much charm and humour – he finds the magical in the mundane. I looked at a lot of photography when I was defining the visual language of my series Expats. Hang travelled to Hong Kong quite a bit – he loved Cantopop – and he shot against the city’s lush greenery. That lushness was one of the things I really wanted to capture in the show – the jungle and the ocean right up against this metropolis make it feel tropical and exuberant but also quite mysterious. It’s like nature can invade at any moment, like the events in the story.”

Born in China, raised in Miami and now a Los Angeleno, Lulu Wang is drawn to stories that grapple with identity and belonging — most recently Expats, a six-part series based on Janice YK Lee’s bestselling novel The Expatriates, which brims with secrets, lies and knotty power dynamics. Executive produced by and starring Nicole Kidman, the show delves into the lives of a handful of entitled foreigners whose sleek existence on Hong Kong’s airy Peak is breached by an unspeakable tragedy. Kidman invited Wang to helm the show after seeing the director’s bittersweet Sundance hit The Farewell, which found comedy and heartache in the schisms of cultural and geographical distance. Wang brings similar nuance to Expats, a loaded title she approaches by telling the stories of both the privileged westerners and the maids, nannies and chauffeurs hired to smooth their paths, weaving a textured, panoramic portrait of the rain-soaked city that upends easy caricatures and finds humour in pitch-dark places. “Maybe that’s my cultural background,” she says. “Chinese people are incredibly funny, often because of so many hardships and generational trauma. I’m always seeking the edge and pushing it further, because that line is different for everybody.” 

Make-up: Aaron Paul at Exclusive Artists using CLÉ DE PEAU BEAUTÉ. 98 Production co-ordinator: Lino Meoli. Post-production: Samy’s Camera

This story features in the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of AnOther Magazine, which is on sale internationally now. Order here