People involved in the film industry know that one of the closest working relationship in this business is that of director and producer. In much the same way as best friends or spouses, the two people involved in this working relationship must complement each other. It’s a relationship built on trust because it involves two things that vastly effect every relationship; trust and finances. When these two halves support each other, the outcome produces a wonderful creation for all to see. The film Mandala is the beautiful, touching, and award-winning product of the working relationship of producer Zhen Li and director Guan Xi. The film is a heart wrenching tale of losing love and finding one’s self. Filming in Los Angeles, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia with a crew that spoke a total of five different languages meant that most elite of producers was required to help the film reach its vision. A host of awards vetted the fact that Mandala surpassed preconceptions, with Li providing the means and environment for this. The film’s achievements include: a 2015 Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards [Best Foreign Language Film], 2016 WorldFest-Houston International Film & Video [Gold Remi Awards Winner], 2016 Universal Multicultural Film Festival [Best Cinematography Awards Winner], and others. The story, the look, the emotions, and the production level captivated the attention of both audiences and critics alike. Perhaps the greatest indicator that a filmmaker has arrived is when Hollywood’s elite honors you as they did Mandala with the 2015 Director’s Guild of America [Asian-American Awards winner].
A proven adage in the entertainment industry is always be nice to those you work with and you are only as good as your last production. While there is humor involved in these sayings, there is truth as well. Prior to Mandala, Zhen Li had worked with Guan Xi on several projects for which she served as Director of Photography. She was so impressed with him that when she was ready to film Mandala, he was the only producer she felt could help her to create the film she had envisioned. Guan needed a producer who could meet the massive demands Mandala called for as well as one who could give creative input. She received her first dose of Zhen’s input when they discussed the dialogue for the film. Parts of the film take place in Los Angles, Tibet, and inner Mongolia. Li explains the discussion about the film’s dialogue, “At first, when we discussed the three main characters, we thought it might be easier to make them all speak one language. This is what the filmmakers did in The Last Emperor which is a Chinese Qing Dynasty story but the characters spoke English. I suggested letting characters speak their own language based on their growing environment to have our own style and retain the authenticity of the characters. If the film is aiming for a specific market, it’s easier for the audience to watch in one language. However, it’s more natural and organic if the characters speak their own language in different situations. For example, [in Mandala] when the Lama talks to the Tibetan girl, it’s natural to use their own language because this is how it is in reality. We chose to build everything for organic characters rather than build for the ‘market’ on purpose.” This statement is a prime description of the way that Zhen anticipated Guan’s direction and stepped forward to pursue it.
Besides the obvious task of raising funds for a film, one of the most vital roles of a producer is to help find and procure the proper talent (with the casting director). This feat was of herculean proportions for Zhen due to the fact that the goal was to use native speaking actors of notoriety who spoke different languages. Keep in mind that attaining visas, permits, etc. was involved from three different governing entities located in different parts of the world. This was no task for the faint of heart. Li recalls the experience of conscripting cast members stating, “The two main actors are from Tibet. I spoke with them about how Tibet is a land of mystery to the world, especially to audiences in western countries. The director and I are very into the Tibetan culture, its beautiful landscape, kind-hearted people, and the religious story of reincarnation. There were some films about Tibetan Lama’s reincarnation, but very few tell a story of a female reincarnation. We wanted our film to give this fresh perspective. The director and I flew to New York to meet with TaGa Lama who is considered the reincarnation of a ‘living Buddha.’ We spoke about religion and people’s life in Tibet and traditions of Tibetan culture. It was a great passion of ours to bring this story to the screen and to show the world. We all agreed it will be a good change to present the Tibetan culture to the world.”
The international characteristics of Mandala are not limited to the actors and their points of origin. This film includes three languages (English, Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese) in the narration because of the different background of the characters. In addition, the crew was an international team which includes key crew members from eight different counties speaking five different languages. As the film creates the feeling of the humanity and experiences that all people share, so did the experience of making this film for Li and the others involved. He notes, “At the beginning of the project, before we got to know each other, it was more like a business partnership. As we lived together, traveled together, and ate together, facing problems together, we became very good friends. They are all authentic and lovely people who enjoy sharing stories of their life and telling funny stories. In Tibet, we were shooting a scene outside a Temple on the cliff and I found this very primitive toilet which was made of pieces of wood bridging two sides of a turn on the cliff. I can see bottom of the valley which was more than 100 meters high. It was thrilling! After I returned to the makeup room we built outside the temple, I joked about this with our Tibetan actors. One of our actors, Duobujie, said ‘Tibet has everything natural. You can’t go back to a civilized city after getting used to it.’ The experience of being there and working with these wonderful people is not something that I will soon forget.”
A producer is often tasked with anticipating and enabling the next step in the process while also keeping everyone placated. Li wanted to be respectful of the temple in Tibet and the people who visit it and at the same time needed to complete filming. Harsh weather conditions and electrical/technical problems were effecting the production (when shooting at Namtso Lake, with an altitude of 4700 meters, oxygen bags were necessary for cast and crew to function). Simultaneously overseeing productions in Tibet and the US, Zhen had sets created in LA for interior shots to keep the production on schedule and insure the safety and positive demeanor of the professionals working on Mandala. Performing some reverse Hollywood engineering, Li had draperies, fabrics, interior decorations, Buddha statues, and numerous props from Tibet transported to a set in Los Angeles for the creation of a Tibetan temple, monk's bedroom, and Tibetan villager's residential bedroom. Manifesting recreations in one part of the world while being in another might cause some head spinning…for someone who lacks the clarity Zhen possesses. The two locations perfectly complement each other and appear seamless in the film.
Mandala works on different planes. The obvious side is the touching film about rebirth and the connection that we share with each other and the world. It is an award-winning film that is visually striking and intellectually engaging; the type of story that causes one to think about their own experiences and difficulties. The other, less obvious side of Mandala is that of a production which proves that what brings us together is more important and essential than what separates us. It’s the story of talented people like Zhen Li and his fellow filmmakers and crew who want to tell the stories that are universal in all different cultures and relate to our common feelings. When this is done and done well, people from all across the world recognize the authenticity and sincerity of films like Mandala.