Having always had a passion for art, design, and architecture, Phenix Miao had many options available for his future. However, building a house would be too boring for him, he says. He needs to build something up and make it beautiful and use his understanding of the “flavor” of filmmaking. This is when art direction and production design came to mind. He can catch the rhythm of colors and figure out delicate differences in a set to turn it into a piece of art. He uses elements of his daily life while creating a set and designs a scene with marks and traces of time. He considers a set to be an extra character and knows it is vital in capturing an audience’s attention. He is more than an artist, he is a storyteller, and uses his talent to immerse his audience into his work. It is for this reason that he is an internationally sought-after art director.
Showcasing his dynamic capabilities as an art director in every project he has worked on, Miao’s talent is undeniable. This is evident in commercials like the Itron Battery Crowdfunding campaign and the series of advertisements that he has recently made for Lepow, as well as his films Lottery and Shanghai Sojourner. However, his personal connection to Shanghai Sojourner made it one of the highlights of his career.
“I knew immediately when I met him that Phenix was who I needed to make my film a success. Firstly, he really knows and understands Shanghai. Regular Hollywood filmmakers sometimes have a hard time catching the soul of foreign places, as they don’t understand the cultural background. I didn’t want that for my film, and needed someone who hadn’t just been to Shanghai, but understood it. Phenix was the perfect selection. When we went to Shanghai to location scout for the film, he seemed to know where everything was and the history behind each place. He had a ‘historical site map’ in his brain; whenever I had an idea, he knew exactly where to go to capture it,” said Leo Shih, Writer. “Secondly, Phenix is a tremendous Art Director. He worked well with his team and he always surprised me. He pays such attention to detail and can emphasize or hide even the smallest of blemishes in a set to suit whatever fits the scene. He knows the difference between Chinese and American filmmaking, and he is good at both methods, perfectly bridging the gap. He has outstanding designing skills.”
Shanghai Sojourner follows a Chinese-American woman who falls in love with a Jewish exile in Japanese-controlled Shanghai during World War II. She must use every resource at her disposal to help him escape before the Nazis implement the Final Solution in China. This script is adapted by Leo Shih, original written by Geling Yan, who is one of the most famous writers in China. The story is inspired by Joanne Chen, who is also a famous actress. The film shows the love among an American, a Shanghainese girl and a Jewish boy, which is a story that Miao resonates with. He is from Shanghai, and stories like this happened during that time period. He is excited that his film is one of the first to tell such a story on screen.
“I love this story. I was able to imagine how to plan every scene the moment I read the script. I knew exactly where we should go and what I could do. It will be a great film,” said Miao.
Although the film is still in development, the script had an early premiere at the 2016 Shanghai International Film Festival, the top film festival in China, and is expected to complete production this year. As Miao is from Shanghai, he could bring the understanding of the city, or as he calls it, the “flavor of Shanghai” to the film. He is an expert on the culture and grew up in a historical family. His grandfather even owned an antique shop in the city, so he has a keen eye for historical artifacts that represent Shanghai. Such an outstanding artistic approach helped abstract the key points of the film.
“Naturally I can feel the heart and smell of Shanghai. Every detail of the city impresses me, and I conveyed that through my designs of this film. I made sure the flavor was correct. I know almost all the historical places of “old Shanghai” or colonized Shanghai. I can identify the real old pieces and correct Shanghai stuff, and make sure every scene about art and history is correct,” said Miao.
Miao’s grandmother had many Jewish friends in the 20’s and 30’s who were also Shanghainese. His connection to them made him want to do the film even more and help tell the stories of fear they lived in during World War II that many are unaware of going past Europe. When Leo Shih and Kylin Pictures offered him the role of Art Director, it was more than wanting to take part in the film that made him say yes. It felt like it was his mission to create this film.
Miao’s friend, Xiaoyan Lu, is a leading actress and friends with Leo Shih who had worked with Miao previously, so she recommended Miao for the role of Art Director. She knew he would be ideal to help take the film to a new level. When Miao accepted the position, he recognized he would have a stellar team. This consisted of Shaolin Wang, a very famous Production Designer in China who directed and designed many important and famous films and TV series before, and the Executive Production Designer Che Zhang, who is also an extraordinary talent. With such a professional creative team, they immediately got to work. Miao and his team pasted a lot of their design drafts on the walls of their office in Shanghai. This allowed them to constantly be looking at them to work on improvements. They discussed the designs every day to achieve perfection.
“Phenix is a very impressive art director who really understands film. He selected the costumes and designed the whole look, which made me like an ignored but happy mother,” joked Xiaoyan Lu, Actress.
“Through his design, as the actress, I could feel the warm atmosphere that the script was designed to be. When I stood on the set, I knew the emotion was correct, and that was because of Phenix. He is a comprehensive filmmaker. He respects older generations with empathy. He can make complicated things easy and understandable. He is a very considerate person and always thinks comprehensively to make sure no issues happen. When he designed the scene and props, he even considered more than the director,” Lu continued.
Miao is confident that Shanghai Sojourner will be one of the most celebrated films of his successful career. He found his entire team to be experienced and respectful of what they were creating. The most important element of the film is “Shanghai” and nothing could make this Art Director prouder.
“Most Hollywood films make many mistakes about Asian sense. We can easily figure out something is made by Hollywood. But in this film, we needed it to look correct with all the details of original Shanghai. It is rare to find someone who knows both Shanghai feeling and Hollywood style filmmaking, and I am glad I can be the one to fill that void,” Miao concluded.
Be sure to see Shanghai Sojourner as soon as possible.
Photo left to right: Geoffery Xie, Xiaoyan Lu, Phenix Jiangfu Miao, photo by Zheng Qin