All, Or Nothing at All - an interview with the filmmakers

Jiajun 'Oscar' Zhang (b. 1990) graduated from the London Film School in 2017. He spent his childhood in Shanghai, and currently resides in both Seoul and Shanghai. The storyline of his debut film unfolds within a large shopping mall in Shanghai, where young people act out various scenarios, perceiving the world through the people, reflections, dreams, and heartaches encountered within the shopping center. The film is meditative and emotional.
Jiajun 'Oscar' Zhang previously stood out with the short film "If You See Her, Say Hello," which was featured at Visions du Reel film festival in Nyon, Switzerland.
"All, or nothing at all" is also an original song performed by Frank Sinatra, composed by Arthur Altman and written by Jack Lawrence. The song was created in 1939 and has since been performed by numerous artists, including Billie Holiday.
The questions will be answered by the film's creators, director Jiajun 'Oscar' Zhang, and Korean screenwriter Hee Young Pyun.

So, Frank Sinatra or Billie Holiday? Love or loss? Meaningful emptiness or empty meanings? Please describe your motives and purposes of making this movie. What is the main message that you want to address to your audience?

Actually, we first heard “All, or nothing at all” from Bob Dylan’s version. It’s a coincidence to name our projects after Dylan’s songs, as our previous short film is called ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’.

The idea for this film started when I stepped into a giant shopping mall (the one in the film) next to my home where I grew up. The mall was built in 2014, but I have been in the area for all my life since the 1990s. For me, this mall is an intruder to my area, but soon, it incorporated itself into people’s life here, and the landscape of the city. When I am at home, I often look at its gleaming twin tower bodies against the night sky. I spent most of my summertime in 2017 in this shopping mall because it has free air-conditioning. That was the summer when I returned to Shanghai from studying abroad. I was sentimental about the changes in the city and its people during my absence. So I used this mall as an observational point to start my research, and to re-explore the place where I grew up. I became a ghost of this shopping mall, wandering inside day and night, not buying anything but just watching people. The shopping mall itself is eye-catching. Its interior looks like a magnificent Roman bath. At the same time, many imitation oil paintings are used to depict the bustling and crowded world port scene, and it is paired with a domineering name: Global Harbor.

After taking a lot of phone footage, I began imagining making a film about this place and its people. I talked to my co-writer Hee Young about the idea. We always make films together, so I think she understood the abstract idea of wanting to “have a relationship with this shopping mall through film” right away.

I do not think there is one main message in this film, as we intended to make it as “open” as possible. The film has two parts that are interrelated, and the screening order is reversible. There is one group of actors who play two sets of roles in the two stories. In a way, this film intends to capture the spirit of this shopping mall and its people within, and to document a type of experience of living in our time and place. So, this would be my communication to audiences: thank you for coming and experiencing this with us.

You have made a few shorts before the debut feature film. For you, what was the main difference between making a short and a full length film?

Before this feature film, Hee Young and I made a docu-fiction hybrid short film called 'If You See Her, Say Hello'. It was made by a team of five people. We traveled to a ghost town in northern China and filmed very spontaneously whatever we saw and heard in that area. We assembled these materials into a film only in the editing process. The whole experience was very very free, relying on our instincts. I would personally call this a kind of 'pure filmmaking' - away from all the heaviness of the equipment, strict script and plans, and logistics. On the other hand, making this feature was quite different. We had a solid script from the beginning, and a relatively small but sizable film crew and equipment. So in a way, we are restrained by these things. Nevertheless, we tried our best to keep the spirit of freedom and spontaneity that we experienced in the previous short film. To achieve it, we created two modes of filming in the shopping mall: shooting with a tripod and the whole crew attached versus shooting with only the mini body of the camera and the crew hidden in the real crowd of the mall (we call it the guerrilla mode).

Your movie is something that might be called a state-of-mind movie, would you agree? Please explain in a few sentences.

I guess when you call it a state-of-mind film, it usually means that of a person. But I think in this film’s case, rather than following the mood of a person, we are depicting the atmosphere of a place, the mall. But you could also say that the interior of the mall reflects the interior of these people in this film. I think there is an interrelation between the character’s state of mind and that of the shopping mall.

At one point in the movie you let one of the characters say that family is the enemy and one would be better off without a family. What about love? Your main characters are seeking love, family would be like an end result of happy love. We don't see happy love in the movie nor happy families.

Family can be both the root of happiness and pain. I think rather than shedding light on the concept of family in this film, we are more focused on these characters' specific status when they are in this shopping mall space. For example, for Perry in the part “ALL”, the mall is where she escapes from her marriage. For Yoyo, it is where she meets her family to have meals and discussions on her future plans, which often gets her distressed. It might seem like they are all having a hard time with their families, but it is just one moment of their life.

Most of the movie is filmed through a stalker point of view or through the point of view of someone who follows, observes, from high up, from behind, over the shoulder, through the curtains, through the glass. Why did you choose such a technique? Please explain these symbols.

As mentioned, the idea of this film started when I was filming random people in the shopping mall. It started with me looking at different people, and sometimes, in the videos I took, I can see people looking back at me. This exchange of gazes through eyes or lenses is something fascinating, and we decided to build a film around the idea. As we know, film viewing has its roots in voyeurism. The two characters in two parts of this film are all voyeur-ers. Looking at people in secret is their way of spending time in this giant mall. For some people, they might seem to be just idling, but for these two, they use their gaze to construct or deconstruct love and relationships in this space which is supposed to be loveless.

Also you use a lot of silent movie elements or you have long scenes that are more like music videos, the sound of characters is put behind the music "in front". How important is music or sound in films? How important is the audio part of the visual art of movies?

We worked with a musician called C-low (recently changed his name to C103), who was praised on a pop star reality show in China. He did not have any film music experience, but we trusted him to capture the music zeitgeist of the contemporary youth, and we liked the result very much.
And I like how you pointed out the silent film elements, for example, the “snow” scene. One of our editors, Keenen mentioned that snow should not have sound, and that was a bingo moment for the sound design. Plus I am a huge fan of the cinemas from the 60s and 70s Europe. Often they have long quiet scenes where if you watch in a cinema and you can only hear the projector running sound.

I also want to highlight the sound designers I worked with, two Portuguese artists who work from a studio in a mountainous village near Porto. I visited them during the end of the pandemic, and we had an amazing time dwelling in the studio cave to craft the sounds, talking about the sound design, and smoking by the Douro River when we were tired. The place where we mixed sound for this film is very different from where we shot it. Maybe we tried to re-create the soundscape in a place as far as possible from where we shot the film. Rather than making the mall sound as real as possible (busy and noisy all the time), we created a soundscape that sometimes belongs to a specific time and place, or sometimes is timeless and placeless and often silent, in this film.

The filming is done in a huge mall building. How much of it is documentary and how much is acted. How much is improvised or did you have a strict scenario? Please describe the creative process of building the story.

Like many other fiction films, we also did rehearsals with the original script, and we repeated, modified, and tried again. During this process, we, the crew and cast, slowly melted into the mall environment. Real customers were even checking the products (of course they were props) and asking questions to the main actors about the brand as they thought the actors were the staff. We also gave cameras to the actors, so that they could roam around the mall and shoot with their eyes. Sometimes we couldn't even recognize which clips were shot by whom. I feel like, in the end, the script was broken into pieces and planted into different corners of the giant mall. For every single scene, we started from the script and ended with having a dialogue with the mall space. Therefore, even though the story in the film is still built on the original scenario, I think the flesh of the film could be a documentary of the space.

Would you agree that your main characters tend to dream about something that is out of their reach? It is something that is human nature, generations before young people have done the same thing when they were young, what changes is only the surroundings. Are your characters trapped in their mall building or more trapped in their mind? What should young people do to change society and chase their dreams?

Living in an environment where you are surrounded by commodities often freaks us out. Sometimes, our dream even turns into buying or owning something. As you mentioned, our film is a state-of-mind film, and that is also represented by the relationship between the characters and the space. I might be able to give people a tiny suggestion, which you might find in our film as well - look, let's look at it.

Please tell us about the future projects. Have you found your way, your style, your genre? Or do you keep experimenting and searching? Will the next movie you make be very different from your debut film?

We recently moved to Seoul, and we are currently planning our next project, which is set in Seoul, Korea. Another megacity, a metropolis not far from Shanghai. Although it is going to be a very different genre, the starting point of the project is still a space, a place, or a condition that shapes our relationships.

To be more specific, the next film we are making will be more focused on families and the identical apartment units that they are living in. It would be a combination of family drama and crime thriller with certain suspense attached. It is a very different craft compared to ‘All, or nothing at all’, but at the same time, it may have come from the same obsession with contemporary urban space and the people within.

Please tell us one wise advice that you would give to your child - what is important in life?

Although I became a mom recently, I am still not too sure about what is important in life. Rather than advising, I would like to explore with my child, together.

I also became a father recently. I learned a lot through my child, especially the ability to get amazed by small things. I think maintaining that feeling of awe can be quite important in this time.


OZ: Jiajun ‘Oscar’ Zhang (Director)

HYP: Hee Young Pyun (co-writer)