Exclusive interview with Hongyu Li “Hank represents everyone who losses their voice in a relationship”

Hank Trailer from Neo Li on Vimeo.

Hongyu Li’s fantastic film Hank stars Jason Stuart and tackles the subject of open relationships. This important film was recently nominated by Palm Springs Oscar Qualifying Film Festival. We got the opportunity to speak to this talented director about his work.

After reluctantly agreeing to an open relationship, middle-aged gay man Hank starts a wild journey with a mysterious young man only to find he’s put himself in danger. Narrowly escaping with just his life, and forced to walk home alone and naked in the middle of the night, Hank realizes the compromise he made to save his marriage has gone too far.

Born in 1994 and raised in Beijing, Hongyu became one of the most influential film critics in China when he was just 22 years old. He developed his filmmaking skills at the New York Film Academy with an MFA in filmmaking and made his directorial debut with the multi-award winning short film Waiting For Frank (2017) about the effects of Alzheimer’s. This film received an Official Selection at Cannes Short Corner, won the Remi Award at Houston Film Fest, as well as an award at the Hollywood International Moving Picture Film Festival, a Nomination at the Los Angeles Independence Film Festival, and was in the Official Selection at the Asian World Film Festival. Hongyu’s cultural background makes him sensitive to racial, gender, aging, and LGBTQ issues. Hank is his second short film. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

For someone who hasn’t heard of Hank, please tell us about the film

Hank is a short film about a middle aged gay man who is struggling with a recently opened marriage, he must decide if the relationship is worth that compromise. He starts a wild journey with a mysterious young man only to find he’s put himself in danger. Narrowly escaping with just his life, and forced to walk home alone and naked in the middle of the night, Hank realizes the compromise he made to save his marriage has gone too far.

Congratulations on creating such a fantastic film, what gave you the idea to write the story?

At the age of 22, I moved to Los Angeles from China to study film. I came out when I was just 18 in a country not as open to gay culture, I immediately appreciated the diversity of the city. As an average looking guy who can barely lift a sandbag, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I didn’t fit in with the stereotypical gay men of WeHo. I don’t jog shirtless, I don’t talk about diet plans, juice cleanses and three-week transformations and I don’t look like every other hot guy on Instagram

While we ask people to accept the LGBTQ community, the LGBTQ community often only seems to accept the young, the beautiful and the perfect. Recently it seems open marriage has become another standard to measure up against. The question being, “Do you belong to this “progressive” community or not?”

I began to wonder if the question of opening up the relationship was a dilemma for couples who have been together for many years. So I started to research the lives of older gay men, thinking “How do they struggle with stereotypes? And what do older gay couples, who no longer fit these stereotypes do when their long term relationships hit hard times? Hank explores the challenges older gay men face and the often heartbreaking choices they make to keep their marriages alive.

Your cast are fantastic, do you have a particular way of working to bring out such realistic performances?

I think it’s all about the communication in the pre-production and building the trust with your actors. My actors and I talked a lot of the tone of my film. I had meetings with individuals to discuss each character’s motivation. Hank is not only a gay man, he represents everyone who losses their voice in a relationship. Also during the meetings, the actors brought a lot of their ideas and real life experience into their characters.

What were some challenges you faced making the film?

I think the biggest challenge is writing the dialogue for the character as I’m not a native English speaker, so I always need co-writers to help me. I tried few writing partners but we weren’t in sync, until I met my co-writer Austin James.

Do you feel couples can feel forced to agree to an open marriage to save a relationship?

Sometimes the partners have already started to cheat in the relationship, leaving very few options to save a relationship. It seems you are not helping if your partner brings “Open” idea and you reject it without giving a shot. However, maybe the relationship is ending and it’s just a transition between lovers to friends.

What will the audience be thinking about in the car as they drive home after watching this film?

I hope the audience can have a strong connection with Hank’s experience. They also can be encouraged to stand up for their own position and empowered to say No if it’s not something they want.

Being so young, how do you come up with such brilliant and mature stories that could have been created by someone twice your age?

First, I think being young is a disadvantage of screenwriting as I don’t have much life experience. I normally do a lot of research before I write the story. I try to make my characters authentic and relatable. When I was writing Hank, I interviewed a lot of gay couples who were in open relationship. I went to LGBT meetings to see how people tell their personal stories. I also went to a line dancing bar a lot of times for feeling the vibe. I think, all the best stories come from life experience, smart observation and digestion. I’m not a brilliant storyteller naturally but I’m a hard worker.

What advice would you give to young directors just starting out?

Tell the story you are passion about. Don’t make a movie about another movie. Making a professional film so that people will treat you as a professional. You can only learn how to make a film by making a film. Learn from your mistakes.

What’s going to surprise people about this film?

I think they will be surprised that how much of a connection they have with Hank, even if they are not gay or not middle aged.

What is next for you?

I have few projects I am developing including a science fiction short and docu series.

How can our readers keep in touch with your work?

Follow me in instagram: @neoleefilm

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