Livi Zheng: Living The Dream
Born in Malang and raised in various places across the world, Livi Zheng talks to Colours about her challenging journey to reach the peak of Hollywood.
Livi Zheng joined the ranks of internationally recognised Indonesian filmmakers when Brush with Danger, a film she wrote, directed, produced and starred in, made the list of movies to be considered for Best Movie nominations at the 2015 Academy Awards. Brush with Danger follows the struggles of illegal immigrant siblings in the United States. The siblings – the elder being a painter and the younger a fighter – get involved in a dangerous liaison with a businessman who forges the works of international painters.
In writing the story, Zheng was inspired by an African friend who fled from war to the US, while the sibling relationship in the movie is based on her own relationship with her brother, Ken. At a very young age, they had lived in Beijing, away from their parents and family members. According to Zheng, she did not speak any Mandarin at the time.
Zheng’s experience of living around the world has in turn inspired her creative process and enabled her to adapt to
different cultures and environments. “My experiences living in three big countries, Indonesia, China and the US, has not only enriched my life but also allowed me to see the fascinating humanities of the three countries’ cultures. It affects my filmmaking process,” she says. “The Indonesian culture really accentuates intimacy. During meals, we eat together at a big table – family style. I shared such habits with the crew. I also introduced Indonesian traditional food.” In her latest movie, Insight, she even features the Indonesian martial art silat.
Before settling in the film industry, Zheng had studied martial arts at the Beijing Shichahai Sports School, which counts venerable martial artists like Jet Li among its alumni. “I am honoured to have achieved 26 medals and trophies from various martial arts competitions. The championships include the USA World Championship in Las
Vegas and the US Open in Florida.”
She then decided to study economics at the University of Washington – Seattle, the almamater of her idol, Bruce Lee. “In college, I began to explore the film industry. Whenever I had the time and during summer holidays, I took film courses and worked on movie sets. I fell in love with the industry,” says Zheng, whose favourite movies include Usmar Ismail’s Tiga Dara – an Indonesian classic – and Bruce Lee’s martial arts masterpiece Enter The Dragon.
But it was not until she got herself enrolled in the master’s programme for film production at the University of Southern California that her devotion to the film industry peaked. “My consideration brought me to the conclusion that success can be achieved in any field, as long as we work hard from the heart,” she says.
Zheng knows the importance of hard work to achieve one’s dreams. Her script for Brush with Danger, for instance, was rejected many times. Finding sponsors and professional film crews to work with was also hard. Many were sceptical and pessimistic that she would make it in Hollywood, because of her age, gender and racial background.
“In selecting the film crew, I wanted to collaborate with an experienced team who have made box office movies. But, as it turned out, they are extremely picky. In the US, there is a saying, ‘You are only as good as your last job.’ So, if they have made box office movies but their last movie was a bust, they would have a hard time getting another job,” she says.
It was only after multiple revisions on her script that the senior crews who had worked on such big movies as Star Wars, The Hunger Games and Mission Impossible, as well as other festival-nominated movies, finally agreed to work on her film.
Reflecting on that experience, Zheng has adopted a new life philosophy. “There are many rejections and failures behind every success. It does not matter if you fail, it does not matter if you are rejected, because you just need one ‘YES’ to succeed. Give your best and believe,” she says.
Now her desire to continue creating is unstoppable. In the near future, she hopes to be filming in Indonesia, specifically in Madura, where she will centre her story on the island’s bull racing tradition. And, indeed, Zheng is an avid traveller. “I like hiking in new places and tasting their local cuisines. I like meeting new people, learning their culture and values. Each city and country I visit gives me inspiration to be creative.”