In an age where immigration is constantly splashed over the front pages of newspapers, Denis Villeneuve’s latest movie, Arrival, asks a particularly poignant question: could you communicate with a stranger who can’t speak your language?Arrival
chronicles the story of 12 spacecraft that hover mysteriously above the earth, scattered across every continent. As world leaders attempt to suppress the rising panic, each country is tasked with solving one simple problem—finding out why they are here. With different nations trying their own techniques to make contact, the U.S.A. gives expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) 30 days to investigate. As global relations are pushed to their breaking point, Banks and her team discover that the most difficult conversations might not be those with the mysterious life-forms, but with each other.
With his pivotal role in the movie’s complex political landscape, Asian-American actor Tzi Ma stars as General Shang: the Commander of the Chinese military. The key to understanding the cryptic visitors, Shang’s conflicted character humanizes the experiences of the individuals tasked with communicating with the aliens.
“People are very complex creatures,” Ma tells the Straight on the line from his Vancouver hotel. “Often when we see characters on-screen, we take that for granted. Sometimes the reason is that there isn’t a well-rounded script—but this is absolutely not the case for Arrival. In a lot of movie screenplays, there’s no significant twist or turn, whereas in Arrival, the audience are kept on a crazy train ride until they reach this moment of epiphany. I appreciated that the script presented the journey for General Shang in such a beautiful, mysterious manner—and that Denis used it to build the film up to its climax in such a brilliant and gripping way.”
Hit with scheduling issues, Ma ended up waiting nearly four weeks before shooting the movie’s pivotal scene where General Shang first meets Adams’s Louise Banks. An actor who prefers to film his performances quickly and, as he puts it, “let the chips fall where they may”, Ma felt an unusual sense of pressure from his prolonged knowledge of the scene.
“It was a little scary for sure, particularly when no-one was privy to the information but me,” the actor says. “By the time I got to the set, I wouldn’t say I was a nervous wreck, but Amy was a really calming influence. Having the chance to do a scene with her was a great experience, and Denis directed the acting really skillfully. Some directors are very high energy, but Denis is very calm. With that guidance, I was able to hopefully deliver what was expected of the character.”
First picking up the script because it was based on a short story written by an Asian-American author, Ted Chiang, Ma committed to the film for its unique take on the “alien invasion” genre. Praising the decision to have the extraterrestrials make first contact with the people of Earth, and the movie’s focus on the human fallout of such an extraordinary event, the actor commends the project’s realism.
“I’m one of those believers who thinks that there are a lot of unknowns in the universe that we need to pay attention to,” Ma says of the likelihood of an otherworldly visitation. “To think that we’re just an isolated planet with intelligent life is a bit beyond my comprehension. So I really appreciate the fact that there might be a different source of intelligence out there that we can look for, and that they’ll maybe come and mentor us through some hard times as the human race progresses forward. We’ll have to see.”
Arrival opens at various theatres on Friday (November 11)