Lightbox Film Center Premieres New Cut of Wayne Wang’s 'Life is Cheap… But Toilet Paper is Expensive'

February 7, 2022

On Friday, March 4, 2022, Lightbox Film Center at University of the Arts will present the U.S. premiere of a never-before-seen director’s cut of Wayne Wang’s 1989 film Life is Cheap… But Toilet Paper is Expensive. The film, long absent from the public eye, was carefully restored in 4K through a collaboration between Lightbox, Berkley art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and Arbelos Films.

The restoration was made possible through the generous support of Ron and Suzanne Naples, whose gift seeks to elevate film at UArts. The Naples’ support has allowed Lightbox to establish a new film preservation program, and Life is Cheap… is the first of many films to receive a full restoration. Life is Cheap… will be accompanied by a publication featuring an interview with Wang conducted by Jesse Pires, Lightbox’s director, and an essay by Aliza Ma.

“Lightbox is really about preserving the legacy of cinema and expanding the canon,” said Pires. “There are canonical works we know and love, but there’s a broad selection of work that has been overlooked or neglected. For me, it’s about giving underrepresented artists time to shine.”

“Suzanne and I are delighted to fund this compelling new chapter in Lightbox’s storied presence in Philadelphia,” said Ronald Naples, former chairman and current member of UArts’ board of trustees. “We are sure that Lightbox will continue to build upon its already robust slate of programs that expose a greater number of viewers—especially UArts students—to a wide range of important films.”

Limited tickets for the screening, which will feature a virtual Q+A with the director, are available at lightboxfilmcenter.org. Lightbox will also present a matinee screening of the original Life is Cheap … theatrical release on Saturday, March 5. All Lightbox screenings are held in Gershman Hall at University of the Arts, 401 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia.

About the film
In 1989, while on location in Hong Kong shooting the feature film Eat a Bowl of Tea, Wang found inspiration for his next film in real-life experiences as well as local news stories. The resulting film, Life is Cheap … but Toilet Paper is Expensive, is a crime-world docu-fiction populated by foul-mouthed cab drivers, seedy hucksters, aging Elvis impersonators and privileged upper-class progenies.

A nameless Chinese-American courier (Spencer Nakasako) arrives in Hong Kong to deliver a mysterious briefcase to the “big boss.” As he becomes involved with the boss’s mistress, things spiral out of control and he journeys deeper into the criminal underworld and his own tormented subconscious.

Wang punctuates the action with a series of monologues delivered by a host of unforgettable characters in a tableau vivant style. Life is Cheap… is a dizzying, hallucinatory travelogue of pre-handover Hong Kong with a touch of American, Wild West cowboy theatrics. It has lost none of its original energy and wit.

Life is Cheap… has an 84-minute run time and is presented in English, Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles.

About the director
Wang was born and raised in Hong Kong and named after his father’s favorite movie star, John Wayne. At age 17, his parents arranged for him to move to the U.S., expecting him to attend medical school. Instead, Wang turned to the arts and studied film and television at Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts.

Wang established his reputation as a visionary director with Chan is Missing, Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, and Eat a Bowl of Tea in the early 1980s. His best-known works are the mainstream The Joy Luck Club (1993) and Maid in Manhattan (2002) as well as the independent features Smoke (1995) and Anywhere but Here (1999). His accolades include receipt of the 2007 Golden Shell at the San Sebastian Film Festival and a lifetime achievement award at the San Diego Asian Film Festival in 2016.

Wang lives and works in San Francisco and New York.