CinemaTalk: Conversation with Ying Liang at the Beijing Apple Store
Director Ying Liang
Director Ying Liang was interviewed at the Apple Store Sanlitun Beijing, as part of the “Meet the Filmmakers” series, co-presented by the Apple Store in Beijing and dGenerate Films, an ongoing series to showcase China’s newest filmmakers powered by digital technology.
Ying Liang graduated from the Department of Directing at the Chongqing Film Academy and Beijing Normal University. He directed his first feature film,Taking Father Home (2005), which won awards at the Tokyo Filmex Film Festival, the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and the San Francisco International Film Festival. In 2006, Ying made The Other Half (2006), which is supported by the Hubert Bals Fund (HBF) from the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film also won the Special Jury Prize at the Tokyo Filmex Film Festival.
The video of Ying’s interview is in three parts, with an English transcript following each video. Video of Part One is below. Click through to view both videos and the full transcript. Interview conducted by Gigi Zhang. Videography by Michael Cheng. English transcription and subtitles by Isabella Tianzi Cai.
Note: English subtitles for each video can be accessed by clicking on the CC button in the pop-up menu on the bottom right corner of the player. The subtitles can be repositioned anywhere on the screen by clicking on them (if they are not displaying properly, click them to adjust).
Gigi: Thanks to everyone for coming and being interested in independent Chinese cinema. Many of you may not know Director Ying Liang that well, so why don’t we start by having him introduce himself? Could you talk about yourself a little bit? And also the shorts as well as longer films that you have made? What are their similarities?
YL: Thanks Gigi for introducing me, and addressing me as a director and a filmmaker, and associating me with the underground film production world. But honestly, I am not any of those. I am just some guy who likes this medium. I like using a DV camera to film things. What you see on the screen is a short by me. I am not very satisfied with this short. I made it last year or the year before last. It is roughly 14-minute long. I have done features before. Actually I’m working on one right now. Most of my shorts, a total of 14 of them, are shot in Zigong, Sichuan. This one is different from most of my other films. It has a more concrete narrative structure, and very linear in that sense. To most people it may also seem a little artsy. So far I have only been a one-man team for all my films. I spent my own savings of 30,000 yuan on my first feature. And I have not spent any more than this amount. I really don’t consider myself a film director. Being called one in this luxurious space makes me feel that I don’t deserve it, and I am a little reluctant to be called so. I know how embarrassing it must feel for Gigi to introduce me. But please proceed with the questions.
Gigi: We should not judge a director by the budget or the length of his or her work. You are being modest. So far you have made 13 shorts and three features. Do you think the shorts that you have made land you on your features in some way? What is the relationship between these two forms? Do you have any advice or suggestions for the film students sitting in the audience?
YL: My shorts are not much different from the shorts made by many other students in film schools. Back in school, I have been taught that shorts are a good exercise before making features in terms of production, producing, as well as screenwriting. In retrospect, I did see one other benefit of making shorts, that is, I could mature during the making of them. I am not satisfied with this particular film because it is not extraordinary in any way. Despite a slightly larger budget and a tighter narrative, it is still an average student short or medium-length film, depending on how you define a short. Right now, I am more interested in making shorter shorts, but with more room for creativity. I think this kind of short is more challenging to the mind, and at the same time, it is also most appropriate to this art form. Most of the time, it’s not easy to tell if a short is a narrative film, a documentary, or an experimental film. Shorts are a unique form; they foreground time. I have some friends who make shorts. I often share my thoughts with them and also with my students at Songzhuang. They tell me interesting little things in life that they have neglected in the past. And I tell them that all these can be good materials for shorts. As for my features, I go about shooting them less effortlessly. The experiences that I have gained by making shorts are certainly helpful, especially in terms of working around a tight budget.
Gigi: You mentioned that you only spent 30,000 yuan for your first feature. Did you shoot it on DV cam?
YL: Yes. Before 2008, I used MiniDV. After 2008, I used HDV. I don’t think that my techniques have improved much whereas the technology has certainly kept developing. I think I am lazy. I don’t always know how good I want my films to look because to me, that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is the freedom enjoyed by the artist, which includes the freedom from state production codes, the freedom from economic concerns, and the freedom for artistic creativity. I like being able to use this medium to tell interesting snippets of life in creative ways. I want to keep my relationship with filmmaking pure. The filmmaking process is not yet industrialized for me; my production team has been small, so has my budget.
Gigi: You mentioned that your filmmaking process is not yet industrialized. But I wish to ask you more about the funding of your films. I know that in the past you have secured some funding through overseas organizations. Was that helpful? Do you know if other independent filmmakers have also been funded as such?
YL: This is the most industrialized space that my film has ever been screened. For me, getting funding from overseas organizations was purely by chance, and it was atypical. At the time, I just finished my first film. I didn’t think about distributing it. I looked for some film festivals online, and I sent off my film to them. Surprisingly, it received some awards, including cash awards. I didn’t expect to have these cash awards at all. However, they did help me get started on my next film projects or related works, such as writing a screenplay, preparing for shooting, etc. I kept working, and more cash awards came by that way. I also applied for funding. But my relationship with overseas organizations hasn’t been very good. One reason is that I don’t like being restricted in any way, certainly not in my filmmaking process, and also not in my life. Money always gets offered with conditions attached. It is the same with an investor as with a cultural institution. These conditions could restrict me. They could make me feel not being true to my own calling. Every person knows to be grateful. Making a film is hard work. After you complete a film, if you show it to others and get approved by them, you feel proud of your work. However, when you are offered money for the work you have done, you are naturally inclined to feel grateful towards the offer. That could somehow shape your future film projects in unforeseeable ways, which could be restricting. For example, it could affect your attitude towards filmmaking, your choice of subjects, etc. I often tell myself not to be affected by such funding. I want to continue being myself. The relationship between me and some overseas organizations is mostly just collaborative. If they ask too much of me and make me feel too restricted, I tend to give up the funding or the project. But I should mention that the reason that I am here today. dGenerate Films Inc. is a New York-based nontheatrical distributor of independent Chinese films. My films have been distributed by them to North American colleges mostly. They helped me make my work known overseas. I have to thank them here today.
Gigi: You said that you had a collaborative relationship with overseas organization, but I take it to mean that it was also a business relationship in which both sides have invested interests. For people who just arrived, this is director Ying Liang. He studied film production at Beijing Normal University and later also studied directing at Chongqing University. He is currently an independent filmmaker. I learned that when you were at Beijing Normal University, you were classmates with Ning Hao, who now makes short and medium-length films. In terms of filmmaking practices, what do you see as the differences between him and you as well as the similarities?
YL: Starting from 1993 or 1994, the filmmaking program was put in place as part of an adult education program. However, our educational policies changed, so this program no longer exists. Peng Tao, who directed Little Moth, Han Jie, Yang Jin were all from there. Sadly this program is no longer there. This is a comprehensive program. From observing life, to writing screenplays, to producing films, to auditioning actors and actresses, to editing, everything was taught to us. You can say that each of learned how to complete a film by himself, or with the help of a very small team. In this sense, I don’t see much difference between us. The difference is rather at a more personal level. For examples, our interests are different, and our conceptions of film too. Every filmmaker or artist is an individual entity. His or her preferred way of working is analogous to a college graduate’s choice of employment.
Gigi: You are one of the organizers of Chongqing Independent Film and Video Festival. You made a statement there that went like: “The future of Chinese narrative films, unlike that of Chinese documentaries, isn’t bright; they will be very limited.” Could you explain what you meant by that? Why did you express two different views on our narrative films and our documentaries?
YL: I referred to independent narrative films because these films don’t often pass muster with the censors. Officials from China’s Film Bureau like to say – although I have not heard it myself, but I read it in writing – that young and independent filmmakers who make personalized and subjective films do not have a future. I used to think that this was only true in China. However, this March when I was in Kuala Lumpur, I heard something similar from the chief officer of the Malaysian Film Bureau. Malaysia also has a group of independent filmmakers, who are very similar to mainland Chinese independent filmmakers. They were told by the officer too that if they kept making personalized films there would be no future for them. I should note that the future in my speech and the future in those people’s speeches are different. I was being frank. I think if anyone wants to be an independent filmmaker, he or she needs to be prepared to sacrifice a lot first. Some people asked me before how I was able to keep at my job as an independent filmmaker, what difficulties I had had, etc. Usually I told them that I did not have any difficulties. I made my choices, and I should be responsible for all the consequences of my choice. Since this is the case, there is really no complaint to be made, and perseverance is unknown to me. If I felt that I had to persevere instead of just being an independent filmmaker, I would no longer enjoy being one. I think if a person does not enjoy what he or she is doing, he or she might as well give it up. Instead of making independent films, why not play computer games on Mac Books or surf the Internet? For me, I find the Apple interface too difficult to navigate and their desktop icons too small to notice, and I do not always remember the shortcut keys, so I give up Apple. Making independent films and using an Apple computer are similar in nature. It depends on your interest. To those who don’t enjoy it, I would suggest not take it too seriously. Do something you enjoy then.
Gigi: Are you an Apple user?
YL: I am sorry I am not. I do not get much funding. Compared to PC, it is very high-end. Like I said earlier, having my film screened here was certainly very high-end for me.
Gigi: We have been here talking for a while. Shall we change gears and have you introduce your film on the screen?
YL: Sure. It has been playing for a while.
Gigi: Which film is this?
YL: The Other Half. It was shot in 2006. Its story is related to women’s rights movement. It is a narrative film. I edited it using Adobe Premiere 6.5.
Gigi: You have just watched excerpts from director Ying Liang’s The Other Half. This film won four international awards, right?
YL: Not important.
Gigi: Including the Woosuk Award at Jeonju International Film Festival in Korea.
Man: The number of people who are interested in seeing Chinese independent films is increasing. Although many of these films have won awards at international film festivals, they are not available to majority of the population in China. We often have to search for these films on Taobao.com. I want to know what you think about this phenomenon. And my second question is whether you wish to make commercial films in the future?
YL: Personally I am quite satisfied with everything. I know many filmmakers as well as artists from other fields want to reach a wider audience, but I am not that way. It is not extremely important to me whether people see my work or not, and I do not think my films are that important anyway. You probably have noticed that my films are closely tied to the social milieu of our time. They are mostly based on my personal experiences and observations. And they do not amount to anything larger. If I am interested in larger topics and themes, such as Chinese youth culture or gay culture, like Professor Cui Zi’en, I will do something different. What I film is mostly based on my personal choices. I think our visual media have very limited influences on people, and you can almost argue that it has no influence at all. Ideally speaking, our visual media, people in general, and society at large are three distinct entities, and they should be that way. This is just my personal opinion. As to where to see these films, in China the opportunities are truly limited. Film festivals are one of the venues, but there aren’t so many. You can buy from the Internet, but you need to do extensive search before finding what you want. BT downloading is another way, and I am not against such illegal channels. I am content with the fact that people who want to see it can see it. I do not care that much about my films or how to distribute them. If I do, then I will start making commercial films and aim for the market, with schemes about how to do so. But that really isn’t what I like. I like this personal relationship with film. If this friendship is contaminated by personal interests, I will no longer like it as much, and I may do something else altogether. Everything I do now has something to do with visual media. As Gigi mentioned, I helped organize a film festival, and I taught a filmmaking class at Songzhuang. But all these things are done out of pure interests, without the concern of making money. All the profits that I have made happened by chance. I like it this way. Either I do voluntary work for others, or I do it for myself. That is also why I dissuaded my students from becoming independent filmmakers because they will faced many difficulties, many demands, and many misunderstandings.
Gigi: You mentioned that your films were marketed in North America. When you were shooting them, did you want to cater to their taste specifically?
YL: This is something that I resist a lot. North America is only one part of the map because there are film festivals all over the world. I mentioned North America because this event was organized by a New York-based distributor. I was invited here to screen my film and talk about it. What you brought up is something I resist a lot. I like to think the relationship between me and various foundations as ordinary friendship. I want to maintain it that way. Think about a film critic and a filmmaker. They have to maintain certain distance.