Interview with Yang Jin, Director of <i>The Black and White Milk Cow</i> and <i>Er Dong</i>
By Isabella Tianzi Cai
Yang Jin, director of The Black and White Milk Cow and Er Dong
In this interview originally published on Sina.com, director Yang Jin talks about the making of The Black and White Milk Cow (available through the dGenerate catalog). Yang discusses how he found his actors and how he worked with them. He also mentions his filming experiences, which include what he did to transition from one scene to the next, how he worked around his tight budget, as well as his experience with working with a script. He says that in Er Dong, he used a different approach, which was that he didn’t follow the script very strictly but filmed extra footage that could be used in the editing afterwards.
Translated by Isabella Tianzi Cai.
Q: May I ask what made you want to make The Black and White Milk Cow?
Yang: When I was still in school, my class did an exercise on making tragic stories. The requirement of the exercise was such as we needed to throw all tragic elements at one single character. I had read Chinese writer Wang Xin’s novella “The Black and White Milk Cow” at that point, and I considered the main character in Wang’s story extraordinarily tragic.
Q: So can we say that this film is a tragedy?
Q: When did you shoot it? Yang: I started it in the summer of 2004 and completed it at the end of that year.
Q: Were you still in school? Yang: That’s right.
Q: Where did you shoot it? Yang: I shot it in my hometown Caochuan county, which is in Pinglu, Shanxi. A few scenes were shot in the urban area of Pinglu, outside Caochuan.
Q: Why did you choose this place? Yang: I had a small budget. Being able to shoot in my hometown saved me a lot of money. I didn’t need to pay my crew, neither for lodging. I am very familiar with the place. It is where my grandmother grew up. I have been there as a child. And I remember that there was a school in the village. Unfortunately when I started shooting the film, the school was gone. A family lived on the compound then. And we filmed there.
Question: Did the place look the same as it did when you were a kid? Were there big changes that you could tell? Yang: I think the impression one has of a place is determined by its sceneries and its people. To me the place looked roughly the same except some mud houses were replaced by brick houses. As for people, most young men left for cities to find jobs. Those who stayed behind were old people and women. In general, I felt that there weren’t that many changes.
Question: Who were your production team consisted of? Yang: I had three crew members. Originally there were four. Besides my girlfriend and I, I had my senior Wu Gang, who studied cinematography at Beijing Film Academy and whom I hired as my cameraman, and I had a friend of mine from high school, who studied history in Shanxi Normal University and whom I hired as my sound crew. Because the actor I had for the film quit his role after a few days of shooting, I had to ask my high school friend to act, and Wu Gang had to help with the sound. Just to add to that, my uncle was our driver.
Q: Can you say more about your cast? Yang: The leading role was played by someone from Shanxi Agricultural University originally, but because he quit, I used the friend from Shanxi Normal University. The rest of the cast were all my relatives. For instances, my aunt was in it, and my aunt’s father played the village chief, and he had been a village chief before.
Q: So except for your friend, everyone else was from the village? Yang: Almost, except for another girl who played Xu Fei in the film. She was from my mother’s workplace. I asked my mother to find me the pretties girl for me from her workplace, and that was how she found the girl. The girl was a fresh college graduate and was new in my mother’s workplace.
Q: How long did it take to shoot the film? Yang: A total of eighteen days, with one to two days off in between. It was pretty fast.
Q: Do you think it was a smooth shoot? Yang: Very much so.
Q: Were there problems with the actors in general? Yang: Not really. All my cast arrived on site early for each day’s shooting, especially the kids. They would bring their lunch with them to the shooting site so that they did not need to go home for lunch. We prepared a lot of food for them, but they did not want to eat it. They were enthusiastic.
Q: Did you pay them? Yang: No.
Q: During the shooting, what were the most interesting things that happened? Did everything go as planned? Yang: Majority of the time things went as they were planned, so it was quite fast. The hardest part of the shooting was the cow. Nobody in the village actually drank milk, so there were no cows to be found. There was an ox farm nearby, but they raised meat cattle only. We went to town to look for a cow. We chose one with the most patterns on its body. After the shooting when we were shipping it back to town, the cow stumbled and fell on the truck. This got us really worried because the cow was pregnant with a cub. After we arrived our destination, we bought some preventive medicine for it so that it wouldn’t suffer from a miscarriage. It cost 10,000 yuan in total to shoot this film, and the money we spent on the cow was well over 2,000 yuan.
Q: Did you buy the cow? Yang: No way. It would cost us 20 to 30 thousand yuan. We could only afford to rent the cow.
Q: And it was from the town? Yang: Right. We sent it back after we were done with shooting.
Q: When exactly did you complete the film? Yang: In January, 2005.
Q: And it was submitted to the school as your term project? Yang: Right.
Q: How did they comment on your film? Yang: They all agreed that it was too long because the assignment required us to make shorts, to tell concise stories, to avoid unnecessarily long plots. Despite those, my teacher Cui was being very encouraging. Cui believed that students should be allowed to shoot what they wanted as long as they were serious about what they wanted to do. He wanted variety, and the length of the film should not matter all that much.
Q: Had you made a short before? Yang: I have. Many were for my classes. However, what differed my work from most of my classmates’ work was that I only shot what interested me. One thing that I would never do is to leave my camera on at a corner and let it roll for half an hour, an hour, and submit whatever that has been captured as the assignment.
Q: What lasting influences do you think A Black and White Milk Cow have on you and your future works? Yang: I think I have accumulated some valuable experiences by making this film. The most important thing that I learned was how to handle interpersonal relationships during shooting. Because we did not have a producer, we had to take on the job of a producer ourselves, and that seemed to add a big workload to our shoulders. To be honest, there wasn’t much directing needed for the shooting of this film. Once I showed my actors and actresses the script, they all knew how to act. I gave very few instructions in terms of acting. Instead I was telling everyone when and where to meet, how to work with a specific person, and things such as these.
Q: And I suppose it was the same with your crew? Yang: So far, all the crew members for my films, as well as the crew members for films that I have participated in producing, were consisted of my own relatives and friends. There have never been any problems with these people. On the other hand, working with the actors and actresses always required more work.
Q: What did you do to make good relationships with your actors and actresses? Yang: To make friends with them, and to relate to them, I consider these to be the most important things.
Q: Were there actors or actresses who quit their jobs in the middle of the film? Yang: Yes. In A Black and White Milk Cow, the person who agreed to act in the film only did so for two to three days and withdrew afterwards because he needed to go back to school to take a graduate school entrance examination. We let him go. In my second film Er Dong, the actor we found was somewhat obstreperous. We had to talk to him every now and then so that he could continue working with us. It happened almost every other two or three days. These small talks often took longer than actual directive instructions about acting.
Er Dong (dir. Yang Jin)
Q: Had everything been written out in detail in the script before you started shooting? Or were you changing the script as you were shooting? Yang: In A Black and White Milk Cow, everything was laid out in detail. All I needed to do was to follow the script. I did not shoot anything extra. Technically speaking, extra footage is always helpful and needed. Because I did not do that, I used almost everything I captured on film. For example, for the transition from summer to fall, I didn’t have any footage that I could use to fill in the gap. As a result of that, I had to use title cards, to make the film look like the main character’s diary. In my second film Er Dong, I made sure that I shot a lot more interview footage than first time because I knew I would be able to use them in the editing later. Some of the interviews were about the character’s dreams. If there is a gap in the flow of the images during the editing, I would cut out something appropriate to the story and then use it to fill in the gap. All in all, Er Dong was done in a flexible way whereas A Black and White Milk Cow was done more rigidly.
Q: What do you think about the actors and actresses in A Black and White Milk Cow? Were they playing other people or were they playing themselves? Yang: They were acting themselves. For examples, the village chief, the children’s parents. I asked them to talk about their lives and their concerns, such as what they thought about constructing a new school building in the village. They said that they did not have the money for a new building, but they were happy to contribute by working physically in the building process. I think they were being true to their circumstances, and they were telling their true thoughts.
Q: Who do you think is the most truthful character in A Black and White Milk Cow? Yang: I would say the village chief. There are always a lot of things that the village chief needs to take care of, in the school, in the village. For example, when my father was working in a town, he encountered a lot of village chiefs who needed to come to town to look for help with fixing roads, electricity, fresh water supply. In order to do so, they often needed to go to people with money, ask for donation from them, or make connections with higher-level government officials, and ask them to send some subsidies. The village chief in the film had actually experienced all of these before he was asked to act in the film, so he needed least acting, and he was the most truthful.
Q: Has anyone from the village seen the film after it’s made? Yang: Everyone from the village has. I made a few DVD copies of the film and brought them back to the village. At that time, there were no DVD players in the village. Some people brought the DVD’s to a company for holding marriage ceremonies to have them transferred to VCD’s. And they watched the film together afterwards. When they watched the film, I wasn’t around. When I went back to visit, they told me that the film was interesting to watch. They did not pay much attention to the plot, but were more interested in seeing who appeared in front of the camera. For them, it was fun to see people they knew in the film.
Q: Did any of them act again in Er Dong? Yang: Yes, my aunt. In A Black and White Milk Cow, she acted as the mother of an anonymous child. In Er Dong, she acted as Er Dong’s mother.