Ying Liang, a Chinese independent filmmaker, was born in Shanghai. He studied in Beijing and Chongqing before settling down in the city of Zigong in Sichuan Province. He made his directorial debut in 1999 with several short movies, amidst them Missing House (2003), which were greeted with a number of important prizes in Hong Kong and in Beijing. His first long feature, Taking Father Home (2005) traveled to over 30 film festivals and has been awarded many times. Ying Liang lives currently in Hong Kong and is teaching at Academy for Performing Arts. Before leaving Mainland China, Ying Liang headed The Chongqing Independent Film and Video Film Festival.
On the occasion of A Family Tour screening at the 25th Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinemas, where it won the Netpac Award, we speak with him about his troubles with Chinese authorities, the difficulty of shooting the film, the script-writing procedure, his son, taxi drivers, and other topics.
You have been in trouble with the Chinese authorities for quite some time. Can you give us some details about how this happened?
After I finished “Lovers in the Water”, I did some work at a university in Hong Kong for a semester as an artist is residence. Before the next semester started, I came back to mainland China to make ‘One Night Falls’, and when I returned to Hong Kong I knew something happened in my home in Shanghai. My parents met a troublesome policeman who came to my home seven times in one month, and visited my parents, because the authorities hoped I could stop everything and cancel the plan to screen in South Korea, and hoped my parents could go to Hong Kong to ask me to stop.
Yeah. After that time, I talked to my parents on the phone, and the policemen didn’t talk with me directly. I asked my parents to ask the policemen to talk to me directly, but I don’t know why the policemen didn’t do this. Then they went to my wife’s home town, in Zhejiang and had a visit with my parents-in-law.
Yeah yeah! Their request was still the same: they’d hope my parents-in-law would go to Hong Kong to ask me to stop everything. I asked them several times if the policemen would meet me directly. Finally two policemen came to Hong Kong to have a conversation with me, and I refused their request. Then the film screened overseas in several festivals, and I know I could not come back because the policemen really wanted to arrest me. They asked the Hong Kong police to carry me back, but that year I was very lucky: Hong Kong police and Hong Kong government refused arresting me. It’s a true story in my life after ‘When Night Falls’.
Okay, so if you go back to China you get arrested immediately right?
Okay, that’s…I don’t really know what to say about this. About all this situation, this thing also happened to some other directors right? Like they have a problem with the Chinese government due to their movies, right?
I think my case is the most serious one that has occurred after the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Always a few film and press departments and culture ministry deal with this kind of things, but in my case, the policemen directly dealt with me. So I’m really shook, It felt really strange and absurd, because I just made a film – it’s independent, small, low-budget – and before making it I knew the film wouldn’t have any chance to screen in public cinemas in China, because when you want to shoot your film in some public area, you must go to the Censorship Board and get a permit before you shoot it. But from my first feature film, several years ago, maybe fourteen years ago, I refused this kind of process. I’m only writing something I want to write and shoot something I want to shoot, so maybe I thought before I made ‘When Night Falls’ I think maybe they were angry, but I really didn’t imagine policemen would search for me.
So are you afraid of what will happen to you?
Sure of course, because I was born in China, grew up, and got an education in China, and my parents worked for the the government, but weren’t very high class. I knew the “machine” of the country is very strong and powerful, and as one person, one family is very small; when they face the government they are very weak – just like average Chinese people, when we’re in this kind of situation we really feel fear. I think this is their way of controlling the country, controlling the people, because fear prevents everybody from acting.
Okay. So, in essence the story of the film, ‘A Family Tour’, is very close to your life experience right? But why did you choose to have a woman protagonist?
When I finished the first draft of the script, it was really my autobiography, and the director was male, a man, with his wife who is also from China, they both are exiled in Hong Kong. After finishing that draft, I was not sure how this kind of script would work, maybe the audience could not understand it, I was not sure. So I asked my friend, Wai Chan, who is a novelist, and she’s older than me, and she’s from Hong Kong. I hoped she could help me by reading the script and giving me some suggestions. After she read it, she gave me two ideas: one is that if the director is a male, his wife is a very poor character! His wife will have to do everything, she will always have to carry everything, and nobody will pay attention to the wife and I thought “oh maybe this is the problem”.
The second idea was that if both people in the family, the couple, both are exiled filmmakers, maybe the audience can not understand the significance of the exiled family. If one person is from Hong Kong, maybe each one will have their own, different opinion, and maybe they can have their own ideas and imagine about their family and their separation differently, because their background is different, and they have some conflict between themselves and they will make different choices. She told me “if you change this, maybe others can understand the meaning of the exiled family”. I said it was good, and changed one of the two to be from Hong Kong, and changed the male to a female director. I thought for a long time and called my friend “how about I write the director as a female?” and she told me it’s okay as in writing we always change some elements about the characters, you can try.
Finally I asked her to be involved in this project so she is one of co-writers for the script. And after writing and shooting, I found there were some interesting things that happened, because I asked different people involved in this project to write. I showed some film to some friends who also are exiled in some way, and after watching they said to me “we had similar experiences to meet our family, and we’re very touched”. After that time, I found that if the director was a man, it would not be good for the film because the audience, after the screening, would think “it’s just Ying Liang’s story”, just mine; now it’s a collective experience, and tells a story that involves many, through the film. Another good thing is the co-writer, she’s a novelist, her novel is all about a mother and a daughter, so she put a lot of creative ideas into the script so it’s good.
Okay that’s great. In your statement in the programme of the festival, you said “it questions what is independence, what is freedom…” so do you think now after the movie you have these answers?
About the independence, about the freedom, now I have found some new ideas. Because the film was released in Hong Kong in December and immediately lots of Hong Kong audiences communicated with me about this film, letting me think about the freedom and the independence. To me it’s interesting, I really think about what I can do next. I got some encouragement from Hong Kong audiences, they think the story is about them.
I’m a little amazed because the character is from mainland China, the mother and the daughter, and the story happened in Taiwan, the location was in Taiwan, so why Hong Kong people think it is about them? So I followed up with Hong Kong people and they said that the questions the characters in the movie have about their future, remind them of their own. And they feel sad and they are really struggling to face their future. I thought, “oh that’s the reason”, and I really think cinema has its own way and really has some meanings which are amenable and can really relate to some people who I never knew and never imagine. To me it has given me power, I think I will continue doing it. I think some kind of meaning of how to use freedom, how to do your work for independence, this kind of meaning I get now.
How was the response of the audience, was their many people in the cinema?
I think maybe 3000 to 4000 in the audience. Because it was a three week screening, and first week I was there every day and there were four screens, so not bad.
I feel the protagonist in the film seems frustrated and sad, but she doesn’t act out, she doesn’t get exactly angry or do something about the frustration she feels. Why did you have that restraint in the film?
At the beginning, I thought I needed to make a film to communicate with my son, it’s the first and very early purpose of this film, because as Chinese people in mainland China, there is almost no communication between the generations about the history of the family; every generation in mainland China has the same questions about the political setting and about the changes of their family and their generation. But you never see someone talk with their son about what happened before, and grandpas also say nothing to their sons, because they’re afraid, and worry about maybe something will change the standing situation. I think this is not good, because memories need developing and it is useful to every generation and the next generations need to know what happened before, so they can consider and think what to do in their life.
So when I started writing this script, I told my son “we went to Taiwan to meet your grandma right?” and after that time it was three years ago, he said “yes I remember” and I told him “I will write this story and make a film for you. If when you are grown up you are really still interested to discuss your life story, this film may be a good opening, a good beginning so we can communicate to each other”, and he said “okay”. He always watched me writing, and using the computer. When we were rehearsing in Hong Kong, Zhe Gong, who plays the director in the movie, went with me to kindergarten to pick up my child, and when we shot in Kaohsiung, my child also went to the location to watch me work. It’s very interesting and finally in last November, at a screening at Kaohsiung Film Festival, my son sat down in the cinema to see the whole film and hear the Q&A. I’m very moved and he’s very happy; he told me he liked the film, so to me it’s interesting,
How old is he now?
Now he’s five years old!
So I think it’s good, it’s a family action to me, to us, we can change this kind of thing. So I did not want the film to become an angry film, a sad film, and I hope it can still have emotion and not only tell the audience “we are so sad, we are not in a good situation”. I think it’s good if the film lets us look back on our life to think “what’s the meaning of freedom and our identity”.
Was the casting process difficult considering your situation?
It was not very easy. Nai An, the actress who played the mother, she helped me a lot because she has another job, she is a producer for another Chinese independent filmmaker, Lou Ye, she’s worked for a long time with him. We worked together in “When Night Falls”, so this is the second time we worked together. She is very brave, I didn’t know why she didn’t worry about her safety. At the beginning, this time I had hoped- I asked her to introduce some actresses to play the daughter, and the mother, because I think maybe it’s not always good letting Nai An to play in my film, because it’s not safe for her, and I thought she should not repeat the same kind of role, because last time also the mother had not a very easy life. This time I think it was also a little similar so I asked her to do something about casting.
She is very kind and supportive, she really introduced some people but it was still difficult: some people in mainland China are always afraid, and some people, some very famous actresses in Taiwan and Hong Kong, who are old and joined the industry in, I think, in the seventies, they had different reasons for not joining, someone’s health is not very good, someone needed to look after their husband at home, someone told me they’re afraid, that they’re worried about mainland China. So finally, I had to invite Nai An to play the mother, that’s the situation with the mother’s casting.
About the daughter’s casting, Zhe Gong was the first choice; when we talked about it on the internet, I thought she was good because her background is not of a professional actress. She studied art and ten years ago, an assistant director of a small movie discovered her and let her play a role in that film, and lots of audiences liked her. But after ten years she only played in a few films, sometimes she appeared in some theatre drama, and some time she joined a TV drama, but this time we took her. On the internet, I told her at the beginning “this job may be dangerous and what will happen in the future…”. She asked me “what kind is your directing?” I told her “my way, maybe you’ll feel interested”. At that time she had read the script already, one of the draft versions, I had told her such as “one scene in the morning, in the hotel restaurant, the daughter, husband, mother, and child have their breakfast; before shooting, I will let you know, you’ll also know everything about her. For example, maybe you had a fever, maybe last night you slept very bad, and this morning maybe you had some medicine”. Gong Zhe, the actress, told me it was very interesting to her and she’d like to try, and she was thinking it was valuable for her to join this project, so finally she joined.
About the husband casting, it was also a little difficult. I met some Hong Kong actors, but I thought there was a problem with the script, because the husband character is very good, he’s too perfect a man, he does everything, so I thought maybe I need to find a person who lets the audience feel darkness and lets the audience believe he is tired. But lots of Hong Kong actors have good hair, and look clean, and are middle class! So in my mind, the face that would be displayed on screen was the face from a Malaysian independent film I watched ten years ago, and that was Pete Teo. I always watch that guy, I know he’s an independent musician, his rock music is very good and very dark!
Meanwhile, some Malaysian friend told me “if you want to look for some kid actor, maybe in Malaysia you also can meet somebody”. So I flyed to Malaysia to meet Pete Teo, and there I also found the kid actor, and they were really happy, they really looked like father and son. And I thought “okay, maybe I can conduct an actor workshop in Malaysia”, because the cost in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Taipei, is very expensive, Malaysia is cheap; the actresses from Beijing, Nai An and Gong Zhe, they can fly out to Malaysia, and we can do everything there: reading book, watch the documentaries, and the rehearsals. So for four months, every month we had this workshop three times,and it was a very happy and unforgettable memory for us.
So the funny scenes in the film are the ones with the taxi driver, the one where he says “I didn’t like your film, it’s too slow” and then a little later he actually has an opinion about politics so why did you decide to put that in the film? (laughter)
Taiwan’s taxi drivers are really happy and funny. They always chat everything political and almost every topic. When I prepared for the writing I always visited Kaohsiung, lots of times, and I always took the taxi in order to have this kind of experience. I wrote these scenes not in so much detail. in the final version of the film, when we prepared pre-production, my art director told me “maybe we can arrange taxi drivers who have a different job and a different role in the film.” So, the first taxi driver works for a big company, the second one said “I like to go to the festival, but I didn’t like your film’ and he works for a small company. The third one had some political comments, about Taiwan and mainland China and Hong Kong, and that driver is independent! (laughter). And their cars are different, the model of the cars are different!
The production of the film involved companies from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Singapore. How did this came to be?
Because it is very difficult to produce this kind of independent film. It really hasn’t any commercial value, we needed to look for money everywhere. So, different producers helped me. The total budget is not very big, I remember in Euros it’s about €200,000.
€200,00, the whole budget?
Not including post-production, it just covered the shooting. The money from different countries and different companies, Hong Kong, Taiwan – the money came from a Taiwan public TV station – and the money from Malaysia and Singapore from some small companies, and some personal friends from Hong Kong gave me some money, and I also borrowed some money to put in the production! (laughter) And a distributor, a world sales distributor gave some money in advance. It’s difficult to get money and to organise money. So there are four companies.
Are you working on anything new?
I am writing now, there are different projects, not only one, I’m writing some scripts now. One is still about exile, a woman exiled in Taiwan who cannot meet her husband, but she has a new life story in Taiwan.
It will be shot in Taiwan then?
Yeah, and some human rights organisations will help her in Taiwan and help her go to the US, but they refuse her husband to go to Taiwan to meet because it’s not very safe they think, it’s a story I’m writing now. I’m also writing some story for Hong Kong, the background is about the Umbrella movement.
Ah, you’re asking for trouble again! (laughter)