Picking up where we left off last week (see previous interviews with James Marsh, Carl Deal & Tia Lessin and Jeremiah Zagar), we come to Yung Chang, director of UP THE YANGTZE. Nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary and a big success at the box office in the US and Canada, Chang's film premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival last year, before going on to high profile screenings at both IDFA and Sundance. It was in Park City that YANGTZE's distribution deal with Zeitgeist was announced.
In this interview, Yung talks about how his film has similarities to Altman, why the Three Gorges Dam project inspires filmmakers and how timing is (almost) everything. Below, Chang accepts the Golden Horse Award for Best Documentary.
ATWT: One of the things I loved about your film was the limited way that you used the personal narrative of your grandfather's travels on the Yangtze and his feeling that the China he knew may have disappeared. You give us this as a backdrop, which strikes me as a sort of indicator to the audience that the themes of the film are of particular importance to the author. But it never overwhelms the film itself, which ends up not actually being about your grandfather but rather a more universal rumination about this thing he feels he's losing. How did you come up with that particular approach and did it change or expand in the edit?
Yung Chang: From the get-go, I always wanted to have a meandering river film that would be held together by the stories of Cindy Yu Shui, her family and Jerry Chen Bo Yu, while also allowing for the narrative to segue into tangential asides that would then flow back into the central story. The intention was to never be didactic or informational with my personal narrative.
During production, I used the river journey to explore the onshore world (riots, protests, flooding villages) and archaeological landmarks (White Crane Rock, Shibozhai Pagoda) in an effort to make the film more like a river cruise. I felt that my voice in the film, through subtle narration, could add another layer into understanding complicated China and also add depth as we followed the lives of the main protagonists.
I also felt that I was in a unique position being an "overseas Chinese" - (which is) the Mandarin terminology for an ABC/CBC (American born Chinese/Canadian born Chinese) - (in that I could) offer a perspective and cinematic insight that was not Western or Eastern but somewhere in-between. I felt that I could be your guide between two worlds, above and below decks.
That being said, during production I did occasionally step in front of the camera. There is a long scene, gratefully nixed out of a rough cut, where I try to shoot a promotional video for the cruise company. The initial intention was to use this scene throughout the film to parallel my cruise experience with Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu. It was obvious in post that using any image of myself in the film would be a dumb idea.
Another thing is the extraordinary craft in the film, particularly in the cinematography and editing, which creates this sense of fragility and beauty. Even the Three Gorges Dam, this sort of industrial/developmental villain, looms as this expansive thing of wonder. When it was done, I just thought that so many filmmakers could have had a very textbook approach to this idea, a kind of good-versus-evil presentation. My feeling in watching it was that by focusing on the cruise ship, you were able to tackle these big topics with a kind of sideways approach.
Obviously part of this was based on your personal experience of having been on one of these cruises, but did you know from the start that you wanted to base the film around it and how did you find your two main characters, "Cindy" and "Jerry"?
Yeah, I always wanted to base the film around the cruise ship. In an early proposal, I didn't even want to get off the boat! Way back in development I wanted to make a film about the culture of tourism and the tourism of culture - a sort of China "Cannibal Tours" based on a personal experience as a tourist on a luxury cruise ship. I thought I could tell the story entirely contained from the offshore vantage point. My producers at EyeSteelFilm, Mila Aung-Thwin and Daniel Cross (my former prof), luckily convinced me that it would be imperative that the onshore/offshore connection was made.
For me, the cruise has always been a microcosm for contemporary China, like Robert Altman's GOSFORD PARK was a microcosm for 1930's British society. Below deck (you find) the workers who come from along the river and whose lives will be directly affected by the Three Gorges Dam flooding. The workers want to climb above deck to be with the affluent Chinese and foreigners who take-in the disappearing landscape. The cruise is also a window into the onshore world and becomes our link to discover the Chinese experience. As we travel on the Yangtze, the River of Life, as it's known to the Chinese, we eventually end up at this huge monument and symbol of modernization, the Three Gorges Dam.
I found the subjects through the recruitment process when the cruise company goes in search of new employees. There is a very high turn-around on the boat and the company's managers often visit the local river towns. The cruise is an American-managed company, based in Woodside, Queens. The owners are a very philanthropic Chinese-American family and they allowed me full-access on their cruise ships. This meant that I was able to join the managers on recruitment trips. It became sort of like a casting call. I was looking for families who would be relocated in the next phase of flooding. So "Cindy" and "Jerry" and handful of other subjects that I also followed during production, signed up for interviews. They were hired in the winter of 2006 and didn't have to get on the boat for work until the summer. I had a good chunk of time to film each subject in their hometown. During production, I decided to narrow my focus on "Cindy" and "Jerry".
When I saw your film, I was of course reminded of Jennifer Baichwal's stunning MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES. What did you think of that film and what is it about the Three Gorges project that inspires such artful documentaries?
I think Manufactured Landscapes is a haunting, visceral film. Our films are quite complimentary. I also love Peter Mettler's cinematography. He's an amazing filmmaker.
What is it about the Three Gorges? It must be a combination of things...such a mythical, historic and beautiful landscape undergoing unprecedented economic and man-made change. The Three Gorges film has sort of become a genre of its own. From Jia Zhang Ke's STILL LIFE (2006) to Li Yifan and Yan Yu's BEFORE THE FLOOD (2005) to the recent BING AI (2007) by Feng Yan, so many filmmakers, including myself have been inspired by this region. For me, it was the theme of the past clashing with the future.
I think that subtext seeps through in all the Three Gorges films. But each is unique, and explores different perspectives, different cinematic approaches. Someone (AJ?) should program a Three Gorges Film Festival.
Talk a bit about your festival experiences over the past 13 months, beginning with IDFA and Sundance. Were there festivals or events that stood out during your tour?
I was not prepared for the reception we have received for UP THE YANGTZE. I've been traveling pretty consistently since the Vancouver International Film Festival where we picked up our first award for Best Canadian Documentary.
IDFA was crazy - the only time where a doc filmmaker gets treated like a rock star. Sundance was overwhelming. Be warned that you will get sick in the first few days of the festival and then you will be on cloud nine and then you will burn-out. Pace yourself!
There have been so many amazing festivals this year. I don't want to leave anyone out. The San Francisco International Film Festival, Warsaw Planete Doc Review, BAFICI in Buenos Aires, Full Frame, VIFF in Vancouver, IDFA, New Zealand, Sydney, Thessonaliki, Iceland, Gimme Some Truth in Winnipeg...the list goes on and on, in every country, in every continent. It's been a real honor to share the film with an international audience. And most especially because through our screenings, we've been able to raise over $30,000 for the Yu family in my film and counting. ATWT note - See link for more information.
Sometimes when I write about the Oscar shortlist and nominations, it feels like such inside baseball. But every year there are films that are disqualified for what seem like random reasons. Yours was not eligible because of a television broadcast, yet it's also a film that made more than a million dollars at the box office in the US and Canada. Was there ever talk about trying to delay the broadcast in order to conform to the Academy's rules, or were you locked in to an airdate because of your funding?
Aiyaya..My only words of advice is to make sure to negotiate a strong theatrical window with your broadcasters. (PBS POV rocks!) Also, never base your theatrical release or Academy campaign on the results of being turned down from a major festival. Believe in your film and make Them believe in it too...
When you think about the nonfiction films of 2008, what are films or moments that you remember or that have stayed with you?
There have been many.
MAN ON WIRE - the last image as Petit takes a step on the tightrope - gave me so much hope; THE RED RACE - the excruciating 3 minute long-take of two six year old Chinese girls hanging from a gymnastics bar with faces in agony; THE ART STAR AND THE SUDANESE TWINS - Black and White has never been so complex; STRANDED - survival stories always make me weep; TROUBLE THE WATER - home video has never been so cinematic and powerful; THE KING OF KONG - Good vs. Evil has never been so clear; ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD - the greatest hits of Herzogian moments; FENGMING - the longest interview in cinema history; BEHAVE - for bending the doc cinematic medium.
Great moments: A secret screening of a Les Blank film (director present) in Winnipeg, Canada at the inaugural year of Gimme Some Truth; being the pre-interview for Werner Herzog at IDFA, eating live octopus in Seoul at EIDF. I think I'm lapsing on about twenty more docs that I loved and infinite moments of doc festival bliss. Too many to list.
Zeitgeist has been doing an amazing job these past few years with documentaries that seem to require individual handling to get out in the current theatrical landscape. Can you talk about what it was like working with them in the US and what strategies you employed to try to reach your audience?
I'm so happy that Zeitgeist released Up The Yangtze. They were so much fun to work with. You will never find a more honest team of experienced, cooperative and hands-on distributors. They will treat you like family.
Our strategy in the US revolved primarily around strong reviews, word-of-mouth, strong community outreach, and Q&A's (lots of them) especially for our first weekend in New York. It definitely helped that we had some pretty good buzz and awards. We tapped into an undiscovered niche market: the senior citizen, cruise-loving, Asiaphile. They packed our matinees. The timing was impeccable as well. With the Beijing Olympics around the corner, I think we were the only documentary about contemporary Chinese issues in theaters.
Are you already off to another project?
I just finished shooting a 42 second short film in Taiwan for a festival in Beijing on the theme of how we dream. I'm developing my next documentary with the Canadian Film Centre and National Film Board of Canada's Feature Documentary Program, "a new laboratory for the development of successful theatrical documentaries".
The film I'm working on is about the fruit underworld based on the book, "The Fruit Hunters" by Adam Gollner. I'm also researching and scripting my first narrative feature about Chinese wedding photographers called "Eggplant", or perhaps it'll be a doc...I'm not sure yet.
Other than that, trying to get back into the routine.