EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a daily December series that will feature new or previously published interviews and profiles of some of the year’s best filmmakers, writers, actors and actresses.
Yung Chang‘s “Up The Yangtze” examines the effects of the construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. The dam is to become the largest hydroelectric power station in the world, but with this comes the displacement of millions of residents and the destruction of landmarks. Yang follows two young people effected by the project, and the result provides “a final snapshot of a rapidly disappearing cultural landscape,” said Sundance’s Rosie Wong when the film screened there in January. “Yangtze” was nominated for a Spirit Award last week for best documentary.
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Yung Chang. I am 30 years old. I have a film at Sundance in competition called “Up The Yangtze.” I have lived and worked in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Montreal and China. I am currently based out of Montreal, Canada. I studied film at Concordia University in Montreal and the Meisner Technique at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City.
What led you to become a filmmaker?
I realized I wanted to become a filmmaker or have something to do with the arts, when I was in high school. I was too shy to join the theatre department and too afraid to tell my parents. Eventually I got into photography and joined the film club. I started making elaborate, ambitious documentaries and experimental films with analog video. An English teacher showed us early video art by Colin Campbell, Midi Onodera and General Idea. My first documentary was simply titled “Jazz” and had almost an 8 minute intro on black leader using the first track from Tony William‘s Live in Tokyo album. Pretty bad. Lesson learned: Never edit your own films.
Aside from making films, I like to play ping-pong and am looking forward to starting the first ping-pong club at Sundance. Bring your paddles.
Have you made other films?
I have made a short fiction film called “The Fish Market” and a medium-length documentary called “Earth to Mouth.” Even though I attended film school, I am still learning about filmmaking – the process never ends. Case in point: The executive producer of my film, Daniel Cross, was also my first year professor at film school. I think filmmaking is very much a self-learning process. It’s about being open to everything and not just watching movies. Reading, traveling, walking. Read “Herzog on Herzog”; Elia Kazan‘s “A Life”; Nicholas Ray‘s “I Was Interrupted”; and Tarkovsky‘s “Sculpting in Time.”
What prompted the idea for “Up the Yangtze” and how did it evolve?
I first traveled to the Yangtze river in 2002 as a tourist with my parents and grandfather when I went on one of the Farewell cruises, a kind-of “disaster eco-tour” where the aim is to offer tourists the chance to visit the area before it is flooded by the Three Gorges Dam. The idea for “Up The Yangtze” was inspired by a surreal moment. We arrived to the southern Chinese city of Chongqing (Chungking), the largest municipality in the world. The city reminds me of a scene from “Blade Runner.
At the city’s port, considered the Gateway to the Yangtze, we walk down a steep embankment to get to the waiting ship. Coolies grab our luggage and sling them on their bamboo poles. I arrived at night. Everything was in silhouette lit by neon lights. As we approached the gangway, a marching band began to play “You Are My Sunshine” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” At that moment, I decided to make a film about this surreal journey: “The Love Boat meets “Apocalypse Now.”
The film evolved from being about the culture of tourism and the tourism of culture into something much more than that. There are so many metaphors and symbols. The epic landscape of the Three Gorges, the Yangtze River and the dam were inspirational in discovering that to make this film, I had to get off the boat and onshore in order to capture the Chinese perspective. Tourists are easy targets so to get the full perspective, in order to amplify the commentary on the Westerners point-of-view, I had to tell the story through Chinese eyes.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film
I approach my filmmaking as if I was making fiction. I don’t mean that I stage scenes but rather that I prepare a lot. I think about the story, the narrative, and where I want to go. In the initial research process, I was inspired by films like “The Bicycle Thief,” “Gosford Park” and “Aguirre Wrath of God” – these were my influences funny enough. I was also deeply inspired by Hou Hsiao Hsien and his framing and use of atmosphere. Li Yang‘s “Blind Shaft” showed me how to make a neo-realist Chinese film. I really wanted to approach my film with an Altmanesque/Herzogian cinematic technique. I like using fiction films as reference points. There’s also a natural irony and humor that often permeates through the observation of West and East cultures so it was important not to make an overly heavy doomsday film but to capture those humorous flashes that make a human story all the more real and three-dimensional.
Of course, the beauty of documentary is that you’re literally improvising and being spontaneous. You let the environment, your subjects, and the given moment carry you along. There’s no storyboarding. When you’re making a documentary, you shoot a lot of footage in hopes of capturing a few emotional moments. When you have those moments your story takes shape and you can build your film around those key scenes. Because my film was also a personal journey, I was definitely open to those Herzogian moments. I felt like I was Conrad traveling into the “Heart of Darkness” and I allowed myself to be open to interpreting my encounters and capturing those “ecstatic truths” like the dancing chicken from “Stroszek.” I have a dancing girl that I shot on a blackmarket cellphone.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
It took a long time to figure out the right way to tell the story. I had so many elements I wanted to explore that the film went through a long development process. Luckily I had great passionate producers from EyeSteelFilm who believed in the project. The National Film Board of Canada came on board as co-producers. It took 4 years to finance the film. I went on numerous research trips but after each trip I’d come back with a stronger demo and a better grasp of the film. Eventually through pitching forums like Hot Docs‘ TDF, we secured pre-sales to National Geographic, PBS POV, CBC, Radio Canada, and ZDF.
There were many challenges during the making of the movie. I had permission to shoot on a cruise ship but we were constantly dealing with concerns from the company that we were making much more than a “promotional video.” In fact, majority of the film was shot in 2006 but because it was such a long research process that spanned over three years, it’s no wonder that the cruise line started getting curious. It was a constant threat that the Chinese boss wanted to shut us down. Luckily though, the American bosses were very accommodating and understanding. I had to use ping-pong diplomacy.
The other major challenge was working with a Chinese crew. I look Chinese and understand aspects of the culture, but there are lots of things that I didn’t immediately grasp and my language skills are not 100 percent. Because of the local dialect, often I would have to speak through my crew. And the logistics of shooting are very different there – you can’t shoot with location permits, it just doesn’t work that way, so having a Chinese crew helped to deal with those cultural adjustments. And they could also gauge what was safe to shoot in the Chinese environment. They were gutsy – willing to carry hidden cameras if necessary.
Working with them allowed me to see both the Chinese and Western perspectives of the story, and I was constantly negotiating the two. The question came up as to whether I was making an anti-China film. So I had to reassure them that this was not my aim, that I was trying to tell a complex human story. As open-minded filmmakers, they listened to my perspective and were helpful in executing my vision. And they had their own blind spots. My DP, for example, was initially reluctant to film a peasant family. It’s a class thing there, where peasants are looked down upon as uncultured, and Yu’s family are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. But by the end, he saw the value in telling the Yu family story. I later learned that he himself was from a poor family but had managed to get into the prestigious Beijing Film Academy.
Please share your thoughts on the state of independent film today.
Making independent film has always been difficult and challenging, full of hardship and risk. I think it has been this way since Cassavetes’ “Shadows” and Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep.” In this day-and-age though, I see more-and-more filmmakers of color making movies, more-and-more marginalized filmmakers getting their voice out. The future of independent film rests in the hands of those who are not recognized in mainstream media. More-and-more, places like the Sundance Institute and production companies like EyeSteelFilm, are supporting independent filmmakers and helping to guide emerging filmmakers in getting their work made and seen.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker going forward?
Success as a filmmaker is defined by experiencing failure. You should never feel successful. You have to make films that you are not happy with. In that way you will always keep busy, have a rigid work ethic and never stop creating in the constant craving to hone your craft. My personal goal as a filmmaker is to continue challenging myself by making difficult, controversial films.
What are your upcoming projects?
I am currently working on a documentary/fiction hybrid about the Tiananmen Square Massacre.