TAKING FATHER TO THE SCREEN : An interview with Ying Liang, writer-director of ‘Taking Father Home.’
NEIL YOUNG : Which camera(s) did you use for the film? Is it true that the camera(s) were borrowed – if so, what is the story behind this borrowing please?
YING LIANG : Yes, the camera was borrowed. In total, I borrowed two different ones. In the past I have made 11 short-films, and used many household-cameras: VHS. Hi8, Digital8, single ccd's MiniDV. I prefer using these types of cameras, mostly because I like having control over everything. Although I usually don't mind not using pricey, quality equipment, for Taking Father Home I used a 3CCD camera in order to comply with the big-screen theaters. The problem was that I did not have that budget, and so the only choice I had was to borrow it through a friend of mine (I realized this later, but because the shooting took a total of 10 months, if I had rented the camera, I would have been in deep trouble).
The friend that offered me to find people who can let me borrow equipment/budget for free did an awful lot for me; he negotiated with whatever connection he had, and finally was able to get one camera. This camera was a 3CCD, but not exactly of professional use, and in addition was very old and literally about to crumble. The day I placed my hands on it for the first time, the optical system and the electric circuit were already significantly uncooperative: it liked to automatically shut off after 1 minute of shooting – and unfortunately what I wanted were all 2-minute long takes. And so I had to repair it before actually using it. The first 1/3 of Taking Father Home was shot using this troublesome camera, and while doing so, I had to repair it 4 times, and that took away a good 1 month and a half from my life. Because the Sony repairing service was too expensive for us, we needed to ask an ordinary shop front to do the job. As I mentioned, the camera was semi-professional material, and although it became functional, the repairman finally couldn't fix it entirely.
To sum up, working on a low(or no)-budget independent film was a disaster/nightmare. After hours of preparing and practising with the actors, at the moment we finally wanted to start shooting, the camera wouldn't work. All our actors were amateurs, and gathering ourselves in the same place and time was also quite a difficulty. Location was another. We allocated ideas to get authorisation and get away with using unauthorised places for the filming. We usually had very little time at those places, and had to leave quickly so that we won't get scolded at or caught. Zi Gong's unstable weather also did not help the situation, especially because I put in a lot of effort and passion into my lighting. To bring life to this each scene, we needed the right people and the right place all cooperating at the right timing. As you might know already, the occasions in which these three elements decided to work together were rare, and all the troubles with our camera were not assisting us in any way. Our producer Peng Shan and my motivations were severely damaged by such course of events.
The fourth time we asked the repairman to fix our camera, he mentioned he was very sorry for causing so much trouble by not being able to fully repair the camera; he then kindly offered us to call Sony to do the maintenance, himself providing some of the cost for it. But even after this, the camera did not regain its full functionality. It made me decide to forfeit using this camera, and I realized that I have invested 100 euros into this troublesome camera. Fortunately I was immediately able to borrow another; although it was the same model as our previous one, it was in considerably good shape. The rest of Taking Father Home was taken using this new one. I presume this model likes having malfunctions; we had to ask our regular repairman yet again to fix it. However this time, it only took us 30 euros to have it repaired. But yes, the rental fee for this camera was 450 euros so…
How long did the filming take? What was your method in writing and shooting the film?
During the 10 months of filming (excluding editing) we had to stop occasionally a couple of times. The longest was a halt of 2 months during this 10-month period due to extreme cold weather and running out of budget (when this happened, I went on a part-time job to make our budget), and the little ones were because of waiting for the camera to be fixed and of unexpected disorders. I'd say the actual time that was taken for filming was 5 months. The slow pacing was also due to the fact that all the actors were all amateur volunteers. They had their own life and job, and so we needed to adjust our schedules to suit theirs. To supply one more reason, all the filming and administrative work were done by just the two of us: Peng Shan and me.
My belief is that despite the extreme difficulty of the film-making process, large quantities of man-power and equipment are not necessary. I don't think there aren't many problems with the method we took for this film, and I like our way. This method we take is fundamentally different from the well-practiced, traditional ones, and therefore I think I can call this a "personal film". This type of film, I believe, must be a dream to many people; the excellent degree of freedom permits the director to do whatever he wants without restrictions. The only drawback I see in our method is the little amount of output. I think as more examples get accumulated and as technology advances, the direction of "personal film" would become more transparent and understood, and more people will approach film-making in this way in the future.
There is one characteristic to my script writing: I write as I watch the scene. For low-budget films like Taking Father Home, this approach is practical and also necessary. Because of the lack of budget, we cannot afford to find a suitable location for a pre-made script. In traditional film-making, the script comes first, and the scene is manipulated according to the script. The script and the acting would be the feet, and the scene would be the shoes. For us, this relationship is the other way around. The scene is the most important, and the others follow. The shortage of budget is not necessarily a complete demerit. I believe there is no direct relationship between the amount of budget and the wellbeing of the movie. There is yet another reason why I write my scripts in this fashion.
Film takes a form of communication done through sight and hearing. For this reason, viewing and listening to many things help me enlarge my imagination. The inspiration I got in making this film was also from an image I saw. In Si Chuan province in 2002, I ran into a scene where a flood was approaching a residential area, and the people there were forced to abandon it. I was heavily shocked by this (I was born in a big city in the eastern part of China, and hadn't seen anything like a flood before. This experience implanted in me an idea of how enormous and powerful nature could be. A town built upon years of human effort could easily be destroyed by one flood).
My script is not fundamentally based on dialogues and plot. It is rather based on image and sound. I like writing the details of the mise-en-scene, hue, shoot size and sound in the script. So my script basically looks like a director's instruction sheet (technical script) by the time it gets to the actors. Because I have control over everything, I don't need a formal copy of a script in a universally used style. I believe that the essence of a film lies in the editing. Manipulating time and space is an essential part of expression in films, and the action doing this is what I call halting and selecting. The planning is in the mind, the script is the written form of the editing plan, and when it comes to doing post-production work, it is a matter of editing on the computer for yet another time.
The scene and the camera angle are extremely important; in my mind, choosing these are more important than choosing actors. The camera angle is the only venue to express my point of view. The image and sound I present to the audience are those from my point of view. The actors are merely one of those things that are presented to the viewer. To reemphasize, the scene is the main constituent of my communication and depiction in my film. All of what are seen in my film were taken in actual, existing places. The producer and I were also the art director. The script-writing took 3 years, which means I was simultaneously searching for shooting locations for 3 years. Whenever and wherever we were, the two of us were always working on this film. What we were doing was as follows: if we found an interesting-looking place during lunch or dinner at a restaurant, we would take a good investigation on it and keep record. If we heard about a place from somebody, we would definitely take a look at that place. Roles and films themselves with life can only be made with the existence of scenes with life; this is my thought on films.
The concluding part of this film was filmed as follows: I prepared a few different outcomes, for example, the reunion of father and son, failure of each others' acknowledgement, and so on. I purposefully took the last scene at the very last of the filming process. By doing so, I was able to clarify in myself which outcome would be most appropriate for what I wanted to say. This story has some relations with my experiences from my childhood. When I was 11, my father left our house for about 3 years for inevitable reasons. In these 3 years, I spent a life without a father. The surrounding environment and people gave me great influence, and those made that portion of my life a very significant one. I suddenly was forced to live independently, having responsibilities for making a living and for my own self. The happiness, loneliness, and the toughness you need in order to support yourself, which I experienced all at once, contributed in giving me a very valuable experience. When I was filming the final scene, I realized that this sort of filming style was the most appropriate way to express what I had within me.
Which directors/film-makers do you like, and do you think any have influenced you?
I have many directors and their films that I like. These not only include the art- types but also such films made by Joe [John] Woo. I feel I was especially influenced by his A Better Tomorrow.And of course, I do have my favorite art-film directors. In China, it would be director Ning Ying. I believe her For Fun and On the Beat are the best films in China. However unfortunately, because she was in Europe studying film from an early age, the Chinese audiences are not too supportive of her works. The biggest influence I received from her is the style of realism and her prestigious story-telling strategy/style. The "master presence" she has is not something most Chinese film directors have in common. I also like her newest film, Perpetual Motion.
My favorite director in Taiwan would be Wang Tung. I have only seen Hill of no Return and Straw Man from his output, but I have learned a lot from his lively shots of Taiwanese farming villages. But in the west, he is not as famous as Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang, and Tsai Ming-Liang. These three directors are also people who I truly love and respect. Ozu Yasujiro is the Japanese director I like. I have learned from him how a culture's sense of beauty could be communicated differently through the choice of languages for films. I have two favorite directors in Europe, and one would be Robert Bresson of France. I was highly impressed by his minimalist style. I was also enlightened by his low-budget production. The other is Emir Kusturica, whose film made me thunderstruck. Even after going through his most prosperous years during the 50's and 60's, he still possesses potential in heightening the limit of film aesthetics. I believe this is something absolutely remarkable.
I understand that the budget for the film was very low. What was, roughly, the total sum – and what this was spent on?
The total money spent on Taking Father Home does not exceed 3000 euros.
The main expenses were for renting and repairing the cameras, film tapes, travel to shooting locations (there were many sites we decided to go to, the distances were generally long, and the number of actors were also many), for food, and for construction of large-sized props (the most costly one was the Buddha's head, and it was 70 euros. The big sign board was about 50 euros).
I personally think this budget was a little too small. If I have had about 5000 euros, I would have been able to pay the actors – they are the people I must thank the most! If I had 8000 to 10000 euros, I could have improved the sound and visual quality, and also shortened the filming period dramatically. However, even with a small budget less than 3000 euros, I believe Taking Father Home is a much better movie than many other movies created with a budget 100 times greater. The quality of the movie and its budget are not relevant. Films with this kind of budget were not creatable even three years ago. But now it has been put into realization by me. With the quick advancement of digital technology, costs for film production are getting less and less. A trend of "Personal Film" is definitely approaching.
How did Taking Father Home end up in competition in Rotterdam, and how did you find visiting the festival?
The post-production for Taking Father Home was completed in the end of June, 2005. So I found the Venice Film Festival through the internet, downloaded their application form, sent an application for the application-fee exemption by mail, and finally sent a VHS tape for prejudging. As a result, they told me they liked the film, but that they didn't need it. I felt this answer was very strange. Of course, I was not discouraged by this, and I resumed applying for the Vancouver International Film Festival and Pusan International Film Festival. Among them, I paid $50 (American) as an application fee for Vancouver, but I received no reply. I felt a little troubled by these circumstances, but I knew that there were no problems in my film, and so I continued searching for film festivals on the net, finally coming across Tokyo FILMeX.
This film festival was still rather new and although its size was also relatively small, I happened to know that it was receiving good reputation. I was telling Peng Shan that we should start working in a completely different industry if there's no answer, but the next day FILMeX informed us that we were selected to compete in the Competition category by email. Later on in Tokyo, I was asked by the director of the festival why I sent my work on my own. We were told that this was the first time any film was selected to compete without any references or backup of companies. In addition, unexpectedly my film was awarded the Special Jury Prize. I found this out later, but the reason why I was chosen to participate in Rotterdam was because some person from that film festival happened to be in Tokyo to search for films. Unfortunately I do not know who that particular person was even as of now.
So far I have only participated in 2 international film festivals: Tokyo Filmex and Rotterdam. I don't have the right to be talking about Rotterdam, and all I can do is to compare the two that I was in. Filmex, compared to Rotterdam, is considerably small; 34 films shown in all, and only 50-60 invitated guests. However, Tokyo FILMeX has a clear objective: to spread Asian art films and to promote new directors. This film festival has a large authority in Asian countries, and despite its size, is very competitive.
Rotterdam was significantly different from this. Both for me and my film, this festival was something huge. However I disliked some of the core components of it – there were people unrelated to the films, talking about investment plans and business. I felt it was peculiar. I was involved in some business talk in Rotterdam myself. I was at a Director Drink, and I discussed about distribution rights with one French film distributor. He emphasized over and over that my movie was great and that he liked it a lot, but when he demanded me to sign a contract within merely 30 minutes, I realized he was not paying any respect towards my film.
In addition the execs of Rotterdam were not even bothered to visit a young film director of Uruguay who was in bed in his hotel with a 39 degree fever. He never got better until he flew home. Even though both Rotterdam and FILMeX are festivals for supporting growing directors, I strongly felt there was a significant difference between them. Rotterdam had many films shown, and we were pretty much spending our time there in the theaters. In all, I saw nearly 40 feature films and about 30 short films. The feature films seemed rather ordinary, but I was extremely impressed by many of the short ones. I have filmed short films myself, and was glad to see those of others. I still cannot forget some of the extraordinary ideas I saw.
I met inspiring people in Rotterdam: the European audiences, some young film personalities, and film production staffs. At first, because Taking Father Home was Eastern in its story and style, I thought it would be difficult for it to be accepted by a Western audience. But when my film was played, I was not expecting to get such a warm reception and the audience also enjoyed the part I prepared for their enjoyment in the film. Of the 3 showings, excluding the second one which was during the lunchtime, the seats were all full. There were a lot of questions after the showing, and I felt the European audience understood what I wanted to say in the film. I also think they were highly interested in it. When Peng Shan and I were walking around on the street, some people found us and greeted us very kindly and gave us a lot of feedback. We were very surprised from these experiences.
Interacting with the other young directors was also very amusing. Even with Peng Shan and my poor English, there was absolutely no problem in sharing our passions toward a shared topic. I got to know many feature film and short film directors, and regarding some of them, I became very close friends with. Our interpreter and everybody else working in Rotterdam were all great people. The only thing is that the festival was too big and we couldn't get to know everyone. But still, from Rotterdam, I have gained a lot of new friends. One last thing I'd like to add is my comment on the festival: Film festivals provide very rare and vital opportunities for film distribution of independent films, and for me it even decides whether I can continue making films or not. But the prize is not at all important for Taking Father Home, whether it possesses any value or not, is. I'll be greatly satisfied if someone sees this film 5 years from now and think it's pretty good.
What was your method in working with the actors, who I understand are not professional performers?
Yes, they were all ordinary people. Since the filming site was in Peng Shan's (my producer) hometown, the actors were all her friends and relatives. The first thing I had to face in working with them, was to figure out how to. I strongly dislike the awkward human relations within big-scaled Chinese film production teams. In order to cooperate with these amateur actors, it is necessary to respect each other and maintain equivalence between each other.
Of course, there were times when we couldn't make any communication. Some of them did not understand what filming was like at all. For instance, the person who acted as "Scar" was Peng Shan's distant relative – he actually makes a living from demanding loan payments from borrowers who miss deadlines. The first scene he played a role in was where his role had to demand rent payment from "Xu Yun" (the main character). Before rehearsing the scene, we explained to him over and over about what he was supposed to do in his role, and he did seem to understand, but when the time came to actually rehearse, he finally realized that he wasn't there to help us get some loan payments back, but only to take a film.
I do not like professional actors too much. Those of other countries do fairly well in acting out reality of the life of people in their respective countries, but the Chinese actors are way too unrealistic. I do not feel I need to have them act in my film. My film itself also does not require "acting"; all it needs is a reproduction of everyday life. As I said earlier, I believe the essence of films lie in the editing and the scene. If the screenwriting is decent, there would be no problems. I think there is one extremely simple way to see whether the screenwriting is good or not. After excluding any "acting" and technical instructions from the screenwriting, if someone who more or less looks suitable for the role can act it out, then I think the screenwriting is decent.
Personally, I think Taking Father Home is basically this kind of movie. First of all, when I select an actor, I choose someone who looks similar and has a similar occupation/social status as the role. By doing so I think it is easier to mimic their everyday life. Of course, it is necessary to have the real person and his or her role share traits in order to make a film successfully. Because our filming method is very unusual, an actor needs to satisfy a different condition: to have a lot of time. This condition is the most difficult to meet, and thus our production speed was slow. Even though this film was very small in size, we used 100 different actors in total. In most cases, we did not have enough actors and had to make the same actor do multiple roles. For example in one scene, a policeman gets knocked down by some street gangs and Xu Yun comes out of the river and runs towards the policeman. In the shot before this, one of the gangs that attack the policeman was Xu Yun. He just changed his costume.
I work on my film in this manner: I wouldn't use a clapperboard or a continuity sheet, count down, or start with a loud shout. If I did any of these, I would interfere with the actors' morale. We had to strive to keep them relaxed all the time. Other than in cases we applied some lighting during indoor shootings, it was always Peng Shan and I and our small DV. These things also helped in creating a workable atmosphere. For each scene, I had a very detailed plan and many records of what instructions I gave and how I gave them. I did not show this plan to any actor, and none of them got to see a complete script or anything of that sort. We did an extensive rehearsal before each time we shot. This was the most important part to my filming method. First I explain the continuity to the next scene, and after that rehearse one cut at a time. My takes are almost all about 2 minutes long, and so the actors were required to memorize not only their lines and movements but their standing positions. For instance, if a scene has 4 actors, each actor needs to remember the rhythm between each other. Because this was very demanding for the actors, we had to rehearse one cut at a time.
We tried to instruct them a little by little, a cut by cut, and gradually build the rhythm of the entire scene. In doing so, I had to keep my mind working fully the whole time, observing every little aspect of the actors and the scene. If I hadn't done that, I would not have been able to make appropriate adjustments. New ideas came out from doing this, and sometimes I discussed with the team about them, and sometimes I just went with the new ideas without having to discuss it. This kind of rehearsal was done at least 10 times for each scene. Even after actually filming, I kept coming up with ideas, and carried on shooting. I strived to achieve a beauty characteristic to films by keeping each scene and actor in good condition and making them represent my ideas and instructions specifically.
I have met actors with talent, but they are very scarce. The actor playing the policeman in Taking Father Home is one of them. He is an owner of a restaurant, but he is a truly gifted actor. On the day he joined the shooting, we took 2 scenes. One was on a big bridge where he chased Xu Yun, and the other was where he was talking to Xu Yun while shaving. After shooting these two scenes, he comprehended completely and started expressing himself and establishing his character. In further shootings, he kept acting the character he established; the rhythm, the lines and the movements were strictly those of his role. I thought this was something incredible.
And there were also people who were not the best actors, but because there weren't enough actors, we still had to use them. I needed to have patience and solid confidence in dealing with them. It was necessary to repeatedly instruct and correct them until they were forced to do things right. In extreme cases, the acting had to come from reflexes, which worked fine sometimes. In the film, there is a girl who was only 4. She had no idea what was going on, and was extraordinarily mischievous. Her mother also kept bursting into laughter every minute. It took 5 hours to film this scene. I indeed met many ordinary talents, but all I had to do was to film in my usual manner. Again, there was no acting needed, just a reproduction of normal life.
Do you have any particularly strong memories of shooting the film?
The first thing that I must mention is that all staffs and actors were working without any financial return! Li Rongsheng is my good friend; he is a cameraman of a studio, and he's over 50, retiring this year. He is a very earnest person who dedicated 40 hours to 2 train trips to Sichuan from Shanghai, just to help our filming. He crafted a very cheap but practical lighting device for us, gratefully accepted any favors we asked, playing a major role in our film production.
The composer Zhang Xiao had been making commercial music for a long time, and even though he was putting himself in a difficult position, he gratefully offered us to provide the music for our independent film. He devoted his valuable time to discussing with us. To save expenses, he secretly brought the music for our film to the recording studio and edited them together with his other works. The people there asked him why his musical style was recently fluctuating a lot. The featured actor, Xu Yun is a very brave child. Although he couldn't swim at all, on the shooting day, he started to practice swimming on the spot, and did actually swim during the shooting. Also he had to carry two ducks all throughout the filming period. The other people all devoted their precious time and energy free of charge. This film would not have existed without them.
What is the story behind the flood footage? Was this shot before or after you made the film?
The black-and-white image of the flood was a part of footage from the news of the 1997 Zi Gong flood. Peng Shan found it at Zi Gong's TV station. The color shot of heavy rain right before it was taken by me. This rain during summer last year caused rivers to overflow in Zi Gong, but fortunately there were no damages done. Tuo River is a branch river of Chang Jiang River running in Zi Gong, which frequently overflows, is dammed. Because Zi Gong always is under danger of floods, the people there are ready to evacuate any time during summer. The 1997 flood was an extraordinarily big one in which buildings went underwater to its 3rd to 4th floor, and resulted in many missing people. Oddly, that footage I used in my film was the only record of that flood that Zi Gong's local government had preserved. When I found out about this fact, I was greatly surprised. Why was such a critical flood that changed the lives of so many people in Zi Gong documented so poorly? The only existing record also does not have any sound to it.
A young Spanish director I met at Rotterdam told me that there were two stories in my film; one was about the boy, the other was about the flood. Indeed, the flood was the other story I wanted to tell. In a way, it is more important than the boy's. At the final showing's Q&A, I was told by an audience member that my film had a very complicated narrative behind it: the transition of Chinese politics. I somewhat agreed, but I did not intentionally try to discuss this issue in my film. Perhaps the flood footage gave this impression to the audience. I do not wish to talk much about the meaning behind this flood. I provided the sound and image, and I would like to leave it up to the viewer.
Why did you set most of the film in ZiGong? How did you go about finding the different locations, which show so many sides of this city?
The foremost reason we picked ZiGong as our setting was a practical one: to save expenses. Prices in ZiGong are comparatively low to other Chinese areas. Shanghai is 3 times more expensive. ZiGong is also my girl friend/producer Peng Shan's home town, and so we were able to overcome many obstacles during filming with the help of her knowledge and experience living in this area. The reason why we completed Taking Father Home at such a low cost was because of the development of digital technology, but also because we filmed in Zi Gong.
And of course there were reasons other than budget in choosing Zi Gong. ZiGong is the second-biggest city in Sichuan Province, and has the essential characteristic of Sichuan: jumbled up. Even if you were walking on the most populated street in Zi Gong or Chong Oing, just a step round the corner and you would be seeing farmlands. You might also see a man catching his pig that escaped from his truck right in front of a big shopping center. In Zi Gong, everybody has some relatives living both in the urban and rural areas. 20 of the farmers in Taking Father Home were all Peng Shan's rural relatives, and the others were all her urban ones.
The Chinese west and the east have a huge difference in life style. The eastern cities such as Shanghai and Nan Jing do not represent all cities of China. The cities and villages of the western mountain regions are not developed at all. In a Chinese poem, the difficulty of traveling in Sichuan is represented: "The roads of Shu (the old name of Sichuan) are rough, difficult than to climb the sky." Even within China, most people do not know the circumstances of the western part of the country, and the people living in the west also do not know much about the world outside. I grew up in the eastern region, but in these 5 years, I have spent my life in the western part, shooting films. I believe I have the responsibility to record these valuable things. I also like the fact that there is a great difference in life style of Zi Gong and Si Chuan in general. Indeed, life in Zi Gong is very relaxed, like that of Western Europe. Because prices are extremely low, most people can live a whole day drinking tea and playing mah-jong with an annual pension of less than 20 euros.
In these several years, the government has been supporting the economical development of western China. In so doing, exchanges between the city and country sides became more frequent. I think this aspect of China has been communicated in Taking Father Home: Xu Yun's father went out of his village to test his luck in the big city; the city's construction team came to the village to develop the industrial zone, and so on. The Chinese west is constantly going through some change. I'd be pleased if this feature film could more or less fulfill its responsibility as a historical record.
Interview and transcript by Neil Young