‘TAKING FATHER’ TO THE SCREEN : Ying Liang speaks
An exclusive 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). 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.
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 (my producer) 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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 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. 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.
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?
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. 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.
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.
[This is an edited-down version of our interview with YING Liang; click HERE for the full-length version, which features much longer answers to all of the questions.]