Regarde les Chinois : Yung Chang 張僑勇

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Yung Chang

Pour Regarde les Chinois cette semaine, nous rencontrons Yung Chang, 30 ans, réalisateur basé à Montréal du documentaire Sur le Yangzi qui fit partie de la compétition officielle à Sundance. Né dans la région de Toronto de parents originaires de Beijing et Shanghai, Yung a grandi à Whitby, et on a parlé d’approche artistique, d’attention médiatique, (beaucoup beaucoup) de bouffe, de moustaches, et de la Chine. Up the Yangtze ouvre en anglais aujourd’hui au Forum AMC, et en français le 29 février 2008 au Quartier Latin.

For Regarde les Chinois, this week, we are meeting Yung Chang, 30, Montreal filmmaker of the documentary Up the Yangtze, which was featured in this year’s lineup at Sundance. Born in the Toronto region to parents from Beijing and Shanghai, Yung grew up in Whitby, and we spoke about artistic approach, media attention, (lots and lots about) food, mustaches and of China. Up the Yangtze opens today in English at the AMC Forum, and on February 29th, 2008 in French.

Language of the interview / Langue de l’interview : English (and a little Mandarin) / Anglais (et un peu de Mandarin)

***

Comme les Chinois: You were much sought after by the press lately. How does all this attention feel like?

Yung Chang: Oh, pretty overwhelming all this attention. I think it’s been a good experience though. I mean, it just means that it is nice way to share the film and the concept of the film with people.

CLC: Is it the first time you’re getting so… bombarded by the press?

Yes, this is the first time. But you just take it in stride. I think it’s an important step to share the film with people. You’ve got to do it – you’ve just got to do it. And I appreciate it in fact that people want to talk to me. I like talking about the film. In fact, today, I just did some speaking engagements at Vanier. When I was in Toronto, I spoke at U of T, to cinema students. So I like sharing the process of making the film. I think it helps to illuminate a little about how one can put together a movie. Maybe it can help young filmmakers.

CLC: As a student, you drew a lot from other people talking.

Certainly, yeah. As a cinephile, as someone who loves to read, to watch movies, I certainly have been inspired by a lot of films, filmmaking. You know, I think when you make a film, maybe you have some inspirations, maybe you’re interested by such and such film, such and such book, but it’s just kind of fodder. It’s stuff that works in the back. Eventually, it helps to make it come out of you in a movie.

CLC: Hey, so you were in Toronto, and went on CBC’s The Hour… How was George?

George was ok, he’s a nice guy, very knowledgeable. It’s kind of surreal to in on a set like that, surrounded by an audience, bright lights. You certainly go through a certain amount of out-of-body experiences I think, when you are interviewing. So, you have to be very focused. You have to look at the guy in the eyes.

CLC: How’d you get the interview on the Hour?

Well, I think it’s certainly working with publicists, and having a film that is a current affairs issues. I think it is topical that China now is on the cusp of the Beijing Olympics. There is a lot of conversation right now on the Three Gorges Dam and the future of China, and I think about modernization in China. The film has certainly fallen in a timely into the lapse of an audience.

CLC: Were you born here (in Canada)?

I was born outside of Toronto, in Oshawa. I grew up in Whitby, to be exact, and moved to Toronto and moved here. I lived and travelled in China since 1997.

I travelled throughout, mostly Southern China. My relatives are from Beijing and Shanghai.

CLC: What were you doing in Southern China?

My brother lives in Beijing, so he met me in the south of China, and we traveled extensively throughout. In fact, we were in Guangzhou when SARS broke. We were passing the hospitals, the lineups outside hospitals, wondering what the hell everyone was doing. In fact, it was because of the outbreak! I spent a lot of time in Guangzhou. I had a very good experience traveling solo, as well.

I’ve never been to Xinjiang, nor have I been to Mongolia. I’ve been out to a lot of places in between… Guizhou, Xi’an, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Hainan, Beihai.

CLC: Was there a particular experience over there that marked you?

When I was traveling with my brother through the southern cities, we spent Chinese New Year in Beihai, my brother and I, in a seedy hotel, while firecrackers were blasting 24 hours. In the smaller towns, it is legal to have fireworks, as opposed to cities like Beijing, where just recently they changed the rules, but where you could not light fireworks.

In Beihai, they were lighting it everywhere. Kids, for like two days straight, non-stop, would just point them at you, shoot them at you. It was crazy, it was chaos, it was like a war! I’ll never forget that experience.

I’ll never forget going to eat outside, very late night, street food, and lots of people lined up in the streets. And there was a little girl and a little boy. I guess they were trained in acrobatics and they were performing in the streets, probably trained by their parents and do this, so that they can make money to give to their parents.

And to witness these kids, dirty and grimy, and performing tricks next to a table, and then when the people left the table, to see the kids run up and eat the food off the table, was a very marked moment.

I think for me to see the disparities between what is happening now in China… and I think it has always been like that, that there are very very rich people and very very poor people, and middle class is considered really really rich in my opinion, and there is nothing in between. Being able to witness that was kind of stayed with me.

CLC: Because you grew up here?

Certainly because I grew up here, and you are exposed to a different sort of upbringing. When you witness things that are so extreme – there is homelessness, poverty here, of course but in China, it’s so much clearer, you really see it.

CLC: What age were you when you came back?

It was 1997, so I was 20, after my undergrad.

CLC: What did you do after your undergrad? You were trained in film at Concordia?

I trained in film in Concordia, studied film production, and I made a movie with the National Film Board, Earth to Mouth. After that, I went to study theatre at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. That was two years, and I worked in New York as well, as an editor. Then I came back here (in Montreal), and that was at the same time developing Up the Yangtze, and then consciously started working on the film for a good three years, and went to shoot it in 2006. And now I released it…

CLC: So, you presented the movie at Sundance?

Yes, we presented the movie at Sundance. I think it was an important step. We have an American theatrical release that came out of Sundance. It was good to share with an American audience, because every audience reacts differently, you know. We showed it in Amsterdam… I think that a Canadian audience is much different than an American audience.

CLC: How did they react?

I think that Americans have a certain sense of … when they see the film, and see themselves depicted in this movie, for a lot of people, it puts them in an awkward situation. And I like that, I like confronting people with how they interact with a different culture. I think that struck a lot of audiences in the US. In fact, it resonated very deeply with people.

And certainly, Sundance is a very liberal sort of audience, and you are going to get people that are moved and want to do something.

CLC: So, you met a bunch of famous people. Is that where you met Werner Herzog?

(laughs) No, Herzog, I met him in Amsterdam, at the International Documentary Film Festival, and met him over there.

CLC: Was he one of your heroes?

Oh yeah, certainly. I had like his book, Herzog on Herzog, strapped on my thigh as I made Up the Yangtze. I think he is a very inspiring person. For me, there are two extremes, there is the Herzogian approach to filmmaking, which is looking for these ecstatic truthes, and then on the other hand, there is the Cinéma-vérité technique. I think that I certainly touch on both of these in Up the Yangtze.

I am looking for moments of truth, for example, the images of the dancing girl shot on my cellphone. In fact that was a very important moment for me. On the other hand, filming intimate scenes with the family as it was fly-on-the-wall. These two opposing methods of filmmaking certainly were very important in making Up the Yangtze.

CLC: Were there other people who inspired you, who you look up to?

Certainly Herzog was one of them. There is plenty of Cinéma-vérité filmmakers that I was very inspired by. I’m inspired by lot of fiction filmmaking, italian neo-realism. The list is extensive… And especially by Chinese filmmakers, like Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Jia Zhangke, and Li Yang, who made Blind Shaft.

When I was living in Los Angeles, briefly, I managed to catch quite a few Chinese documentary films. I saw a movie by Jiang Yue, and it was called This So-called Happy Life. That was a very amazing film, because it almost played like a fiction movie, but it was very clearly a documentary. These were real people. It was about a couple of railroad workers in the West Railway Station in Beijing, and they were unbelievable characters, very human characters, flawed people. And that is what is interesting. You know, exploring human emotions through characters, through subjects that are not perfect, that have flaws, that make mistakes. And that is something that I think is very important.

And I think that the films of John Cassavetes as well are very inspiring.

CLC: I was watching you movie, and it plays like a drama, but you know it’s real-life, it’s a documentary. But you look at the storyline, and it’s almost like a fiction movie.

I think that as a director, you are very conscious about how you want to frame things. You think about the structure of the film. Because it is documentary, you can’t predict, you don’t really know the outcome of where you want it to go, or how it is going to unfold.

CLC: So you didn’t know the ending…

Certainly you don’t know the ending! But I had very specific things that I wanted. For instance, the opening scene of the film, the closing of the film. The opening of the gates of hell. These were very important images for me.

Within that, you build your blocks. Things would happen with the family, like that very pointed scene with the mother telling Yu Shui that she doesn’t want to exploit her daughter to work on the boat. First of all, as a filmmaker, I am not a passive filmmaker. You don’t sit, and I don’t wait for things to happen. I think it is very important, as a director, and in order not to waste tape to ask the right questions at the right time. And that scene came about though a very important question that I didn’t ask the family, up to the point where Yu Shui had to leave to work on the boat. And I asked Yu Shui, does she know that she had to leave to work on the boat, and that her home will be flooded forever, and then her parents, and her siblings will never be able to move back to this home.

Yu Shui asked her mother this question, and as a result, that was the scene that came out of it. So, I think it is about being very open, sensitive and perceptive of the subtext going on underneath a given moment. And through asking questions that don’t relate to specifically to what you want, so to speak. I think, ultimately, you are going to get something out of it.

CLC: It’s going to flow towards your way… Tell me about your first movie, Earth to Mouth.

Earth to Mouth was to me a romantic, poetic, meditative film. I wanted to capture the beauty of living on a farm, and to me, in a way, this very naive, romantic perspective. And having found the character of the grandmother was fascinating, the fact that she ran this farm and worked with Mexican migrant workers.

There is something also, I think, melancholic about it. The fact that she was a recent immigrant from China, isolated on this farm. When I showed the film at Hot Docs, there’s been people who’ve seen the film who are immigrants of other countries, and when they see the movie it resonates very deeply with them because they can relate to this kind of displacement, uprootedness, loneliness that one feels when adjusting to a new culture. I think perhaps there was something that just seeped through the film when I was shooting the movie.

I think it was important to capture it in a seasonal sense, and follow…

CLC: Because you shot it over a whole year… I dunno, but I am a foodie, and was very interested…

Oh yeah! And I love the food! That restaurant in the film, Magic Wok, is my favourite restaurant when I go back to Toronto. I grew up in that restaurant when it used to be a very small, kinda family establishment in Scarborough. Every weekend, we would go out there – we lived in Whitby, which is a very isolated town – and it was kind of the growing Hong Kong community. Then, the restaurant moved to a bigger restaurant, and it’s become a real establishment in the Markham area! Very good food there!

Have you done a pilgrimage to Markham to eat all the good food?

CLC: Yeah, I’ve done it…

Isn’t it great? In Chinese it is called Magic Lantern… Forgot how to say it.

CLC: So, you grew up in Whitby? I don’t know the Toronto area, is it really far?

It’s about 45 minutes east of Toronto.

CLC: Sort of like Repentigny here…

Yeah, sorta. At the time when I was growing up there, it was a very small town of 30,000 people, and by the mid-nighties, the population had tripled, 300%. So, you can imagine, it became a bedroom community, and there were subdivisions everywhere, and it was a suburban kind of landscape all of a sudden.

CLC: How was growing up there… Were you one of the only…

Yeah! I was one of the only Chinese growing up there! I’ve kind of noticed this about the films that I am interested in making, that they are certainly all about displacement, displaced people… Maybe there is a connection to myself being uncomfortable or not settled in a certain place. Growing up in Whitby, I was never very comfortable growing up there, neither than going to a very Anglican school in Toronto. And in Montreal, when it’s a French-speaking province…

So, for me, I kind of thrive on this idea of displacement. Being kind of a ghost between two spaces, two worlds. I think about it like that, but I don’t know if it’s actually…

CLC: Is there a place in the world where you would like to settle?

(laughs) I have no idea… That’s the thing. I am pretty planted here in Montreal.

CLC: You’ve been here since your undergrad, went abroad for a few years. Why did you come back? Why Montreal?

The people here are very nice. I like the city, I like the food. I like the peacefulness of this city – in fact, it is quite calming to come back here. It’s smaller, it feels more cozy. Especially that EyesteelFilm is here and people that I know. The Film Board is here.

CLC: You were in Good Will Hunting?

(laughs) It feels like the guy who does the interviews on TV… And he has all these insider information about the actors.

Yeah, that was in the beginning when I studying, and I was doing a little extra work on the side. It was in Toronto, at U of T, and I was taking a class at the time, philosophy course. They just so happened to be shooting the film, so I got in.

CLC: Another one… Let’s see. My friends tell me that you are big on bringing fruit salad for parties!

I like making fruit salads! very special, exotic fruit salads. Lemon juice is the key ingredient and add a nice flavour. I like the idea of bringing the fruit to the party and cutting the fruit fresh and making the salad on the site.

You have to have blood oranges, papaya, mango, some berries. I really like putting pomegranate… pineapple.

CLC: I noticed when e-mailing you that you had an English name. Do you use it?

I think when I was younger, growing up, it was a name that was used a lot. There is a generation of my friends who called me by my English name, Jason. But at some point, when I finished high school, I felt that I wanted to make a conscious decision to use my Chinese name. Even though it is a Wade-Giles spelling of my name, as opposed to a (Hanyu) Pinyin one.

My Chinese name is actually Zhang ChaoYong. But because it is “Yung Chang”, it is a little bit different…

CLC: So your (sur)name is Zhang?

Yes, Zhang Yimou de Zhang, and then Hua Qiao de Qiao, YongGan de Yong. (Editor’s Note: We make that it is 張僑勇)

CLC: Do you have family in Taiwan?

My (maternal) grandfather lives in Taiwan, the one that I talk about in the movie. He left (the Mainland) in 1949 and moved to Taipei with the Kuomintang.

CLC: Have you been to Taiwan?

Yeah. Good food there. Have you heard of this toilet restaurant that just opened? It’s food served to you on the toilet, and all the food resembles feces! It’s a huge hit in Taipei. I am not kidding. They serve it on the porcelain.

CLC: Is your dad side also from Beijing?

My dad’s side is from Shanghai, and then he moved to Hong Kong at a very young age, and then came to Canada when he was 15. My paternal grandfather came to McGill to go his PhD in chemistry, in the 1950s. That was his way out of Hong Kong, of China, and he brought his family consequently.

CLC: Were there a lot of Chinese?

No, not at all. But there was a community of Shanghainese. I think the hub was kind of the restaurant Wong’s, which was Jan Wong’s father who owned it. In fact, I think he is still living out in Westmount or something.

CLC: … I don’t see a lot of Asians with a mustache! So where did it come from?

(laughs) My father has a mustache. I’ve never actually seen him without a mustache. Ever since I was born, he always had his mustache. Because my maternal grandfather reads faces, he told him to grow a mustache, so he did! So, my grandfather also told me that I had to grow a mustache, so I did!

CLC: What kind of food do like?

I like all types of food. I eat everything. Maybe I don’t have a very sharp discerning food, but when I am in China, I like to eat huo guo (hot pot), kao ya (roasted duck), zhajiang mian (fried sauce noodles), and lots of Taiwan, Beijing food, Shanghai food is my favourite…

CLC: Do you eat the weird stuff, like chicken claws, pork tripes…

I _can_ eat that stuff. Tripes, I eat. Stomach, I’m not so interested. When you are in China, you don’t really have the choice; it’s the popular way to eat, especially hot pot. I’ve eaten dog hot pot. The flavour of dog meat is nice. It’s kind of like, little more intense than lamb. It’s actually a delicacy. When I had it, I was Chongqing.

CLC: Chongqing is the largest city in China?

Chongqing is the largest municipality in the world. Largest city, I don’t know…

CLC: I heard a lot of great things about Chongqing… It’s built on hills.

It’s built on hills. It’s the only city where they still have the culture of the porters, the coolies. It’s an industry. There is so much history in that city. The way it’s built is amazing, with all the nooks and crannies to explore, hidden spaces and very good restaurants.

There is also a really good noodles restaurant. I really love zha jiang mian. In Chongqing, they make it very different. It’s not as salty and thick as it is in Beijing, and it is a bit lighter, and they put sesame seeds in it… And there is a restaurant, drop-in, quick eat noodles restaurant, hole-in-the-wall.

CLC: I thought that since they are Sichuanese, they’d be high on spices, peanuts.

Yeah, spice, tomatoes, and peanuts, but a lot of chili peppers. Their Chongqing hot pot is different than Sichuan hot pot, because it is hotter. It’s really really spicy. It’s full of thick chili. And they re-use the broth, so it gets spicier and spicier.

CLC: About growing up in Canada… what do you keep of that? What marked you?

Hmmm… (pause) It’s hard to say now. What marks me as Canadian? … It’s so hard to say, because I always feel that I am seeing things in a very particular sort of way. It’s undefinable to be one or the other. In fact, I feel that, as the diaspora, as Overseas Chinese, are very unique, have our own category. That is what I appreciate. Maybe that is my answer.

CLC: I think you have a very interesting background, in the sense that you didn’t live in like Markham. You actually lived outside of Toronto, and guess that you were one of the few Chinese people in your town. Growing up in Quebec is more or less the same thing, because there are not a lot of Chinese people.

It’s a small community here… How is Brossard?

CLC: Well, I know that there are a lot of Asians, but not as overwhelming…

I want to go to that congee place… Is it good?

CLC: Yeah, gotta try it, it’s on Boulevard Rome.

It would be interesting to just go look around there… But now, the Guy-Concordia area! It’s scary!

*** We argue about some Sichuan restaurant, on De Maisonneuve, which I thought was the one east of St-Mathieu, but Yung says that the one that I thought was opened by Cambodian Chinese closer to St-Marc are people from Chongqing. I certainly been there before, and perhaps disinformed the web on the same token…

The chefs are from Chongqing, and they cook the real deal. It’s between St-Mathieu and St-Marc, on the south side of De Maisonneuve. It’s a very small standalone noodles house. It’s tiny! In fact, they have all the standards of Chongqing food…

CLC: There is another place, where they hired a new chef. Have you heard of Tapioca Cafe? It’s like a bubble tea place, but they changed their menu, hired a new chef… You know, BattleNet 24? Well, right next to it, above what used to be a comics rentals place…

Been there? Is that your favourite place?

CLC: I don’t know what’s my favourite place…

I like the Taiwan place underneath that apartment complex (on St-Marc above De Maisonneuve).

CLC: Oh yeah, been there, the cookies.

It’s interesting when you grow up in Montreal, it’s very special when you find something. When I went to Vancouver last week… it’s overwhelming, all the Asian food you can dream of. You would never come back! The quality of the food is just excellent.

*** We keep diverging about food. Apparently, a real ramen noodles place in Montreal cannot be found. But in New York, in the upper fifties… Isn’t it funny that all the sushi places in Montreal are operated by non-Japanese?! “Would’ve made a great short film”, Yung concurs. But then, hey, what is authenticity after all?

General Tao is authentic, because it is its own creation, came out of being Americanized, Westernized. It’s dying, but in Vancouver you find hundreds of these Chinese Canadian diners, that are starting to close down. They have this specific type of food. You should go search it up!…

CLC: I think I should… Diners where they’d have macaroni and soya sauce! As more and more immigrants from the Mainland are coming, do you hope that we’ll see more and more authentic food from China?

(laughs) Let’s hope that they won’t try to transform their style of cooking! Because at one point, it was only Cantonese food, Sichuanese (Szechuanese) food…

CLC: Fake Sichuanese food!

Fake Sichuanese! And all of a sudden, you start to find Beijing food, Taiwan food…

CLC: You grew up in Whitby and were like one of the only Chinese kids, was it hard, was it a realization when you got to university?

When I was in high school, I started to discover the whole issue of this sort of identity thing. I was 16, and read a book by Frank Chin, called Donald Duck. He is a Chinese American author, and considers himself the Black Panther of Chinese American activists, was very active in the 60s, 70s, and angry! What the movement was called was the Angry Asian movement. And there is a whole collection of writing called the Aiiieeeee collection, An Anthology of Asian American Writers. It’s amazing, it will rock you, it will change you…

So, I through this thing when I was 16, 17, 18. Then, you try to figure out your thing, and how you fit in. Went to China. Then, I think I realized that the cultural identity issue is very much so a kind of manufactured concept, a lot so like authenticity. When you get your head around it, you really are who you are. The idea of being one or the other is kind of a construct of this whole multicultural society, or what it may be.

We kind of all follow these ideas, and I realized that the cultural identity issues were raised by my teachers in high school who were not Chinese. I started thinking a lot about it, multicultural issues… I am who I am. I am what I am. For me, it’s that comfortable position to be, this kind of a floater. And that’s what I think informs the way I make films.

CLC: What is a future film project that you have?

I am working on a project about the Tiananmen issue, incident. It’s a film that will unfold in real-time, told through three perspectives: a journalist’s, a protester’s, and a soldier’s.

CLC: It’s going to be non-fiction?

It will be kind of like, no holds barred, all strings pulled, the Cloverfield of Tiananmen Square films. One that will be dramatic and personally told. Again, about human stories, human emotions, not about the politics, but focusing more on the people, and exploring that, and following those trajectories as it unfolds in real-time.

Whatever it takes, no holds barred: documentary, animation, fiction, I don’t know yet. It is going to be something like this.

CLC: Have you seen Gate of the Heavenly Peace?

Yes, I’ll never forget when it came out, in 93 or something. And I’ll never forget my involvement as a protester in Toronto against the Tiananmen massacre, walking with my mother, grandmother and brother to the Chinese embassy (Editor’s Note: consulate, if Toronto). That was a really important moment in my childhood. I couldn’t grasp what it meant, what was happening. Anyone who sees the images that were filmed by the news media cannot help but be moved by what was going on.

CLC: What do you think is in store for China?

That is an impossible question to answer. I’d like to say to refer to my movie, the last shot of (Up the Yangtze). What is in store is certainly an unknown, certainly unclear, foreboding perhaps. I’d like to think that it is like the image of a boat crossing through a gate lock, and at the other side awaits something.

CLC: Tell me who you are?

I’m Yung Chang. I am the director of a film called Up the Yangtze, and I am a filmmaker.

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