The Sudden Urge To Dig Deeper: Yuchao Feng On His Short "Pearl"
Yuchao Feng’s short film, Pearl, touches on the subject on sibling abandonment. Based on a true story of a mother who is forced to choose to abandon either her son or daughter, the film lands with a crushing blow that will break your heart.
In a desolate Chinese fishing village, a poor single mother feels forced to abandon one of her children for life.
Pearl has been selected for Leeds International Film Festival, Vancouver International Film Festival, Edmonton International Film Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival and Short Shorts Film Festival in Japan. We had the opportunity to talk with Yuchao about the film, its concept and aesthetics, and much much more.
What gravitated you to the idea of a film centered around sibling abandonment?
The idea for the film began in New York with an unexpected phone call from my mother around two years ago (which was past midnight in China). The call was shocking not only because my mother and I had grown rather distant (my parents were not always around when I was growing up in China, and we talked even less after I went to the US for college), but especially because of the contents of the phone call.
My mother revealed to me that she had a horrible nightmare about her own mother, a nightmare she’s been having since she was six years old. She then confessed to me why she’s been having these nightmares: she was abandoned by her mother when she was six years old. “I think I’m probably never going to be able to forgive her,” she told me.
After hearing this story, I was stunned. At the time of this phone call, my mother was about forty-five, which meant that she’s been having these nightmares for forty years. As the conversation progressed, I actually felt I was getting closer to this woman who I actually didn’t know much about. I felt this sudden urge to dig deeper into my mother’s mind and make a film about her experience.
What were some of the challenges you faced working on the film?
Working with children was a challenge, albeit a fruitful experience. I knew from the beginning that working with two very young children (7-8 years old) was going to be tough, but even then there were definitely moments during the shoot in which I felt like I was experiencing an uphill climb. A big lesson I learned is that: children do get tired. They may be terrific, hardworking actors (which is true for both of my child actors), but they will eventually exhaust themselves and we need to understand that there is a limitation to the amount of takes that we can shoot. It’s also important to note that filming in the specific, sometimes painfully rough weather conditions (i.e. a visibly rainy day) can be grueling not just for children but for any production.
How did you discover the look for the film, and what, if anything, played into its style?
My cinematography background was definitely useful when it came to directing and crafting a visual look for the film, as I was able to creatively and efficiently translate text into moving images. I had a good understanding of some of the framing and shot designs I needed in order to tell this particular story, and I was aware that if a camera move wasn’t doable, it’s better to nix it then to try executing it half-heartedly. As for visual inspirations, I’ve always been a fan of films by Wong Kar Wai and photographs by the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Their works have inspired many of my films including this one.
How did you find your cast?
I was lucky enough to find my young actor relatively early on during pre-production. I met him when I visited a preschool around our shooting location and I immediately knew we had to cast him.
On the other hand, the search for the young female character was a much lengthier process. I had visited multiple local preschools hoping to find the perfect young actress, but to no avail. Soon enough, we started to contact almost any school we could find. After meeting hundreds of young girls for the role, I somehow ended up at a dancing class in a school my Aunt teaches at. This is the dancing class where I eventually found our young actress Yating, but it took a lot of convincing (for both Yating and her mother) before we finally secured her for the role.
Tell us about how you found your location and what it added to the project.
We chose to film in a village called Xiapu in the Fujian Province (Southern China) because it is my mom’s hometown and it is where the abandonment happened. It was of course emotionally draining to be in the center of my mother’s tragic upbringing, but it was also strangely therapeutic to be able to capture the unique aesthetics of this particular memory on film. We tried to stay true to my mother’s experience, and shooting the film where the heart of the story happened definitely helped add emotional truth and authenticity to the storytelling.
What excites you about integrating eastern aesthetics with western storytelling?
I wasn’t actually consciously trying to evoke specific aesthetics from different cultures, but I do think it’s exciting to integrate my mentality (influenced by my upbringing in China) with the somewhat more western form of storytelling I learned from studying in the States. For this specific film, I was merely following my instinct and telling the story in a style that I thought best fit this story.
What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
I believe that everyone, no matter where they are physically coming from, would like to connect with people he or she can identify with. Some people find ways to do it, while some people unfortunately never do. I hope that by telling this story from a very vulnerable and emotionally place, I will be able to connect with people who have lived through or can relate to comparable experiences as those portrayed in the film.
What’s can you tell us about your second feature?
I’m currently developing another short film that I hope to shoot during the first half of 2020. Right now I’m also working as a cinematographer on a feature film in China, and I’m considering a few more feature films as potential cinematography vehicles.
What do you think? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!