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An Exclusive Interview
with Director Ruby Yang
(Part I)



Documentary is a genre that is usually overlooked by Chinese audience. This time, we are glad to have the opportunity to talk to renowned documentary director Ruby Yang, who is best known as an Academy Award winner. In this interview, director Yang not only talks about her latest film A Moment in Time, a documentary about Chinese theaters in San Francisco, she also generously shares her invaluable filmmaking experience in Beijing, where her current office is based.

Please enjoy the interview!

* The interview was originally conducted in Cantonese.

Who is Ruby Yang?

Ruby Yang is a noted Chinese American filmmaker whose work in documentary and dramatic film has earned her an Academy Award and numerous international awards. Born in Hong Kong, she moved to San Francisco in 1977. She graduated from San Francisco Art Institute in Painting (BFA) and Filmmaking (MFA) and had been living in San Francisco before relocating to Beijing in 2004.

Yang has directed numerous films. The Blood of Yingzhou District won the 2006 Oscar for Documentary - Short Subject at the 79th Academy Awards in February, 2007. Tongzhi in Love premiered at the Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival and the Frameline32 Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in June 2008. The film won the Golden Gate Award for B est Documentary Short Subject at the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival.

Prior to her work in Beijing, Yang directed the 1997 production Citizen Hong Kong, and in 2000, her film China 21 aired in Hong Kong, Taiwan and numerous European outlets after showing on PBS for Asian Pacific Heritage Month.

Yang has also edited several feature films, including Joan Chens debut feature Xiu Xiu, The Sent Down Girl. She also edited Chen's first Hollywood feature, Autumn in New York, starring Richard Gere and Winona Ryder.

Source: k.bik films

  Ruby Yang  

A Moment in Time

Cinespot: Why did you choose the history of Chinese theaters in the US as your subject?

Yang: This was Lambert Yam (Ruby Yang's husband) and my collaboration, most of the ideas were conceived by him. Lambert used to operate numerous Chinese theaters in the US, and he was very familiar with the older generation of Chinese audience visiting the theaters. These elder audience came to see Chinese movies frequently. The admission fee was about $1.5 at that time. Sometimes they came in the morning and repeatedly watched the films. There wasn't really a lot of films but they would keep watching them over and over again. Lambert would occasionally give them discount and admitted them for 50 cents only. To these older folks, the theater wasn't just a venue to see movies, but an important community center for them to gather and socialize. They were all very nice and some even delivered breakfast to Lambert. That's why we decided to make a documentary about this culture.

Lambert used to be the operator running several Chinese theaters in North America. During the good old days, there were theaters in Canada, New York and Los Angeles. He contributed to the golden years of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema by introducing many of these films to the audience in North America. Since he is very familiar with these films, all of the archival footage in our film was picked by him. Back in the 70s when he was in Hong Kong, he already got involved in filmmaking with a number of New Wave filmmakers and was an active member of the Firebird film society.

Cinespot: What is the target audience of this film?

Yang: Everyone. This subject is supposedly more intimate to American born Chinese, but I believe every film lover would love it. Last year we had a screening in Hong Kong, and most of the audience enjoyed it. Nevertheless, people who were born in the US or grew up here should have a stronger attachment to the subject.

Cinespot: You were born and grew up in Hong Kong, whose cultural background is quite different from your American born subject. How did you interpret this subject?

Yang: I had been living in San Francisco for a long time, and became part of the community already. We came to the US in the 70s, at that time, there wasn't any role model in our community. Whenever people mentioned Chinese, it was either Dragon Lady or Fu Manchu. Luckily things have been changing since the 90s, and now even Obama could become the US president. As a member of Chinese community, we ought to be aware of these stereotypical images even though we were not born here.

Cinespot: The interviewees came from different backgrounds. How did you choose who to talk to?

Yang: We focused on Chinese individuals who have been living in Chinatown for a long time, or those who grew up there. For example, Dr. Rolland Lowe was a board member of the World cinema theater, and Phillip Choy, who has seen a lot of movies in Chinatown, was the architect of the theater. Because Lambert used to work for the World cinema theater for many years, he got to know a lot of these people.

Other interviewees like Alfred Lee belong to the same generation. Lee is 89 now and is still running a business in Chinatown now. They are all members of the Wednesday Club and community leaders. They grew up watching movies, and that's why it was especially meaningful for us to have them talk about their experience.

Most of the female from that generation enjoyed watching romance. Since they were separated from their husbands for a long time, and only got to come to the US after long years of application, they developed strong attachment with romantic tragedies.

Contrary speaking, it was little difficult to look for the younger generation to talk. In this film, there are only a couple of them and the ratio is definitely very small. However, considering our primary focus on older generation, it shouldn't be much of a problem.

Cinespot: You mentioned just now that the film was screened in Hong Kong (at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival) in 2009, how was the reaction there??

Yang: Many of the audiences in that screening were Hong Kong people who used to live in the US, that's why they enjoyed the film very much. Native of Hong Kong might not realize that kind of discrimination, and so it was harder for them to understand the identity crisis. Although they love the film, the cultural identity issues probably wouldn't touch that deep in their heart. Comparatively speaking, for the audience here in the US, this is a collective memory, just like our film title A Moment in Time, "just in a moment, it is gone". Since they are detached from their hometown memories, that might explain why they would identify with Chinese culture much more than people in Asia.

Cinespot: What was the biggest challenge during filming?

Yang: The biggest challenge was that there were too many things that I wanted to film. Another issue was the copyright clearance of the archival footage. We spent quite a few years to look for these copyright owners and negotiate the fee.

Cinespot: How much footage did you film? What was the editing process like?

Yang: The original idea was very ambitious and broad, we wanted to include the history of Chinese in the US and mainland Chinese cinema, which was way too long. Later we decided to cut out the mainland Chinese cinema portion. Films from mainland China had a significant impact on Chinese community in the 80 and 90s, since they helped us to learn more about China. Nevertheless, Cantonese speaking films also played a big part in our community.

We had about 40~50 hours of footage. In the first cut, we included a lot of Cantonese opera, in fact, merely the content of Cantonese opera is long enough for a film. Later we re-edited it again and now from what you see, it spends more time on the films from the 40 and 50s. As for the 70s films, they were very important, let's say Bruce Lee's films, however, we were not able to purchase the right to use the footage. It would be a problem if we were talking about a film but couldn't show the footage, that's why we decided to shorten that portion, which's quite a pity. However, we were very happy to have the right to use King Hu's Come Drink with Me (starring Cheng Pei-pei), which was not easy to get.

Cinespot: The animation of A Better Tomorrow is very impressive. Did you create it or buy it from anywhere?

Yang: Since the copyrights of A Better Tomorrow were distributed to various channels and media, we couldn't locate the exact owner and eventually we decided to have our in-house animator to animate the scene. In the US, PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) has a fair rights regulation, if you review a film as a scholar, which is like a filmmaker talking about another filmmaker, you can use the footage for free as "fair use". However, since we're really uncertain about the copyright of A Better Tomorrow, in order to avoid the risk, we opted not to use it. Copyright usage is regional, if you want to purchase the right for different regions, it would be very expensive. For instance, the footage of Love Without End (1961, Shaw Brothers) costs us us$3,000, and it's merely 30 seconds.

Cinespot: Most of the interviewees are from the local Chinese community. Why would you want to include filmmaker John Woo and Christopher Doyle in the film?

Yang: Talking about Christopher Doyle, the first choice was to interview Wong Kar-Wai but it didn't work out. I used to meet Christopher at some film festivals in New York and Hawaii, and he mentioned that he liked my film Citizen Hong Kong. After some discussion, he agreed to let us use his photographic works in our film, and eventually it became an interview. Christopher Doyle's cinematography and his modern style (e.g. Chungking Express) have been a big influence to many Asian American filmmakers.

Without mentioning too many films from the 80 and 90s, I realized we definitely needed to include something about these eras, and so we decided to have two representatives: John Woo and Christopher Doyle. John Woo's definition of hero is very important. Hero, or role model plays a big part in the life of Chinese in Chinatown. Certainly, I don't mean gangster hero, what I wanted to say is the heroic qualities like confidence, sacrifice, righteousness and comradeship.

One hero that's mentioned in the film is Wong Fei Hung. He was also a national hero and role model, a patriot and a symbol of justice.

Cinespot: The rise and fall of Chinese theaters in North America is an interesting subject, why did you focus on the audience and the movies instead of the history of the theaters? Will you film this subject again?

Yang: A theater without audience is meaningless. A theater is just a construction and a symbol, yet the memories belong to the audience. Similarly speaking, without movies, a theater is just an empty construction. If I want to further develop this subject, I would need to find more investments. The copyright fee of these archival footage is very expensive. The original proposed budget of A Moment in Time was one time more than we got eventually, and that's why we had to shrink the scale to what you saw now.

  Ruby Yang  

In part II of the interview, director Ruby Yang continues to talk about her filmmaking experience in Beijing, as well as her latest project. Click here to check it out!