“Our Own Cinematic Language”: Beijing Director Yang Mingming on Her Debut Feature Film

We caught up Beijing Director Yang Mingming to talk about her new film, "Female Directors", and the future of independent Chinese cinema

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2:00 PM HKT, Wed March 7, 2018 4 mins read

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Beijing director Yang Mingming is cutting a distinctive path through China’s indie film circuit. The budding auteur, who turns 30 this year, made a strong impact with her low-budget debut short, Female Directors, an energetic and poignant pseudo-documentary that Yang describes as “a story about two girls and one machine”:

Yang made Female Directors in 2012, and has just premiered her first feature film, Girls Always Happy, at world-renowned film festival Berlinale. An early review for Screen Daily compares Girls Always Happy to widely acclaimed 2017 indie film Lady Bird, praising Yang’s “warts-and-all” approach to depicting a mother-daughter relationship:

Girls Always Happy is unflinching in its exploration of a difficult parent-child dynamic, benefitting from intricate performances from the two leads. As Yang bickers furiously with co-star Nai An about everything from marriage to money to table manners, Girls Always Happy proves fascinating.

I caught up with Yang after the premiere to talk about the shadier side of hutong life, the aesthetic and themes that she wanted to pin down with her new film, and where she sees hope and inspiration for the future development of independent Chinese cinema.

RADII: Girls Always Happy (柔情史) is your first feature film, following up on your 2012 short film Female Directors (女导演). How long did it take you to complete this film? Did you already have the idea after you finished Female Directors, or did it take a while for you to come up with a new concept?

Yang Mingming: It took two years from finishing the screenwriting to completing the production. I didn’t have any ideas after I filmed Female Directors, so I just read and went on dates until new ideas came up.

Are the two films related in any way, either in terms of plot or general themes? Both have references to gender in their English titles — is there a concept of womanhood or female identity that unites them?

The two films are not related at all. Actually your question made me notice that both titles have references to gender — thanks. I think I’m just interested in the spirit world of women: they’re fragile, yet tenacious. It really is an interesting dynamic.

The plot of Girls Always Happy, as I understand it, rotates around the relationship between a mid-20s Beijing kid and aspiring writer named Wu (played by you), and her mother, also a writer. What do you think is the biggest difference between your generation and your parents’ generation?

Her mother is not a writer, but someone who has nothing to do and wants to be a writer. Our generation is more willing to live for ourselves. My parents’ generation is more about sacrifice and living for others.

In Female Directors, your camera style was very minimal, mostly handheld shots with you or your co-star Guo Yue holding the camera. In Girls Always Happy, it seems that there are some more complicated shots — the clip above, for example, includes a 50-second shot of you zooming around the hutong on a scooter at a pretty high speed, with the camera tracking backwards in front of you. Can you talk about that shot in particular, and your approach to shooting Girls Always Happy in general?

Since the hutong was very narrow, we used a self-balancing vehicle and a motorbike as mobile equipment, and a stabilizer for the camera. In general we mostly used fixed panning shots, because I wanted achieve a sense of being cold on the outside but hot on the inside. So the cameras were not moving a lot. But when it was necessary, we wouldn’t hesitate to do it, even some wild pans.

The hutong setting is an important element of your new film, and I know that you yourself were born and raised in Beijing’s hutong. Can you talk how the hutong relates to the plot or substance of the film? Have you included elements from your personal upbringing or your personal identity as a “hutong kid” in this film?

The hutong is not only about a tender feeling under warm, orange lights, despite how it’s traditionally described. There’s another reality about the hutong, in which there are several families crowding in a yard with mixed smells, public toilets, the occupation of private spaces, etc.

What the hutong means to me the most is that in it I can clearly see culture and civilization as two different concepts. In this film, it makes people feel very insecure, due to the lack of private space. To understand the flip side, this insecurity amplifies the downsides of this kind of living environment. However I’m not really keen on presenting a panoramic hutong Ukiyo-e. I didn’t include my personal upbringing or identity in the film, but just used my understanding of the hutong’s textures.

You premiered Girls Always Happy at Berlinale. How did this opportunity come together? How was your film received at Berlinale?

Less than two weeks after I finished editing the film, I got notice that it was shortlisted for Berlinale. Everything went well. The reaction was pretty good. The audience laughed happily, although I don’t think it’s a comedy.

Yours was one of several Chinese films shown at Berlinale, including the mainstream commercial film Monster Hunt 2, and the 230-minute art house film An Elephant Sitting Still (大象席地而坐). While you were at the festival, did you have any thoughts about how Chinese cinema’s place in the world — and specifically, its place in the context of a film festival like Berlinale — is changing or evolving?

My film cannot represent all Chinese films. Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still is brilliant. It was such a shame that he took his own life. I think we both have our own auteur style.

I only know that as an honest film maker, I shoot honest films, and film the unique feelings of life. I am an individual. My film cannot represent China, but I love my country. Berlinale treated every artist fairly, and I didn’t observe that it unfairly promoted or favored anyone.

What are the major obstacles to independent filmmaking in China today? Where do you see hope or potential for more development of independent, non-commercial, or experimental filmmaking in China?

The major obstacle is still the limit on subjects and themes. Chinese films are the most hopeful films. This is because we have countless topics and countless themes. It’s also because we’ve just begun to develop our own cinematic language. We’re in an early state of enlightenment, there’s a massive amount of energy that’s ready to be released.


Now that Girls Always Happy has premiered, what is your plan for it? Will it be screened in China? Internationally?

It will be screened in China and abroad, but the time has not been decided yet.

Beyond this film, what are your next plans? Do you have another film in mind yet?

I will shoot a romantic film, and I won’t rule out the possibility of making a commercial film.

Dig deeper into Yang Mingming’s thought process in this 2016 interview I did with her about her previous film, Female Directors.

All photos courtesy Yang Mingming; English translation by Fan Shuhong[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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