Ruby Yang: Mak­ing an im­pact through film

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By HUA SHENGDUN in Washington

Think young peo­ple por­trayed in Hong Kong films and most likely you think gang­ster, teen love, and the 8 mil­lion ways to com­mit a crime.

But ear­lier this month, Os­car­win­ning doc­u­men­tary film­maker Ruby Yang helped dis­pel those stereo­types when her latest pro­duc­tion pre­miered in the US. The doc­u­men­tary, fea­tur­ing a group of un­der-priv­i­leged mid­dle school stu­dents re­hears­ing and pro­duc­ing a mu­si­cal, was so au­then­tic it was al­most un­event­ful, yet com­pletely in­spir­ing and heart­felt.

Yang de­scribed the theme of her new film, My Voice, My Life, as “the is­sue of in­clu­sion”, which has been at the core of her sto­ry­telling through­out her ca­reer.

It was her doc­u­men­tary The Blood of Yingzhou Dis­trict, about chil­dren in China’s An­hui province who have lost their par­ents to AIDS, that made Ruby Yang’s name and won her an Os­car in 2007. Her work of­ten fea­tures marginal­ized pop­u­la­tions and so­cial is­sues.

Another theme in her work is the Chi­nese-Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing be­tween two worlds, un­der­stand­ably so.

A Hong Kong-born Chi­nese Amer­i­can, Yang moved to the US in 1977, and got into doc­u­men­taries as a young art school stu­dent in San Fran­cisco.

Af­ter earn­ing a de­gree in paint­ing, Yang found her­self drawn to the trend of do­ing short per­sonal films. “The form of film pro­vides a big­ger can­vas for me,” Yang said. “Paint­ing is one-on-one.”

“Now we have MTV and ‘mi­cro films’, but it was all very pro­gres­sive and avant guard back then,” she re­called.

She fin­ished grad­u­ate school with four short films of her own and started work­ing with sev­eral Chi­nese-Amer­i­can film­mak­ers in the early ’80s.

She got in­volved with an Asian-Amer­i­can or­ga­ni­za­tion that “wanted to present a more di­verse and deeper un­der­stand­ing of the im­age of Asian Amer­i­cans on public tele­vi­sion,” said Yang.

Her early works, such as Dim Sum Take Out, China Cry: A True Story and China: The Wild West, tried to tell the Chi­nese story. Yang also helped edit The Joy Luck Club, the fea­ture film made from Amy Tan’s best-selling novel.

Hav­ing lived from the ’70s through the 21st cen­tury, Yang feels like the im­age of Chi­nese Amer­i­cans has evolved greatly. “I’m old enough to have gone through a cou­ple of stages”, she said jok­ingly.

“In the be­gin­ning of my ca­reer there were only a hand­ful of Chi­nese-Amer­i­can film­mak­ers in the in­dus­try,” she said. Main­stream so­ci­ety had no idea what Asian Amer­i­cans, let alone Chi­nese Amer­i­cans, were like.

In the ’80s, di­verse sto­ries be­gan to ap­pear on public tele­vi­sion. “In the ’90s, there started to be more im­ages from China, and pow­er­ful fea­ture sto­ries from China started to change things,” Yang re­called.

By 2000, there were so many suc­cess­ful Asian Amer­i­cans ev­ery­where on the In­ter­net. The “glass ceil­ing” had been shat­tered. “Now there’s a lot more un­der­stand­ing about what China is about, and also Ja­pan and Korea. It’s an on­go­ing process,” she said.

Yang said she wants to fo­cus more on China for fu­ture pro­duc­tions, as “there’s a lot more sto­ries go­ing on. It’s a chang­ing en­vi­ron­ment, po­lit­i­cally and so­ci­ety wise.”

As Yang took a teach­ing po­si­tion at Hong Kong Univer­sity and moved her fo­cus back to the city she was born and raised in, she also pro­duced her new film, My Voice, My Life. It chron­i­cles mid­dle school stu­dents who con­front each of their unique per­sonal chal­lenges — from low self-es­teem to fam­ily con­flicts and blind­ness — as they work to­gether to pro­duce a mu­si­cal over six months.

“I think there is a lot of misun­der­stand­ing with young peo­ple in Hong Kong,” said Yang. “Peo­ple fea­tured in this movie did not do well in school, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have tal­ent, or other skills in life. I think it’s how one tries to dis­cover them, and not stig­ma­tize them and put a la­bel on them. A per­son should be judged by his all-round, 3D per­son­al­ity.”

Yang de­cided to make the doc­u­men­tary when she was in­vited to one of the re­hearsals. The defin­ing mo­ment was when they started to sing. “I could see they were singing from the heart. There was noth­ing pre­ten­tious about it. It was bare truth.”

She was also in­ter­ested in how the film could touch on the is­sue of in­clu­sion. “The start­ing point is how these chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties can be ac­cepted in school, and then in the larger sense in so­ci­ety with­out la­bels and stig­mas, as well,” she ex­plained.

“When I was in school, I wasn’t one of those good stu­dents with the best grades ei­ther,” said Hong Kong star Andy Lau in a trailer for the film. “For­tu­nately, in school, there’s al­ways some­body who never gives up on you. Our up­bring­ings may be dif­fer­ent, but we ex­pe­ri­ence the same kind of love.”

“I think the main thing is about love and care of so­ci­ety,” Yang said.

The film pre­miered in Hong Kong last Oc­to­ber and played in the­aters there for 5 months. It made more than $600,000, im­pres­sive since doc­u­men­taries don’t usu­ally do well at the box of­fice, es­pe­cially in Asia.

Yang said she wanted the film to show­case the spirit of Hong Kong’s young peo­ple, but she also be­lieves the spirit is uni­ver­sal, and the film tran­scends cul­tural bar­ri­ers so that “peo­ple can re­late to the story as a par­ent, as a teacher or sim­ply as a hu­man be­ing.”

Af­ter study­ing and build­ing a ca­reer in the US, Yang spent most of the past decade in Bei­jing pro­duc­ing public ser­vice cam­paigns pro­mot­ing aware­ness of AIDS, sec­ond­hand smoke, hep­ati­tis and more. One of her public ser­vice an­nounce­ments aired on CCTV and starred First Lady Peng Liyuan.

“It takes a lot for doc­u­men­taries to re­ally make an im­pact — the right sto­ry­telling, the good in­ten­tion, the awards. It’s a com­bi­na­tion of many things,” she said.

And doc­u­men­taries are still more com­pelling for her than fic­tion, since they de­pict real life, and “you spend time with the sub­ject, and wit­ness their trans­for­ma­tion,” she said. Liu Jingyang in Washington con­trib­uted to this story.


Os­car-win­ning doc­u­men­tary film­maker Ruby Wang says she has been around long enough to how the im­age of Chi­nese Amer­i­cans has evolved.

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