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Exiled Chinese filmmaker turns Taiwan ‘reunion tour’ with in-laws into two new films

Taiwan trip inspired Ying Liang, who is now resident in Hong Kong, to make the feature-length A Family Tour and the short I Have Nothing to Say

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 6:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 10:50pm

In the summer of 2014, Ying Liang, a Chinese independent filmmaker living in Hong Kong, was reunited with his in-laws from the mainland on a meticulously planned trip in Taiwan.

Over a week, Ying, his wife and their one-year-old son followed the itinerary of his in-laws, who were on a group tour around Taiwan.

Since the Yings did not have a place on the tour bus, they followed it in cabs, stopped at the same attractions, dined at the same restaurants, and squeezed out the time to catch up with each other.

The reunion came two years after Shanghai police put Ying on their wanted list for producing the film When Night Falls, which is based on a real life event in 2011 when a young man from Shanghai killed six policemen after unsuccessfully seeking justice.

The Taiwan trip later inspired Ying to make two semi-autobiographic films this year: A Family Tour, a feature length film about a mother reuniting in Taiwan with the family of her daughter, an exiled filmmaker who married a Hong Kong man and had a small child.

He also made a 25-minute short film – I Have Nothing to Say – focusing on the mother describing the trip in front of the police back home.

“When we came back from the trip, we found it so funny to tell the experience to our friends,” Ying said. “But now in hindsight, after making two films, I looked at it differently. The trip is about our family members finally getting familiar with each other again and having no choice but to be separated at the end.

“There is a necessity for such a trip to happen as I will definitely be further away from the mainland, because who knows what’s going to happen to my next film.”

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Born in Shanghai, the 40-year-old Ying is tall, slender and soft-spoken.

When he learned in 2012 that Shanghai police were ready to arrest him for subverting state power, he was a resident artist at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and chose to stay in the city for safety.

Since then, he has never attempted to cross the border, even though Shenzhen, the closest mainland city to Hong Kong, is only a stone’s throw away from his current home in the east of the New Territories.

His parents in Shanghai only know of his whereabouts through video chats. But Ying said the place he missed the most was the southwestern province of Sichuan, where he studied filmmaking, met his wife and produced his early work in the 2000s.

“Sichuan is my spiritual home,” he said.

This year, he lost his teaching job at the Hong Kong academy, where he had taught scriptwriting and documentary filmmaking since 2012.

The academy told him earlier this year that it would not renew his contract for the new academic year starting from September without explanation.

“In today’s Hong Kong, it’s a small incident. Five years ago, it would evoke big reactions,” Ying said.

“I told my Hong Kong friends about this.

“They felt sorry for me, of course, but not so surprised, as they would be if they heard about this five years ago. This is how the city has become, because I am not the single case.”

“Perhaps the biggest change in Hong Kong is more prevalent self-censorship,” Ying said.

Earlier this year, Hong Kong International Film Festival cancelled a screening of The Foolish Bird, which focuses on left-behind female teenagers in rural China, after tickets had already gone on sale.

According to Ying, whose cinematographer was the film’s co-director, its distributors had been pressured to retract it after China’s film industry promotion law went into effect in March.

The law states that films need to get official release permits before screening at festivals.

“China has become too powerful. Whether I am in Hong Kong or Taiwan, the filmmaking environment is getting worse. This is a fact,” Ying said.

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The two films based on his Taiwan trip – which cost about HK$2 million (US$256,000) to produce – were partly funded by Taiwan’s Kaohsiung Film Festival.

It took months for Ying to find the actress to play the mother, an important character in the films. Many actresses rejected the offer because they had work contracts with mainland companies.

“I remember clearly that I was having a prep meeting in Taiwan, and a local casting company for extras told my Taiwanese production partner that they couldn’t help with the films, because some of its clients were from the mainland,” Ying said.

Today Ying splits his schedule between doing film research for Hong Kong’s Baptist University, growing corn, tomatoes and beans in a 4,000-square-feet field in his backyard, and organising small screenings of independent films every week in an arts space near Yau Ma Tei.

Last year, Ying’s short film A Sunny Day won Best Live Action Short Film at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards.

The film, set on the first day of the Occupy Central Movement in 2014, focuses on the relationship between a father and his estranged daughter.

He is still working on the script of his second Hong Kong-themed film “because the situation in the city changes so fast”.

“As a filmmaker, I don’t think any of my films is sensitive. My focus is always on humans, their relationships and emotions. Since A Sunny Day, I have focused a lot on Chinese families,” he said.