Chinese director Qiu Yang on the success of his award-winning short film

Qiu Yang. (Getty Images)
Qiu Yang. (Getty Images)

Channel24 correspondent Rozanne Els interviewed Chinese director Qiu Yang about his award winning short film A Gentle Night and his possible Oscar nomination. 

New York - In China, says the Palme d’Or winner Qiu Yang, real life is more unbelievable than any story he could possibly come up with. With his most recent short film, A Gentle Night, the young filmmaker became the first Chinese director to win the coveted Palme d’Or award for best short film at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. 

And now the film that rose above thousands of submissions to make it to the renowned film festival stage on the French Riviera, is in the running for an Oscar nomination. 

At first awestruck by the accolade, Yang now describes it as “enormous encouragement” as a filmmaker. “Now, it’s more critical for me to look forward, and to think, ‘where am I going from here?’,” Yang said in an interview with Channel24. At the very least, the award reinforced his zeal to be honest with himself, and make the type of film he loves – as real as it gets. 

The 15-minute-long short, set in Yang’s hometown in Changzhou in southern China, recently made its American debut at the New York Film Festival. The story of children going missing from small communities in Changzhou, Yang says, was inspired by local news reports. “Then a few weeks later, another report says more children have gone missing. Then a few months later, I noticed another news [report] that said all the lost children had come back, but there’s no in-depth report of what happened." 


Unable to forget the story, he decided to turn the real-life mystery into an unnerving film that has received wide critical acclaim. It takes place over one night and follows Cai (Shuxian Li) as she searches for her daughter Linlin, who went missing on her walk back home from school. The devastating film touches on the fears of every parent. 

Yang always takes inspiration from real life, and as with A Gentle Night, he says, newspapers are a pivotal source. In an interview with the American Film Institute, Yang pointed to the richness and complexity of humanity as a reason for this approach. “Every day, if you look carefully enough, drama and conflict happen everywhere around you, with real people and real character depth. No simple plot or truth, no linear character arc, no good or bad guys, no cheap sentimentality. That complexity is where the greatest drama lies, and to explore that complexity is, for me, a way to explore the complexity of humanity, as well as to understand the world we live in.” 

A Gentle Night - Trailer from Some Shorts on Vimeo.

The film jars and a “traditional”-type ending escapes the viewer – which has frustrated some, but has been lauded by others. Yang laughs about this, but hopes viewers will realise the film’s crucial message lies in all that comes before. 

Her time on screen might be confined to under 15 minutes, but Li, an opera singer, gives an unsparing performance. With the exception of Li, the cast is made up of locals, none of them actors – another typical Yang approach. “My joy is to create a balanced performance for all the characters so that they all look like they are from the same universe, live the same life, speak the same language.” If you cast the characters right, Yang says, it adds a critical layer of authenticity. “It is different to work with most of the non-professional actors because I prefer for them to be themselves, not act like someone else. This is also where their strength is.”

He refers to one of the most memorable moments of filming as a “force majeure incident.” Although the story takes place over the course of one night, it was filmed over five, which made continuity imperative. But on the third day, as they were about to shoot a key scene, it started raining. He had no other option but to continue and tried to think of how to disguise the rain in post-production. The next day (because Murphy’s Law wasn’t done toying with him) it began to snow.

“The only day that it snowed that year in my hometown happened on the half-day that we were shooting outside. When I saw the snow, I ended up laughing. I thought ‘that’s just Mother Nature’s gift,’ so we still shot through the snow.” Yang is currently working on a feature-length version of a previous short film, Under the Sun

The nominations for the 90th Oscars will be announced on 23 January 2018. The ceremony takes place on 4 March.  

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