Narrated by Vivian Ying 应婕晓 2019.06.20
Collected by Hui Hu 胡卉 2019.06.20
Posted on The Paper 澎湃 2019.06.28
Translated by Lucy Ding 2019.07.17
An Unknown Future
Where should I start? How about with my love of New York, my admiration for the city’s arthouse films, and for the fearless attitude here?
Flashback to the Spring of 2018. I was on the heels of turning 25 and about to graduate from the Film Studies masters program at NYU’s Tisch School. I faced a decision: whether to keep trying in New York or to return to China and look for work.
New York is like a spaceship, carrying ambitious explorers from all over the world. It’s a city filled with dreamers, and you can earn respect by having big dreams. If you persist in doing what you love here, chances are you’ll be supported here, especially by people working in the arts. Whether it be arthouse films, improv or experimental theater, you’ll likely find like-minded people here. Having lived here for 3 years, this city changed my way of thinking drastically. It had also changed my lifestyle, and fulfilled my curiosity for unknown challenges. As a result, I opened up to people more and learned about myself. I was more sure about my passion for the arts, and despite the uncertainty of the international landscape and the unknown status of my artist visa, I really wanted to remain in this wild city to continue my exploration.
Vivian Ying in the Times Square
But I don’t have much experience to compare to. Being a graduate in the Humanities and an international student, I faced challenges in finding full-time work within a year of graduation. It seemed like wishful thinking. As the goodbye parties diminished in size, and I watched my international friends leave one by one, one of them including my boyfriend of 4 years who has been by my side since undergrad. We had come from Shanghai to New York together, and at the time, my dream was to understand him. I wanted to be a part of all aspects of his life, from sharing his love of video games and film, to being the first reader of his published articles. I wanted to have a true spiritual connection with him, like the one shared by acclaimed Chinese scholars Yang Jiang and Qian Zhongshu. But in the end, I could never settle on the decision to go back to China, and it added to his insecurities. So when he left academia and entered the professional world, our paths diverged and we eventually returned to being friends.
Facing an uncertain future, my parents were clearly worried. Dad would ask half-jokingly, “daughter, when are you going to start making money?” Feeling ashamed, I was doing a masters in a city with a high cost of living and I still haven’t achieved financial independence. Thankfully, my parents were open and supportive of my goal of doing what I love, and finding a way to make money from it. It seemed natural at the time, I thought that if I spent enough time doing what I loved, and became known in the field, then surely I was able to make money from it.
My parents have always been my role models. When he was young, dad loved to chase trains and memorize train schedules. When he grew up, he chose to work as a railway traffic dispatcher. Even though he was busy on holidays and weekends, this was a job that he enjoyed and was good at doing. My mom took some time to find her path. At first, under the pressure of her family, she studied computer science, which was a promising career. But she didn’t like it. In her room, she always had the Chinese classic novel, Dream of the Red Chamber in front of her bed, and essays by the acclaimed female writer San Mao on her bookshelves. She would read them over and over again. She was also an avid follower of the British drama Downtown Abbey, she has watched more series than me. But due to the nature of her job, she never got to explore her interests until last year, when she decided to apply to come to the U.S to become a Chinese teacher, focusing on researching teaching methods and introducing Chinese culture to American students. She was very satisfied with the change. Every time we discussed my question of whether I should stay or go, mom said, “what’s there to be indecisive about? I think you’re happiest here.”
Therefore, I decided to stay in New York.
Jobless and Still Moving
No replies from online job applications.
Despite feeling the crisis, I was one of the first international students to start landing internships. I gained experience from Women Make Movies, a female-focused film distributor established in 1969, and the agent company Icarus Films, of the Chinese independent film distributor dGenerate films. But I was still unable to find a full-time job and I didn’t want to ask home for money. I laid in my bed, feeling like I was falling into a loop, and picturing myself wrapped in blankets, with my tears filling up the room, like an online meme. I was flipping through ways for self-help. I thought of a quote from a speech delivered at the graduation ceremony: “Keep moving”. Nobody’s ready in the beginning. You learn as you slowly start doing it. Words from the outside can be catalysts during critical moments. It made me start moving.
I started calling graduated classmates, some were off to the West coast, some were moving back to China to make films, some were working in film news. I asked how they had achieved financial independence, how to make the decision to stay or leave. I got to know these girls, and this confirmed a realization that I had earlier during my exchange year at Wellesley College – that over the internet, girls can act as strong support systems for each other.
Through hearing these girls’ experiences of making brave career moves, I felt my foggy path starting to be illuminated. Even if I couldn’t find work immediately, these conversations started to ease my mood. I faced my problem directly and started telling all my friends that I was looking for film distribution jobs, and to contact me if there were leads, even if it was a paid internship. Finally, I got my first distribution internship through an NYU classmate. Her boss was good friends with the owner of Zeitgeist Films. Small companies rely on personal references rather than applications. So that’s how I started my internship, earning 20 dollars a day and moving a step up from an unpaid internship.
In reality, during these jobless months, I was job hunting in New York and doing lots of distance work in the Chinese film industry!
One of the projects I was working on in the summer was Midnight Blur Films in China. They were involved in production, international sales and media branding. The team in Paris, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo and New York were all avid film fans and workaholics, who worked out of their love for auteur films. If a young director came to us with an idea for a film, we would seek funds from venture capitals and crowd fundraising, to help the director realize his or her ideas. After shooting, we would create a strategy based on the film’s main theme and style, and participate in film festival submissions. We’re familiar with film festival operation and have contacts with film programmers. We gained trust from programmers after submitting good films in the past, so they’re more likely to take a closer look at our submissions. If a film got into the film festival, we would accompany the director’s team to the festival and arrange for media coverage. Next, we would find distribution channels for the film and allow a wider audience to see it, and achieve profits.
I was mainly responsible for finding North American distributors and carrying out social media strategies across all channels. Whether it’s through conducting director interviews, translating material, or updating festival submission news on Facebook and Weibo (Chinese version of “Twitter”), and mailing distributors, I worked hard with the hope of connecting Chinese films to a wider audience.
In the Spring of 2019. I came to the Berlin International Film Festival as the executive producer of the film Vanishing Days. It was my first time at a European festival and I was excited and busy. We took turns introducing our film to film professionals from around the world, meeting with distributors and programmers. I also watched films as they premiered for the first time. Meeting old friends and making new friends, Writing film critiques in the middle of the night for DeepFocus, and bringing my new experiences to film lovers afar.
Keep moving, keep moving, I felt happy and filled with energy.
Zhu Xin at Berlinale
However, I still could not resolve my problem of sustainability. Trouble and hopeful thinking coexisted. I thought other young filmmakers, more or less, must have the same problem as I do. Therefore, I created dozens of Wechat groups for film professionals to find internships, jobs, and paid gigs, connecting nearly 3000 people in these groups. I wanted to build a bridge between the lonely islands of individuals, by bringing together brave dream chasers from everywhere. I wanted to find others like me, and share our cultural identity as people “in-between.”
Online, I brought together graduates and students in film. In the beginning, I established a group called “Cinetopia” to break the barrier between academia and the industry. Then I had groups for film students who were applying to study abroad, and who were newcomers in New York. Later, I built a “DeepFocus Filmmaking Group,” composed of film professionals who were interested in the “DeepFocus Casting Info” column I was in charge of. The film professional group expanded from a general one named “Looking For Helpers Around the World” to several location-specific groups in Beijing, East Coast China, Southern China, Europe, Japan and Korea, East Coast US, West Coast US. I wanted to connect young film professionals from around the world, for them to have a chance to showcase themselves, and to meet long term capable friends to grow together in their careers, or to find help when moving to a new place.
Being the administrator of these groups, I became very busy. However, I felt a feeling of accomplishment each time when I saw group members getting into a film festival, doing well at an interview or finding collaboration. It also allowed me to ease my unemployment anxiety. I haven’t been able to land a job myself, but at least I can help out others achieve their goals!
Testing the Waters in Film in Beijing
Two years ago, in the Summer of 2017. I returned to China for the first time since graduation. Within the two months of being back, I wanted to try my best at the film profession and to understand my future career path.
My teacher recommended me to intern at the Shanghai International film festival. Guests who are invited to this festival are highly esteemed. Being a staff opened my eyes to the film world. My first airport pickup was for director Zhang Dachun, and I looked for him based on my internet search of his pictures. Little did I know, he called out to me from behind and said, “a person of experience walking in ‘Jianghu’ is best at not making others worried”. The whole way from the airport, I asked lots of questions, such as where did filmmakers get their impulse to direct a film. He said that sometimes it’s because of a story, a childhood complex, and sometimes it’s a new technique. In director Bi Gan’s case, there was a transformation from 2D to 3D visuals in his latest film. I promised to keep that detail a secret, up until the premiere of Long Day’s Journey into the Night at the New York Film Festival, when I can finally be of ease. Later on, my first job as a freelancer was actually doing community outreach for this film in North America. I couldn’t believe the odds.
Bi Gan and Vivian Ying at New York Film Festival
After the Shanghai International Film Festival, I went straight to Beijing to intern at a production company. I started to live the life of a “Beijing Drifter”, those who come to Beijing for ambitious dreams. I rented a room in an old community in Sanlitun area. The shower would overfill with water, my roommate kept changing, and there was no air conditioner in the summer, although the first floor was pretty cool and shaded. In the narrow space, there was only room for one bed, which meant that without getting off my bed I could reach everything. During that time, I learned about risk assessment for film and television content under Chinese policies. I got to know friends from the Beijing Film Academy understood screenplay analysis. And I had a lot of the beef rice dish from the Yoshinoya shop downstairs.
A Beijing-based experienced filmmaker once said that she saw herself in me. She warmly welcomed me to her circle and recommended me to a popular online host. That’s how I got a chance to do a talk in front of an audience about “the 6th Hong Kong Film Festival at Broadway Cinematheque”. I remembered wearing a dotted dress, high heels, and the wind had obscured my voice, making it hard for the audience to hear. But they complimented on my cute style. Meanwhile, the host didn’t understand Hong Kong films at all, as he couldn’t guess the poster characters correctly, and he was preparing snacks in front of the camera, working and complaining about work. When actress Tang Wei came out, he suddenly became shy. So I stepped in and asked for the audience, “I heard that you fainted during the FIRST Film Festival, how are you doing lately? Did you eat anything good?” When she heard such an irrelevant question, she was taken aback at first, and then smiled and replied that she was doing well, but she has been too busy and hasn’t had time to enjoy food. I thought to myself then, if I couldn’t get into a deep conversation, I shouldn’t ask a silly question like this again. But the whole screening went well, I went to the film poster exhibition and interviewed Bill Kong, the owner of Edko Films. I went to the screening of The Lunatics (1986) and Ah Ying (1983), I got to know the responsible staff at Broadway and realized that I wasn’t suited to be an influencer host.
During my free time, I organized two limited screenings and forced myself to be a film fan. One of the screening was in my grandmother’s hometown in Longyan, Fujian Province. It was director Fan Jian’s documentary Still Tomorrow (2016). I organized 70 people to the screening and it was a great experience. My cousin baked a drawer full of little cookies, free for the audience. My uncle was the photographer and documented the event. My mom’s middle school classmates helped to share the news and turned the event into a classmate reunion. My classmates brought their parents to see the film. The event was lively and warm. After the screening, I hosted a discussion about the selection of characters, symbolism in the film, and touching moments from the main characters. This experience allowed me to understand that film can be a reason for bringing people together, and that the theater can act as a place of discussion, crossing age and social barriers.
When I returned to New York, I thought about how to extend these experiences of connectivity here, including to Chinese New Yorkers. Earlier, I got to know a Tsinghua graduate and mother who lived in Florida. She wanted her children to get to know Chinese culture and learn the Chinese language by watching Chinese films. That had made me see the power of culture despite distances. I also realized that second-generation Chinese immigrants formed a large audience for Chinese films.
I did as much as I could to find a spiritual inhabitant for people like me away from home. This was my motivation and my goal.
Heartbreak: Change of Spirits
During this time, I also had a big personal change – I had an amicable break-up with my boyfriend. I was amazed and torn at the same time. Four important years of growing together, and yet there was still room for separation.
When I look back at this experience, I realized that stories of love, stripped of the ritualistic romantic moments, are stories of personal growth.
First, I learned to deal with my own emotions, and not to keep testing guys. No one can withstand continuous tests. When you keep asking for affirmation from others, it also depletes your relationship.
Secondly, I learned to quickly resolve problems when they arise. Avoid building up tension. Anger tends to explode during senseless small moments. If it wasn’t the right time to resolve a problem, then find a time when you both have more energy to explore the problem.
Thirdly, I should believe in my judgment and my own charm. I should be more confident and try to express my own needs.
Especially important is that both people should be full and complete selves, kind and reasonable. Then we can support each other during personal growths and respect each other’s decisions during a breakup.
In terms of relationship modes, I used to aim for an academic partner and eternal soulmate. But then I slowly realized that a person’s level of education and career accomplishments aren’t the most important. More important is the everyday shared experiences. This included listening, comforting, experiencing difficulties together, as well as spending time with each other, and having fun together. Achieving all of this isn’t easy.
My break up also led to a drastic change in my mentality. Like director Yang Mingming had said, “a heart-broken person is noble”. At the time, she came to New York for the screening of her film Girls Always Happy. I helped to set up her festival itinerary, and it gave me a reason to explore. We went to vintage shops on the East Side and picked the coolest little jackets, we shared free drinks at Whole Foods in Williamsburg. We bought dried lotus flowers. We stood under the breezy Brooklyn Bridge and posed like we never had before. It felt like the whole city was healing for me, and telling me that there are more interesting things in the world that need attention. Mingming let my hair out and my natural curls appeared like a lion. She took photos of me in the crowded subway, which reminds me of Shu Qi in the film Millennium Mambo (2001).
In front of her lens, I found my charm which was hidden under years of schooling. I was no longer an innocent-looking girl with a ponytail and rounded eyes. I can also be passionate and wild, turning the untameable natural curls into a new symbol for independence and fearlessness.
“Little Lion” (Photographed by Mingming Yang)
My change on the outside allowed me to gain inner strength. At the same time, I received a box of plastic braces for correcting my teeth. I took on a new set every week. 6 months later, when my teeth looked straight, I no longer felt the pain. I realized that memory and pain can ease away in time.
I started getting in touch with old friends, making updates on our lives. I realized that I can be better at controlling my emotions, and remain responsible at work while at times reflecting on my emotions.
I devoted everything to developing myself, not using supporting someone else as an excuse for avoiding to find my own path. With the help of friends and the city, I started to really enjoy my life, and not worry about meeting someone better. To be honest, everyone grows within a relationship. Even if I haven’t met the right one now, I can still be happy on my own.
Later on, I did meet someone. He’s kind like an angel, energetic, caring and with many interests and hobbies. We went skiing together, skating, swimming, and he took me to my first-time rock climbing. When I felt scared to either climb up or climb down, he didn’t tell me how to turn back, but instead climbed to my height and suggested which step to take next, and showed his support for me. We shared the accomplishment of having arrived at the top. We cooked and washed dishes together, and wasted time playing video games together. We would use our A-List movie card to AMC theatres and watch iconic New York places on the screen: from the Times Square in Spiderman: Parallel Universe, the Chinatown in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the Roosevelt Island in The Sun is Also a Star, the Central Park in The Secret Life of Pets 2, and Brooklyn in Men in Black: International. We experienced New York in multiple dimensions.
My break-up had taught me not that “you will meet someone better”, but rather “in whatever circumstance, you have the ability to start over.” Someone can be with you for a while and leave abruptly, but these are all valuable experiences and interesting stories for growth. If I had the ability to start again, I can be happy again.
I originally thought that promoting Chinese arthouse films was an act of love with no expectation of economical return, but I didn’t know that I could earn an income from it. I used my Chinese and English bilingual abilities, knowledge of film, and social media skills to create a unique job for myself: Chinese arthouse film distributor.
Spring of 2019, North America welcomed a wave of Chinese arthouse films. Along came my opportunities: I helped spread the words for An Elephant Sitting Still directed by Hu Bo and distributed by Kimstim. I hosted a DeepFocus Story event for Qiu Sheng to talk about Suburban Birds distributed by Cinema Guild. I encouraged fans to go to AMC and watch The Crossing directed by Bai Xue which entered the Berlinale. The most exciting moment came when Kino Lorber hired me to work on the Chinese community outreach for director Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. This film earned over $400,000 in U.S box office and achieved one of the highest box offices for arthouse films released at the same time. I was very glad! Later, Kino Lorber also recommended me to work on the distribution for Ash is Purest White by director Jia Zhang Ke, released by Cohen Media Group.
At the same time, I was hosting DeepFocus Stories on Chinese social media. I invited film professionals to share industry news and personal experiences for those entering or learning about the industry. Guests included Kang Yueming, graduate of NYU, Qiu Sheng, graduate from Tsinghua and Hong Kong Baptist University and director of Suburban Birds, Wei Yongyao, graduate from FAMU and HAF film project winner, Lei Lei, a lecturer at CalArts, director of Breathless Animals. I invited registrants of the DeepFocus Stories event into the Wechat group, hoping they’d meet other people who are curious about the industry.
End of March, I participated in the Industry Academy presented by Lincoln Center and Locarno Film Festival. I sat with 14 other film professionals and watched a panel from the CEO of film distribution for Magnolia, Neon and IFC Films, who offered candid and wise advice to us in career. We felt lucky to enter this program. We can see that these people are the top players in the arthouse film industry and good friends with each other. Maybe several years later, we can also become critical figures who trust each other and open the door for newcomers too.
15 Young Film Professionals of the Industry Academy
Lately, I’ve been doing some producing work. I as the associate producer for a college friend Yiming’s first feature film The Portrait of A Young Man. It was through the Wechat groups I set up that I met many friends who are supportive of the young director.
Surprisingly, I also achieved my dream of traveling around the world through film. In the summer, I attended Toronto-based Mulan International Film Festival and translated for the Q and A of two films and saw my Paris colleague for the first time there. I contacted the North American distributor and completed the company’s first sale. Fall, I helped to organize director Yang Mingming’s screening of Girls Always Happy screening at China Onscreen Biennale in LA and New York-based Creative China Festival. Winter, I attended the American Film Market and delivered a speech at the Los Angeles Chinese Film Festival to receive the “Best Feature Film” for Girls Always Happy. As an associate producer, I coordinated the post-production for Vanishing Days distantly in Thailand. February of next year, I delivered forms and materials to the rigorous Berlinale and did publicity work for Vanishing Days by director Zhu Xin and Fukuoka by director Zhang Lu in European Film Market. Summertime, I coordinated the DCP shipping among North American film festivals for the screening of director Zhou Shengwei’s stop-motion animation She.
I’m lucky to find film as a medium for showing what I value the most.
June 20th of 2019 is the 34th day until I leave New York. Due to the complex nature of the visa environment in today’s political world, I have a one-way flight ticket to Shanghai. Will it be a short term departure, or a long term leave? I love New York, but I don’t know about my fate with this city.
My film dream began at Wellesley College, during my third year of undergraduate exchange. That’s when I first got to know the academic program of film studies. A knowledgeable Italian professor got me to watch Rashomon where truth no longer exists, The World where surreal elements mingle into everyday life, Russian Ark, a dream-like and poetic epic story of one take, the Contempt which points the camera at the audience and becomes self-reflexive, and the philosophical Waking Life of an ever-lasting dream. On the one hand, I was learning about film theories, and creating an academic video-essay. On the other hand, I enjoyed the images of emotion and thinking and understood the fragmented and magical moments in the post-modern world
I wanted to pursue beyond what words can describe, so I changed my track from studying Chinese at Fudan University to film at New York University. In comparison to literary studies, the film offers a lot of angles to explore, from its visuals, mise-en-scene, sound design, acting, and film industry. For most people, you can enjoy a wonderful story by buying a cheap ticket and watching a 2-hour film, which takes less time than a book. Films offer a rare shared experience in our times, based on which we can have a common ground for public discourse. These personal interest and social values are why I decided to study film.
I used to disguise my “useless” status in the name of “freedom.” Even though being unemployed allows me to be devoid of social pressures, but I’m also in lack of a proper stage to promote my values for film outreach. If I couldn’t prove that idealists can find a way to survive, then how can I encourage more people to act on their ideas and dreams?
Luckily, I was studying at NYU in the heart of the city, which exposed me to the social pressure of job hunting. Our buildings are marked by purple flags, spread around New York’s blocks. Underneath are rumbling subways built from the early 20th century, and unceasing sounds of the pile drivers. The school is at the heart of New York City where people chase their dreams and realize their visions. Seeing that some undergraduates are running their start-ups, I felt pressure to find my career path, gain working experience, and showcase my abilities.
Now I realized that my work in submitting Chinese films to festivals, and promoting arthouse films in New York cinemas, and creating social media groups for film professionals and fans, they are all serving one idea of connecting people with cinema. For a while, I was interested in creating a New York map using collective personal memories, so I invited film lovers from “New York Cinephile WeChat Group” to review around twenty independent arthouse cinemas, and publish it on my WeChat official account “CineClub18”. The reviews had the main arthouse film cinemas like Film at Lincoln Center, MoMA, BAM, and MoMI. We also included Metrograph, a favorite spot of hipsters, Brooklyn’s Alamo Drafthouse, curated by movie fans, and Nitehawk, which is a cocktail bar that shows films. There were also reviews of the French Alliance, Japan Society, NYU and other cultural organizations. We collected our theater experiences and recommended places to others. If we left New York one day, I hoped this would be our departure gift, a map of joyous film-watching memories.
An Arthouse Cinema Map from Personal Memories
Two years ago, I also made an interactive map of “Literature, Film, and Art: Mapping Chinese Diaspora in New York in the Late 20th Century”. Attached to the specific locations in New York, I placed Mu Xin’s poems, Bei Dao’s essays, character locations from the film “Comrades: Almost a Love Story”, artist studios and more. After seeing people immersed in concerts at the Lincoln Center, frowning at the smells in the New York subway, touched by strangers’ actions, and using broken English to exchange ideas with foreigners, I realized that other people share my feelings of loneliness and wonder too.
But unfortunately, the new experiences and cultural shock of overseas Chinese cannot be easily observed from the outside, and can only be felt by connecting your own experience as a diaspora. Luckily, compared with the fast changes of Chinese cities, New York seems to reserve its looks like an old archival center. Years later, you can still find the locations discussed in other people’s works. I remember in The New Yorker written by Kenneth Hsien-yung Pai, there was a girl Fengyi who wrote a letter to her mom, “Don’t mail Chinese cans to me, I don’t cook Chinese food anymore, it’s too complicated”. I look at the frozen dumplings and Indian curry in my fridge and had a similar feeling. I’m different from when I first came here and went to Chinese supermarkets all the time. There are more to do now than filling my stomach.
About my unknown future path, I’m ready to begin again anytime. “Begin Again”, that was my topic of “Personal Statement” when I applied to the Cinema Studies program at New York University. I could relate to the film Begin Again (2014), where Gretta came to New York in search of her dreams and found her music style on rooftops and streets. But I didn’t notice at the time, she broke up with her boyfriend who had a different music style, met many interesting people, and helped people to connect with each other, and rode on to embark a new journey.
Yes, doing film distribution in New York, the sense of drifting and uncertainty are the norm for me now, but I like the feeling of searching the meaning and defining my own path. I hope I can come out of this path and call out to friends, “come, this idealistic path is doable and I am happy here.”
Original Article in Chinese: Reflections | The Passion and Action of A New York Film Professional
镜相 | 一个纽约电影人的热爱与行动
澎湃 The Paper 2019.06.28 12K views 1271 likes 43 comments