Oscar Award-winning filmmaker Ruby Yang is back with a gripping, emotional documentary about struggling students from Hong Kong’s lower tier schools who pour their hearts and souls into producing a musical. Led by a tough but loving instructor, the students have problems at home, in school, or have a disability. From a young man who recently lost his eyesight to recent immigrants from mainland China who are trying to fit in, we get a view of youth life not often seen in mainstream media. With the relentless rehearsals, caring adult presence, and the students’ own willpower, these young people go through personal transformations right before the viewers’ eyes.
Born in Hong Kong, Yang moved to the U.S. in 1977 and graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1982. She lived in the U.S. until 2004 when she moved to Beijing to work on HIV/AIDS awareness media work. In 2007, Yang won an Oscar for her short film, The Blood of Yingzhou District, a part of a trilogy of short films focusing on China. In recent times, she has returned to Hong Kong to teach film at the University of Hong Kong as the university’s Hung Leung Hau Ling Distinguished Fellow in Humanities, and to make My Voice, My Life.
Yang and her husband, Lambert Yam, who served as the creative consultant on My Voice, My Life, have a long history with CAAM and the film festival. Both attended the San Francisco Art Institute and showcased their short films at the inaugural Asian American film festival in the Bay Area at the Pacific Film Archive in 1982. Yam’s film then was I Am the Master of My Boat and Yang’s was Mirror Points. Yang credits Yam for teaching her how to make films; she was originally in the painting department at the Art Institute before deciding she wanted to become a filmmaker. CAAM funded Citizen Hong Kong as well as and A Moment in Time about the historic Chinatown theaters, which played at CAAMFest earlier this week.
My Voice, My Life premiered last October in Hong Kong during the midst of Occupy Central, or the Umbrella Revolution, and played in theaters there for 5 months—no small feat for a documentary in a place where flashy blockbusters are the typical movie fare. Hong Kong superstars like Andy Lau (see video below) made testimonies in support of the film.
I sat down with Yam and Yang in the CAAM office to chat about the film. Yang says she still considers herself a San Franciscan, where she lived for more than 20 years and where she built her film career. My Voice, My Life plays this Saturday, March 21, 2015 1:20 pm at the New Parkway Theater in Oakland. A Q&A with Director Ruby Yang will follow the screening.
How did you first get involved in this film?
Ruby Yang: The foundation that funded the musical, they actually approached me a couple years before when I got the Oscar [in 2007]. One of the founders asked me whether I’m interested in doing [a] documentary in Hong Kong. I said, sure, but we have to find the right subject matter, or right situation or theme to do a documentary. Nothing came out of it. [Then] they created this foundation called L plus H Creations Foundation. They funded the musical. It came about really quickly. I was the creative advisor on the documentary project—I suggested to them that they should have the high school student shooting the making of the musical. That way, you can train more emerging, young filmmakers, and using their own eyes to see their peers. So that was the idea.
They picked six kids out of the three schools to film their own musical. At the start of the practice, I went to see them. They still wanted me to do a documentary on the musical. I said “Maybe, I’ll see.” When I visited them and I saw their energy and also Ebenezer school—they’re a visually impaired school—I saw the four students singing…they [had] no fear and they don’t feel self-pity. I think that the integration of the visually impaired in mainstream school would be a really great story…And also at the rehearsal, I met Tsz Nok. He lost his vision very recently. He’s a little, kind of, no confidence, but when he sings, he goes all out. I just saw something in him that I really like. A week later, I said yes to directing the documentary.
Another character I find very much a delight is Fat Yin, the kid who’s full of energy and always slightly trouble and didn’t speak English. He’s sort of a very delightful guy. I didn’t discover his story until midway. At the end actually, he apologizes to his father for the first time. I think they’re very typical in Asian society or in Hong Kong, a new immigrant story. Parents work very hard all day long, they don’t time to spend with children, and they have this tension and communication problem. We see that in a lot in Asian American families. At the end, when he apologizes to his father, is a very poignant moment for me.
Was it hard to get people to open up on camera?
RY: I think the students, they don’t mind. After a while, they don’t care. I mean, they’re young, but Nick Ho, the teacher, he wasn’t that pleased when there were so many cameras around. He has to teach—tough love—to the students. So there’s a moment when he’s yelling at the students, he didn’t want the camera there. Eventually, he loosened up a bit. But the music teacher, Ms. Emily Chung, she’s very supportive, she’s wonderful. She knows that the camera will help Tsz Nok because we played back the video for him to listen he understood what’s wrong with his singing. And whenever I want to film Tsz Nok and he would be shy, Emily would say, “Don’t worry, just film it.” So we had a lot of support from the teachers as well as the principals. The principal at the school where they were practicing, she’s new there, she came from a more established school, and she spent a lot of time with the students. She’s very dedicated. So she understood what I am trying to do.
It was really heartwarming to see the principals and teachers work with the students. What really struck me was seeing these types of students—we’re used to seeing the model minority stereotype, students who are doing well. But to see students who can’t focus, who don’t like to study, is sort of shocking.
RY: It’s true though. Eighty percent of the students in Hong Kong are like that because of Band 2 and Band 3 (the lower tiered schools). The model minority here is actually very exceptional. In fact in Asia, a lot of students have problems. They don’t necessarily do well academically. The family doesn’t have the means to go for extra tutoring and that kind of stuff. So it’s the reality.
Do you keep in touch with anyone in the film?
RY: Oh, all the time. In fact, I have a workshop at the Hong Kong University. Coby, the girl who is the lead singer, she comes to study a lot because she says she can’t focus at home. She comes to my workshop, there’s an extra room next door—she comes to study.
They just recruited Hong Kong University students to tutor. This is last night (shows a photo on her phone). This is a foreign student from Hong Kong U. We set up a guidance program for them. This is a nonprofit. So all the profit from the film—any profit—we haven’t had the box office receipt yet—the Lee Hysan Foundation loaned us the money first to set up a guidance program to hire Nick Ho—the stern teacher—and have tutoring with them and counseling. We’re going to have career counseling in May. We have tutoring lessons every week for them.
What do you think (addressed to Lambert Yam)?
Lambert Yam: I think it’s a very good opportunity, especially for Tsz Nok and especially Ruby. For Ruby, it’s kind of new back to Hong Kong to teach in the university. So making this film is a good opportunity for her to step back into society. Because we left Hong Kong for a long, long time. The last time we really stayed in Hong Kong was more or less 18 years ago to make Citizen Hong Kong.
Earlier, you mentioned that there aren’t that many documentary filmmakers in Hong Kong?
RY: No, because it’s very tough. Hong Kong is such a commercial place. It’s a place where—the support is beginning to [grow] there, but the young filmmakers need to survive. In documentary, there’s no sell, you have to be very dedicated. A lot of the young filmmakers would do the film and have a side job, have a small company, do corporate work, so it would take 3 years to make a film. And also with Asians, they don’t like cameras on them. And also right now, in Hong Kong, there’s a lot of tabloid stuff so people don’t necessarily trust the camera because they think they’re going to expose something bad about the family. So convincing them to be in the film is another tough thing. For example, Flowing Stories (another CAAMFest 2015 film), she lives in that community, so they’re comfortable with her. Same with my film—the principal really trust me. To gain the trust is tough. The foundation is giving resources to help these students so they know our intention is not to expose anything.
LY: Yeah, because she has a history of film. And people know her background very well. People can trust her. The essence of documentary is time. In Hong Kong, it’s so commercial and the real estate—rent—is so expensive.
RY: So these young filmmakers stay at home—this would be an apartment for a family of four (pointing to one of the CAAM offices). I mean, how do they have room to make film? In creativity, you need space. I think with the government giving them subsidies and then maybe creating a center eventually, they have to undstand that creativity isn’t overnight, you have to have room to develop, time, those are the things, I think.
LY: And the theater is so concerned about money making because the rent is so high. They want to have big Hollywood films and try to pack the theater every day. Because there’s no venue for the documentary [films]. For this film, it’s pretty rare, it can play in Hong Kong for a long time and make some money.
How long did it play in the theaters?
RY: 5 months.
LY: It made about 5 million Hong Kong dollars (about $645,150 U.S.), pretty good, especially for a documentary film.
What were some of the reactions from movie-goers?
RY: I was really surprised the educators, the teachers, love the film. I didn’t intend to celebrate the teachers, I was just recording, right? I was recording the change in the kids. It turned out, the teachers were very dedicated. All the teachers and educators loved and embraced the film. In Hong Kong, people are so—I would say, people complain a lot and don’t respect the teacher—they felt this film had given the educators some voice and dignity back. That was a big surprise. And so the teachers basically would go to see the film and then they would take the student to go see the film.
In Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Education Department, they have funding for high school activities so they can go to museums or other learning experiences. The principals can ask the Hong Kong government and apply in advance for funding. About 100 schools applied for funding to go to see the movie. Some schools, over 1,000 students have gone to see the film. They would have group booking. As of now, over 30,000 students and teachers have seen the film.
LY: and also a lot of male audience members cry.
RY: I was just making the best [I could].
Is there anything else you want to add?
LY: Hopefully she wants the film to be released in China. The students in China have similar problems.
RY: Well, we got the approval already. It’s most important—they censor—they require no cutting. The whole film got approved. The next step is limited release in China. Probably in Cantonese-speaking regions first.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.