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An Interview with Yang Siyao, On Formless

Updated: May 29, 2021

Please tell us about how it started for you. What made you want to be a filmmaker and how did you learn the craft of filmmaking? What did you work on before making Formless?

Answers: I graduated from Beijing Film Academy, studying in Film Directing and Film Scriptwriting for eight years. Professional theoretical foundation is very important for a filmmaker, just like the foundation of a skyscraper. Since graduation, I have been involved in film projects as a professional screenwriter. I have written several feature film scripts in the science fiction, mystery/suspense and inspirational genres.

However, it has long been my dream to making a film that written by myself. Finally, I successfully direct my first debut short film FORMLESS in 2020.

Where did the initial idea for the film come from? How long did it take you to develop it into what is now Formless?

Answers: The inspiration for <FORMLESS> came from my aunt, who is a devout Buddhist. One day, the statue of Buddha that she worshipped was stolen from her home. I was shocked that she still chose to continue to worship her belief in her own way. What can belief or religion bring to people in the real life? Can it really help people solve the real problems they face in their daily life? If not, today, when people meet the realistic dilemmas, how to make a choice between spiritual belief and real life challenges? These ideas led me to write the script for FORMLESS.

Since both time and money were tight, we prepared for this only for two weeks and then started shooting. The shooting period was four days in total. I planned to shoot for seven days, which would facilitate the long shots in many takes. Unfortunately, due to the lack of funds I had saved, we had to cut it down to four days. But what was

exciting was that my team and I were brave enough to meet the challenges together and successfully made it.

How was the casting process for your film? How did you choose them and how long did the rehearsal stage take before moving to production?

Answers: My expectation for the heroine, Yunting, was that she needed to be a Buddhist who had been married before, but the limited time left us with few options. When Ms. Lv came along, she was the only one of the actresses interviewed with a "kind face" and a tranquil temperament, commonly known as "Buddha Face". She says she reveres Buddhism but has not yet officially converted. I hope the second actress will be a professional one, because the character’s neurotic temper, low self-esteem and singing ability all need to be displayed. For the other actors, they were locals I found them in the villages. I needed them to present the original and real life of the villagers. They just needed to being themselves.

On the first day of shooting, we tried one shooting everything in one Long Take for nearly a day. From the performance of the actors, to the sound picking, the cinematographer and the full cooperation with other staff, everyone devoted themselves to achieve a perfect shot and a suitable performance. I was mainly designed the shooting line and aesthetic requirements of the moving long shots to the cinematographer. The actors were fully devoted themselves in the character, everything they did would be appropriate. We only needed to capture that original natural moment.

Tell us about the shooting. What were the challenges you and your crew faced during production? What advice can you give to those who are embarking on this journey of filmmaking?

Answers: I hate to say this, but funding is a major problem for us as independent directors. FORMLESS was financed entirely by myself, and that's all I could afford to make. We couldn't even afford the Steadicam lenses. Thus, unfortunately, such a lot of Fluid Long Take I carefully designed had to be deleted later, because of the shaking image.

I hope that independent directors who trying to shoot their debut films will first have to solve the problem of free filming equipment, which will reduce considerable pressure for the best presentation of their work. Secondly, the creative team who find the best partner for themselves have the same passion and perseverance for the work as they do. Such unity and overcoming difficulties together will also be a great help to realize the director's idea completely.

Has it become easier or more difficult for independent filmmaker to make films in the post-coronavirus world? What are the advantages and disadvantages of independent filmmaking and working with tight budgets?

Answers: Frankly speaking,it’s never been easy for an independent filmmaker to make their own films, whether or not during the period of coronavirus. Tight budget, and a general lack of trust and support for new directors in the film industry, are all problems for new independent directors. We need to balance realistic challenges and our dreams, at the same times, maintaining our original attitude of film creation.

The lack of funds in the creation will make the director pay more attention to the story itself. As a screenwriter myself, I’ve been worked hard on writing a good film script. I have always believed that the premise of an excellent film is to have a good story. The disadvantage is that the limited funds will restrict the director's expression in audiovisual aesthetics and skills. We could not hire the professional actors due to the tight budgets. But we could find and capture those touching and delicate moment in real life. That may be actually closer to the art of the film itself.

The film plunges us into the heart of the matter. It’s a story of people with unconventional or superstitious beliefs. What role do these beliefs play in the world today?

Answers: In fact, nowadays people living in an impetuous society, I don’t know how many people really hold religious beliefs, and use that faith to constrain their behaviors and their heart as well. This is what I want to discuss, more like a test, in this short film. When the belief meets the test of reality, especially when the symbols of faith (statues, pendants) disappear, what is faith? After all, the essence of religious beliefs cannot be touched by our hands. So, where is the faith?

I am also curious to know where do people put their faith nowadays? In the benefits, or in sustenance? I believe that is in our hearts, in our behaviors, belief is not only about redemption or the after death, it is about making us a better person, feeling fulfilled and enjoying life at present in this lifetime.

How important is morality in China today, especially in people’s relationships?

Answers: What is interesting in China is that the minority groups at the highest level and the minority groups at the lowest level are also people with beliefs, and they are also people with high moral sense. However, the majority of people in the middle level are skeptical of beliefs, and even refuse to believe it. When it comes to their interests, they can easily cross the bottom line of morality. I wonder if this is the situation in other countries as well? It seems that beliefs are either a spiritual pursuit that can only be talked about when the material needs are already met; Or beliefs are when people have been

through the hardships and there is no way out. Beliefs are the last resort. In China, people rarely talk openly about their religious beliefs.

What are the themes and concerns that you’re trying to explore or analyze in your films? In other words, what is it you’re after when making films?

Answers: Because I have noticed that in the current rapidly developing social process, when people randomly grasp the symbols of a certain religious belief, such as holy images and necklace pendants, they will have a sense of security that is blessed by the gods, even beyond the perception of the spirit of the belief itself. Such a deviation is not as good as no faith. This is an aspect I want to discuss in my short film <FORMLESS>. On the other hand, how can we understand about the religious beliefs when it can’t show up in time to deal with our real sufferings? How do we prove to ourselves that we have lived this life?

Moreover, in China, women's power and voice are very weak. Although in recent years, the social status of women has been promoted, and the awareness of female rights are also gradually awakening. But there are still women who are reluctant or even afraid to outperform men, and who are happy to conform to an ancient belief that it is better for a man to be strong and a woman to be weak in their family. These are all things that I wanted to explore and show in this short film by the approach of religious beliefs.

Tell us about your experiences with film festivals. Have you found what you were hoping for with your festival run? Similarly, what do you think about film festivals becoming virtual during the Coronavirus pandemic?

Answers: This is the first time for me to bring my short film to an overseas film festival. I attended several film festivals held in China, at the same time seeking suitable

investment for my feature film. What touched me most about this experience was that I can’t imagine a Chinese short film about Oriental Buddhist culture could easily resonate with overseas film experts. European filmmakers can deeply understand the abstract Buddhist thoughts I want to express in the film and feel the contradictions in Chinese life, which is a great encouragement for me. I look forward to having more opportunities to let overseas filmmakers and film companies know more about me and my movies. I looking forward to working together with them in the future.

I think during the Coronavirus pandemic, the art of film itself and film festivals could be a suitable media to inspire and motivate people's living. This can unite the people of the world to fight against the virus without borders. Also, during such times, we could have an opportunity to reexamine our life, which can help us realized the true meaningful of the film for us. I hope film festivals and the industry would like pay more attention to our young filmmakers and give us more opportunities to create.

Do you plan to continue making short films or are you trying to move to feature films in the near future?

Answers: Yes, I am currently preparing my first feature film <Endless Sunshine>, which is based on a true story about Chinese family. It tells about a miracle story of how a couple overcame obstacles with great love and perseverance to finally raise their mentally handicapped child to become a talent. There are a lot of sad, touching and delicate emotions. I hope the film will be produced and screened soon.

Please tell us about your next project(s). What are you working on?

Answers: In addition to the feature film Endless Sunshine that I am working on , I currently preparing to make a short film about the life of monks in Zhongnan Mountain

of China. I sincerely look forward to working with more interested filmmakers and film companies from all over the world.


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