Review Fix chats with “Pearl” director Yuchao Feng, who discusses the film and the influence it’s had on their career.
Review Fix: Why is the topic of this film important today?
Yuchao Feng: Unfortunately, abandonment (both emotionally and literally) toward children is still a common issue today all over the world. I think it is important to be aware of this matter and shed a light on how impactful an abandonment could be on the child and even the generations after that. It’s something that you never get over, and those who are abandoned should know that they’re not alone.
Review Fix: What inspired this film?
Feng: After drifting apart with my mother for quite some time, she surprised me with a long distance phone call about two years ago. During the call, my mother confessed to me that she just had a terrible nightmare about her own mother, a nightmare she’s been having for forty consecutive years. She then explained the reason she’s been having these nightmares: she was abandoned by her mother when she was six years old. “I think I’m probably never going to be able to forgive her,” she told me.
It was the contents of this phone call and subsequently the urge to dig deeper into my mother’s mind and get to know her better that inspired me to make a film loosely based on her experience.
Review Fix: How difficult was this film to put together?
Feng: It was definitely very difficult. Even though I knew early on that we wanted to shoot in my mother’s hometown in the Fujian Province of Southern China, it was still immensely difficult to assemble an international crew from all over the world and have them work together in a place that is foreign to many of them. We also subject ourselves to a lot of obstacles when we casted young children in a film that is mostly set in the exterior where the weather can be grueling. But I’m so thankful to work with such a capable and passionate cast and crew, and I’m truly grateful to all the people who had supported us in our Indiegogo campaign and ensured that we had enough funding to complete the film.
Review Fix: Tell me about the cast.
Feng: For the mother character, it was difficult to find an actress that could fit the age range and have the capabilities to carry the emotional weight of the character. I was lucky to have been introduced to Lu Liu through a friend, and having seen her in films by director Jia Zhangke and knowing her theater background, I thought she would be a great candidate for the role. Eventually, I met up with her in Beijing and we had a great chat, which resulted in her being cast on the spot.
As for the Grandma character, the role wasn’t actually casted until a few days before the shoot. I actually met our eventual actress when I was location scouting and prepping for the film. She was an actual villager just hanging out in the neighborhood, and I just knew immediately that she’s perfect for the role. I saw her face and was captivated by the texture and her expressions; I could see that she had went through so much just by studying her face. In the end, it was actually my mother whole helped me secure her for the role. My mother spoke the local dialect fluently, and was able to convince the elderly villager to act in my film.
Of the two kids, we had a smoother time casting the young boy. I visited a pre-school around our shooting location during early stages of pre-production and met our young actor there. I knew he was the one immediately.
However, securing the young girl was a decidedly lengthier process. I first started by visiting multiple local preschools hoping to find the perfect young actress, but was unsuccessful in the pursuit.. Soon enough, we started to visit every school in the area. I must have met at least a hundred young girls for the role before I ended up at a dancing class in a school that my Aunt teaches at. This is the dancing class where I found our young actress Yating, but the courting process was difficult. She showed no visible interest in acting and was somewhat more introverted than some of the other candidates. Yet, her rebellious attitude and sensitive demeanor reassured me that she might be the perfect actress for the role. I spent an extensive amount of time persuading her mother to let her act in our film, and that’s how we finally landed our young actress.
Review Fix: What was the feeling like on set?
Feng: It was a wonderful professional set. I was just so happy that we got to shoot in my hometown (also my mother’s hometown) for the first time, and it felt especially exciting considering I haven’t shot a film in China ever since I studied in the States for a few years. There was definitely a feeling of coming full circle, and I was also ecstatic about having my mother around. It felt warm and particular noteworthy to have my mother around, because we were essentially creating this film together based on her memories. I got to know her better each day, and that was just the best feeling.
Feng: It was also great to crew members on set that I’ve worked with since back in the school days, and there’s a natural rapport when working with them. Of course, because the location is foreign to a lot of crew members and we’re working with children, we definitely had to instill a sense of security and create a safe environment for everyone. Ultimately, it was a joy to be on set everyday.
Review Fix: How have the audiences been reacting to Pearl?
Feng: The reactions are surprisingly well and I am very grateful for that. It was already a crazy thing for me to be able to show the world what my hometown looks like and be able to share such a personal story with all the audience around the world. I’ve had people come up to me after screens and told me they were very touched by the film and some were even crying after seeing the ending, that just means the world to me and that’s all I can ask for.
Review Fix: What films have inspired it the most?
Feng: When I was writing the film, I actually intentionally tried not to reference too many movies as the story is based on real experiences and I wanted to be true to that. When discussing the film with the DP and the crew, I wanted to honor our collaboration by collectively creating through discussions a kind of storytelling or style that would only suit this particular film. That said, I do quite like the Berlinale competition film Crosscurrent (directed by Yang Chao) from a few years ago. There were a lot of beautiful images of rivers and boats shot by the amazing cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing, which inspired me quite a bit.
Review Fix: What have you learned about yourself through this entire process?
Feng: Making this film taught me so much about my other, about what she went through and why she made the decisions she made when I was growing up. Learning about my mother taught me a lot about myself, my personality, and made me reflect on my own upbringing.
Review Fix: Describe Pearl in one word.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Feng: Currently, I’m working as a cinematographer on a feature film in China. Once that films wraps, I will be developing another short film that I hope to shoot during early 2020.