Exclusive: Hong Kong Director Tang Yi on What’s Next After her Cannes Victory
“I don’t know why my school took me [on] because they definitely wanted more serious and drama filmmaking,” says Tang Yi when asked about being accepted to New York’s Tisch School of the Arts. “In my interview, they asked me who my favourite director was. Most students would answer Wong Kar Wai or Federico Fellini, or some really big cinema names. I answered Ben Stiller. He’s the only person that could make David Bowie judge the underwear of two male models, and he’s probably the only person that could get Tom Cruise to become bald and dance in Tropic Thunder,” says Tang Yi with a hearty laugh. “I wanted to do that. Deep inside, I’m a huge screwball.”
That attitude pretty much explains the black comedic style of Tang’s second short film, All the Crows in the World, which, one summer night at the Cannes Film Festival, shot the 32-year-old Hong Kong director to international fame when it won the Palme d’Or Short Film. In this 14-minute work, a schoolgirl is plunged into a world of grown-up lust as her cousin brings her to a brothel with some of his middle-aged male friends. Confronted by the shocking reality of the debauched lifestyle her cousin secretly revels in, she befriends the only other member of the party not having fun: a man who admits the reason he’s not enjoying himself there is that he’s gay.
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In the weeks since Cannes, Tang, who graduated with an MFA degree from Tisch last month, has already signed with representation firms WME and M88, the latter of which manages the likes of British actress Gemma Chan and American star Michael B Jordan, and accepted an invitation to be a juror at Linz International Short Film Festival in Austria.
Based on a True Story
Despite the red-carpet glamour surrounding the film, Tang says the blueprint for All the Crows in the World, a project project funded by Fresh Wave, is her own unglamorous coming- of-age story from when she had just turned 18 and was attending a summer boarding school. Years later, Tang is still hesitant to reveal which Chinese city it was for fear that the people involved will be discovered.
“My parents were not in the same city at that time. One day, an ‘uncle’ whom I [had known] growing up [invited] me to his dinner party. I also knew his wife, but then two of his mistresses sat next to him at that dinner. The rest of the table were just 10 or 12 successful, middle-aged Chinese men. At first, that ‘uncle’ forced me to drink with him. I didn’t know how to say no to adults. Also, he’s my father’s friend. So I trusted him and I drank. But then he wanted me to drink with the entire table, one by one,” Tang recalls. And then the family friend invited her to join them for “karaoke” after dinner. “I was trying to pick songs when three rows of women came in. The men started ‘ordering’ their women. I reckoned some of the girls might have been my age. Nothing terrible happened to me that night. But I felt ashamed somehow,” she says.
Making films is a way for Tang to make peace with the past, and it also allows her to empower suppressed groups. Her first short film, Black Goat (2019), inspired by her own experience of the culture of menstrual shaming, depicts a ten-year-old Buddhist nun’s first period. “I’m a Buddhist,” Tang explains. “When I was young, my mom would tell me not to go to the temple or monastery when I had my period, because that’s disrespectful to the spirits. At university, I had a chance to visit Nepal. I felt that the menstrual shaming culture there was to another extreme. In West Nepal, if you’re on your period, you’re kept alone in huts away from your home. That is the most dangerous moment for a girl because she can be raped, or attacked by snakes or wild animals,” she says. “It’s a subject that haunts a lot of local Nepalese women.” Tang cast real local Buddhist nuns in the film to make sure the subject was treated with respect. “Because I was a foreigner, I wanted to tell the story from a more personal perspective instead of judging other people’s culture,” she says. “As a Chinese person, I have seen many foreign films picturing China in a way that makes me uncomfortable.”
Tang’s bold, sarcastic treatment of dark and taboo subjects has won her rave reviews, but the award-winning director attributes her success to “staying true to myself throughout the filmmaking process”. She says, “I cannot say that I’m the future of cinema. That’s too much of a responsibility. For me, it just means that you don’t need stars or money to win a Palme d’Or.” As well as hoping to work with established names such as Chan and Awkwafina in the future, she also wants to discover more Asian talents. “As a director, you have the power of making a star, not just working with the existing stars,” she says, praising the talent of her All the Crows lead actress, Chen Xuanyu.
Most recently at Tisch, Tang had been working on her third short film, about a widowed man trying to find love in a public dancing square in China. “We don’t see much about elderly people in love in Chinese or world cinema,” Tang says, adding that she will continue to make films about unseen, overlooked subjects. She also plans to turn All the Crows in the World into a feature-length film in the next few years by expanding on the “crazy nightlife scene in China” .
Tang hopes to use her growing international acclaim to draw attention to the underrepresented. “Making movies is a very powerful thing because you literally own your narrative,” she says. “The cinema has been dominated by men for 100-something years. This is the time for all women, people of colour and LGBTQ people to come together and make a mess.” Given her sharp eye for the unusual, we can expect to see some phenomenal messes.