Shocked silence, followed by tears. This was the response of a film crew as they sat in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office watching CCTV footage of a USC international student’s death at the hands of four teenagers. Filmmaker Yucong Chen recalls, “It was just heartbreaking. I locked that feeling in my heart deeply and determined to convey the same feeling to the audience.” The resulting documentary film Unfinished Lives was heralded by critics and audiences alike with the reception of a Best Documentary Short Award from the New Era Film Festival, and wins from the Savannah Film Festival, In Moment Film Festival, and others. Additionally, it brought attention to the other impressive documentary films which Ms. Chen has offered as a director and writer. Documentary films continue to expand as one of the most popular types of films internationally and Yucong has repeatedly proven that her voice is eclectic within this format. Perhaps this is because her signature style as a filmmaker is in offering the unexpected story rather than adhering to a status quo template. Enduring artists are those whose decisions deviate from the obvious and the documentaries which populate Yucong’s resume are far from the expected.
Skill and technical facility are not enough to create the kind of emotion that moves an audience; it requires insight and profound empathy. Many of the documentaries which Yucong has helped to create are the result of her keen ability to perceive a component of the story which goes beyond joy or sorrow to reflect an aspect that she and the audience recognize within their own lives. Unfinished Lives tells of the tragic murder of USC Grad Student Xinran Ji, with whom Yucong felt a connection as a Chinese citizen living in Los Angeles. One of the most effective ways in which this filmmaker imparted a different tone for the story was by focusing on the kindness and tenderness an attorney offered to the family of the deceased. One particular scene uses sand art to accompany a story from the attorney. Impressionistic, blurred, and fluid, the fragility and beauty possible in the world become a welcomed focus in a deeply sad subject matter.
Released only one year prior to Unfinished Lives was Yucong’s Cool Critters, about the struggles and pragmatism of Hollywood through the experiences of one actress. Erin Maxick, like so many other talented professionals in LA, found unexpected difficulties while pursuing her dreams. Operating a mobile zoo which includes a tarantula, python, llamas, a hedgehog, and others, Erin brings a smile to places like convalescent homes and the like. Describing her existence as “Rugged zoo-keeper by day, fairy by night” (in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), Erin embodies the practicality of the industry which is so often left overlooked. Having worked with this talented actress, Yucong welcomed the opportunity to explore the counterbalance to the artistic pursuit of so many creatives in the city. The writer-director also cites it as an inspiration to persevere in her creation of Unfinished Lives when she felt a possibility that the film might not be completed. She divulges, “I see Cool Critters as a light-hearted documentary that is healing. It’s a therapeutic journey for Erin who is such an incredible talent. For me personally, it was a warm and rewarding interlude when I was in a tough time. I knew that making a serious documentary could be tough, but I’d love to make another short doc to heal myself. I also found out that touching a tarantula or a python is not as intimidating as I told myself it was.” This statement encapsulates the message of Cool Critters so accurately, we create the boundaries and confinements which we tell ourselves are necessary to complete the image we hold of ourselves. Once we relinquish these, we find the ability to redefine our own happiness and further fuel our definition of success. Cool Critters was recognized with awards from the Canada Shorts – Canadian & International Short Film Fest and was an Official Selection of the S.O.F.A (Shout Out for Animals) Film Festival.
As one of two writer/directors of the series Flying to the Moon: The Making of “Moon Man”, Ms. Chen applied her skillset to illuminate the experiences of the cast and crew of one of China’s most popular and unusual hit films, the Science Fiction Comedy Moon Man (Box Office gross of $460.2million). Chinese film audiences are known for their preference for more serious sci-fi films and thus their embrace of Moon Man warranted a look into what manifested such affinity. Throughout the four-act documentary series, the audience witnesses technical aspects like the motion capture/CG creation of “King Kong Roo” the giant kangaroo and the “reentry scene” but also delves into what made the Chinese audiences connect with the comedy of this story as well as its ultimate tragic ending. Part sociology and part state-of-the-art filmmaking study, this documentary film exposes how filmmakers can breach new territory with the public.
Her most recent undertaking is that of Our Second Chance which illuminates one father’s decision to manufacture experimental drugs in his own home to keep his son alive. Imparting her decision to embark on the creation of this film, Yucong declares, “It’s always passion that prompts me. When Xu Wei’s [the father in Our Second Chance] story came to me, I was stirred by it. Xu Wei reminds me of Attorney Tsai [the attorney in Unfinished Lives], both of whom showed unbreakable resilience in the cause that they firmly believe in. They inspire me to pursue my dream of healing the world with cinema. Most of the time we make films, not because we have answers in our minds, but because we have questions instead. ‘How do we face the tragedies in life?’ I’m hoping that Xu’s story will give out a perspective of answering this question.”
Writer: Coleman Haan