A Sound Approach to Cultural Authenticity with Iris Liu 

Iris Liu (left). Photo courtesy of Sarah Nocquet
Iris Liu (left). Photo courtesy of Sarah Nocquet
Iris Liu (left). Photo courtesy of Sarah Nocquet

Iris Liu always had a natural curiosity about the sonic world that we are immersed in. More than most, she was intrigued by how sounds communicate layers of ideas and emotions. It was almost predestined that she would pursue the path of a filmmaker. As a sound designer and production sound mixer for numerous films, Ms. Liu has lent her extraordinary gift to her fellow storytellers to inject authenticity to these productions.

We love film and television for its ability to place us in the perspective of others and recognize parts of ourselves in them; this achievement would not be possible without the skill of Iris and those like her who give life to the sonic personality of a story and the characters found in it. The diversity of the films she has contributed to confirm Iris Liu as a consummate professional who cares deeply about unearthing the story that exists in sound. The copious awards and nominations received by these productions similarly confirm that she is sought out and respected by her fellow filmmakers.

For Iris, her career is more a calling than a job as she professes, “As an artistic professional, I am very sensitive to the feelings of others. In fact, sometimes I am so overly empathetic that I need to regulate my empathy so I do not pick up negative feelings easily. When they see my work, I want the audience to know that whatever their emotions are, they are not singular.

No one should feel like they are trapped on their own isolated island. Film is a powerful medium to immediately connect people, to bring us out of our personal zone and into a bigger world where we can find some personal feelings are pervasive. As a filmmaker, I want to create understanding.”

No group could be more appropriate for Ms. Liu to speak to in comfort than other young Chinese filmmakers. Asian filmmakers have not only become more recognized and celebrated these days with films such as Parasite, Nomadland, and Everything Everywhere All at Once (In the last four years, these films have won the Oscar for Best Picture and were led by Asian filmmakers) but they’ve also been more numerous. No New Wave is a film which speaks directly to the journey and trials of this community in the US film industry.

In addition to its status as an official selection at a number of American Film Festivals like the Asian American International Film Festival, No New Wave was heralded by the Chinese film community, including a nomination for Best Film at the Pingyao International Film Festival. The main characters in No New Wave is a specific minority group, Chinese filmmakers in New York, who are inbetween two cultures; it may still take them a long time to finally stop being “foreigners”, but “homeland” has become only an image of the past because they left so long ago.

The beginning moments of this film illustrate how Iris’s work intensifies the impact of the story. The film opens with a POV shot on the train crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. At this point, it is not revealed whose POV it is. In the first forty-five seconds of this shot, you can only hear the monotonous screeching sound of the rail. Then, some walla (murmur of the crowd) comes in around fifty seconds. As the train arrives in Manhattan, the theme score fades in and gradually drowns out the noise as we continue the journey on the train.

Someone’s voice says, “Nicholas, repeat after me.” We cut to a wedding ceremony. Then, we cut to the wedding guests. It is then that Ginny is revealed, and the POV shot on the train is hers. Ms. Liu informs, “I intend to make the opening shot a bit of a surprise by sound designing it in this mundane way, as it goes against the norm where many movies use their first few minutes to do their best to capture the attention of the audience. On the contrary, I designed it to be a somewhat boring scene looking through the train window, just like another ordinary day in Ginny’s life.”

A fair amount of time is required in simply acquiring the ideal sounds within a less than optimal environment for Ms. Liu on a film set. She concedes that inventiveness is often the savior of someone in her line of work.

While filming Tonight Will Be Fine (nominated across the globe at film festivals including: Cannes World Film Festival, Los Angeles Asian Film Awards, New York Tri-State International Film Festival, Tokyo International Short Film Festival, and others), Ms. Liu relates, “Near the end, there is a long, wide shot where Ma Lu arrives at the hospital and finds that his grandmother has passed away, he turns to Hu Po, whispers a few words to him and immediately lets out a cry that keeps escalating. I gave it a few tries and found the sudden increase in decibels put me in a dilemma where, if I wanted to capture clear whispering, the cry would distort.

I had to compromise to get the whispering on Ma Lu’s lav and the cry on the boom, placing the mic further away than usual. Fortunately, the tone quality of the lav and shotgun I picked was close enough that it was easy for the sound editor to piece them together in post.” When excluding the sounds of a rainshower was impossible on the set of One for Sorrow (award-winning film at the Los Angeles Movie Awards and Austin Film Festival as well as an official selection of the Cannes Indie Shorts Awards), Iris pivoted to capturing the sounds on her “wild tracks” so that they could later be incorporated to build a more stylized ambience.

The result was eerily poetic. For those wanting to instantly witness her work, the film Impolite Boys is available on Apple TV, Google Play, VUDU, and Amazon TVOD. This film in particular hold a dear place in Iris’s heart as it was her first production after the industry wide break due to the Covid-19 pandemic. She declares, “When I finally landed this one, it felt good to be back in the film world again. In a chaotic time in 2020, I was glad that this comedy brought the audience some laughter, chill time, and hope for the future.”

Writer: Basil Thomson