You were born in Malaysia, studied in Canada and the US, and since then have worked all over the world—if nothing else, you’re an extremely well-traveled filmmaker. What was it that ultimately attracted you to Shanghai?
I think it was inevitable that I would end up here in this moment. I’ve always been a nomad, spending my entire life chasing inspiration and opportunity, and Shanghai is the gold rush town of our era. You have charlatans and hustlers, capitalists and artists all rubbing shoulders, trying to leave their mark on the city and it’s incredibly inspiring to see people trying to sustain their dreams amidst so much possibility.
What do you think it is about the current conditions in China that make it favorable for filmmakers to get their work produced here?
China is still very much an open market if you have enough versatility and stamina. For one, compared with the West, China has far lower production costs and it enables you to do things that you couldn’t do elsewhere. You can shoot a commercial quality music video at the same standard as any international artist on a budget which would be unthinkable in Europe or North America. You can buy dry ice online today and have it for your shoot tomorrow. For people who need access to—frequently costly—tools in order to pull off certain kinds of creative work, that is as close as you can get to raw opportunity.
There’s been a lot of talk—at least in Western media—about the changing attitudes of audiences in China toward topics such as love, sex, and sexuality. Is that something that you see happening? And, moreover, are those changes something that you see making their way into mainstream Chinese media?
A lot of the norms are changing, but there’s still a lack of enough models of reference for people who want to see those attitudes reflected back at them. Increasingly, that’s something that I think Chinese people are starting to expect and demand for themselves, especially from the internet—which represents a huge contrast from traditional channels. You can’t push any meaningful envelopes on Chinese TV because it still has to appeal to broad masses in second, third, fourth-tier cities. But online users are younger and more exposed in general and their expectations for honesty and surprise are higher.
Your latest film, Bad Love, combines a mixture of Chinese and non-Chinese, gay and straight voices, as well as various creative elements in order to explore themes of heartbreak and, well, bad love. How did the project come about?
The project was originally commissioned by Shanghai creative agency Untitled Collective to promote their client, pop singer Issac Dang’s (鄧養天) latest single, but I was given the support and relative free reign to try to push the envelope on something commercial. The version I’m currently promoting is the complete director’s cut—which is for me the full realization of the project.
The film is now available on the internet (and at the bottom of this article!) for audiences to watch. Was the intention always for it to go straight-to-web or were there other considerations at play in determining where the film ended up being released?
The client commissioned it for immediate online release and social media, so it felt like a belated moot point to wait for recognition to come around on the film festival circuit much later for this version. Today there are significant opportunities to reach more varied audiences online and festivals submission fees can add up. A single Vimeo staff picks or YouTube feature gets you a larger audience than twenty film festivals. For Bad Love, I want viewers to find a piece of themselves in the diversity of the casting, and the universality of the subject matter.. so I’m giving it to the web, to have more people access it quickly and easily.
Beyond just viewership considerations, is there anything else which makes the internet an appropriate venue for this kind of film?
Certainly online we’re more used to seeing similar hybrid forms of music and fashion and short narratives that occupy the spaces in between more traditional, rigid genres of media and film. Online viewers aren’t as concerned about categorizing things in general, even though that instinct is still part of human nature when confronted with something unknown or new. Besides, something like this would never go to traditional broadcast because of the level of vulnerability it’s willing to discuss—and that makes it uncomfortable for broader mainstream audiences.
One of the biggest challenges for an artist in almost any medium is to take what is on the inside and turn it outwards. Did taking a more mixed or hybrid approach—versus, say, picking one or two stories and constructing a more conventional narrative—make it easier for you to express the emotions and ideas you were looking for?
We started off with the subjects’ stories, but ultimately I wanted to reconstruct or reinterpret these stories in other visual forms, to open up the universal aspect of what they’ve experienced. Moreover, I wanted the piece to be pop-friendly and fashionable, to balance some of the darker or more difficult aspects of what the film is confronting.
I was really being asked to be a director and a therapist and a friend all in an incredibly short amount of time.
Do you think that the personal nature of the subject matter made the project more challenging to work on or was there something empowering for those involved about being part of the film?
It was a challenge, but also a rare opportunity for everyone involved. There were times when I was really being asked to be a director and a therapist and a friend all in an incredibly short amount of time. But, the performers were very committed and they gave a lot of themselves. I think the result was that many of them, including myself, felt that we were able to reclaim or own some part of these past hurtful experiences through this process.
How do you go about finding people who are willing to come forward and share those experiences in front of a camera? How do you put out a casting call for that?
Casting was a huge challenge simply because of the non-traditional requirements—I needed to find willing subjects with relevant stories, get to know them and what they could do, and then design visuals based on their story content in which they would perform. On top of that, we had under a week to cast! We went from getting green-lit to ready to shoot in about a week! Not kidding.
How important is it to the film that these stories are real—that they aren’t just something that you created yourself?
I don’t think that it’s possible for people to truly express something which they’ve never experienced themselves. We may adapt from past experiences to project into something unfamiliar, but it is always grounded in something we do know. Also, the immediacy of the emotions that go with those experiences is something we lose with distance and time. In order for Bad Love to feel raw, these experiences needed to be something that was still painful and recent enough, for the subjects to channel this heightened psychological and emotional space that the film needed to reach.
What I experienced affected me so deeply, that if I didn’t channel that energy into a creative outlet it would’ve steered me down a darker path I was trying to avoid.
You also experienced some heartbreak of your own ahead of and during the making of the film. Did working on this project help you deal with those emotions in your own life in a way in which you might not have been able to otherwise?
Absolutely, without question. As an artist, your most innate muscle is your creativity. The ability and power to create is an absolute high, in the same way that heartbreak is the ultimate low. It’s the most natural way for you to connect with your experiences by trying to create art out of it. What I experienced affected me so deeply, that if I didn’t channel that energy into a creative outlet it would’ve steered me down a darker path I was trying to avoid. Bad Love is the AA meeting I went to, where I got to know others, heard their stories, and found some comfort in the knowledge that everyone goes through this.
You also provided the voice-over at the end of the film—where you question whether or not it’s really possible to move on from bad love. Do you think it is possible to move on? Have you found an answer to this question?
In real life and relationships there are no obvious closures or epiphanies, because people are flawed, we make mistakes, we hurt ourselves just as we hurt others, and we are not always as strong as we want to be. It can often feel like a looping cycle of hurt that is far removed from usual logic and experience because we still care. It may not go away as easily, but I think that as long as you persist and work to find meaning, there is something to be said for that experience.
At this point we’re still very early into the film’s release, but what have the initial comments been like? How have people responded to the film?
One thing I’ve received feedback about is this relatability to the complexity and different dimensions of human behavior. Whether you’re cast as the victim or the perpetrator, the film shows that we’re all compromised because of these experiences. It’s something that affects all of us.
You talked earlier about the importance of the recentness of the subjects’ experiences—as well as your own—to the making of the film. If you had to make it over again six months from now, do you think it would necessarily turn out the same way?
That’s difficult to say. The truth is so varied and subjective and constantly changing and I think all we can really hope to do is to capture a shade of that truth at a given moment and reflect it back in an honest way. For my own part, there was a time when I was considering cutting things out because based on what I learned later, it felt untrue. But, the fact is that that was my truth, and the best you can do is live honestly through your moment.
Now that the film is out there, do you think that love, relationships, and heartbreak is an area that you will continue to explore in your work or do you think you’re ready to move on to other things? And, what’s next for you?
The big project looming at the moment is what will be called The Goddess Sessions—a five or six track concept album adapted from my first collection of short poetry which, in turn, will be supported by music films for each track which I will direct. It’s a collaboration with vocalist and multimedia artist Goddess elle Siren and sound designer and engineer Chad Grochowski from Boxtop Studio, both of whom I worked with closely on Bad Love, and basically came about from spending alot of time together in the studio doing the sound mixes on the film. After finishing the final mix one night, Chad played an unfinished track he had made, which had these rich flourishes of nature sounds. Elle took to the mic immediately and laid in these smouldering vocals, and needing lyrics she took one of my poems on her phone, and went with it. I sat in the back wowed. That’s how it happened.
What do you ultimately want viewers to take from Bad Love?
We live in a harsh world that expects paupers to dress poorly, the sick to look pale, and the heartbroken to be a mess. It’s as though it’s not bad enough to experience these things, we must also pay for it visually. If anything, I hope viewers get that it’s okay to express your vulnerability, because there is unconventional beauty to be found and made there. Bare yourself, but please make it sexy (laughs).
You can watch Bad Love below (VPN required) or here (if you’re behind the Great Firewall).
You can also check out more of Gary Yong’s work on his website here.