YAN CUI — HER DREAMS, HER FILMS…
By John O’Malley, US News Express Cultural/Education Correspondent
Los Angeles — Born and raised in Beijing, Yan Cui, youngest of four siblings, says she had bold, change-the-world dreams. Her parents wanted her to become an engineer. No way, she told them: I will be a rebel, an artist! She first danced on stage and acted in film.
She then moved to Canada where she earned her BFA in Film and Media Arts Studies at Ryerson Polytechnical University and was selected for a directorial residency at the prestigious Canadian Film Center. She was one of the first Chinese women to receive such an honor.
For her feature film debut, Yan focused on the sexuality of Chinese immigrant women in Canada. CHINESE CHOCOLATE garnered the International Confederation of Art Cinemas Award (C.I.C.A.E. Award) at the Berlin Film Festival, the Best Director Prize at the Palm Springs Film Festival. Her film was an official selection by more than 40 film festivals around the world and released worldwide, even ranked the top 10 box-office in Brazil.
Her second feature centered on a woman’s psychological journey to overcome control and dominance by men. TIAN SHANG REN JIAN (YELLOW WEDDING), was a co-production between China, Singapore, and Canada, premiered in Singapore and was distributed in Asia. It was also a hit in world festival circles.
Because of her radical visual storytelling from a woman’s point of view, Yan caught the attention of two famous Oscar-winning directors, Ang Lee and Norman Jewison. They urged her to leave Toronto and to move to Hollywood to hone her skills as a screenwriter and film director.
When the Chinese film market boomed during the early 2000s, Yan returned to Beijing, believing she could use her Hollywood experiences to tell more Chinese stories. She threw her heart into her first romantic comedy, LOVE SIMPLY, about a single mom who would do anything for her young daughter and ultimately found her true love. A hit among moviegoers, it was theatrically released in China in 2015.
She then directed and produced more Chinese movies, including a romantic drama, LOVE LETS GO and ARK: NOCOLA’S CODE, a sci-fi thriller. WHEN AFRICA MEETS YOU, a romance adventure, is her most recent film, shot entirely in Zimbabwe.
Yan says she fell in love with Africa during filming and found a new passion, protecting wildlife in Africa. Her film had its world premiere in New York in 2018 and Los Angeles premiere at the Chinese American Film Festival in 2019. WHEN AFRICA MEETS YOU was theatrically released in China and premiered on the CCTV movie channel in 2020 with over 40 million viewers.
At her home in Los Angeles, Yan talked about what’s happening for filmmakers like herself.
What’s the significance of Chloe Zhao’s Oscar win for Best Director?
It makes me feel that everything is possible as long as you follow your dream and never give up. It made a significant impact on the artistic achievements of the AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) community and filmmakers of color in Hollywood, which is undergoing an amazing change and will continue to do so for the years to come. If Chloe can do it, I can do it, we can do it!
Why do you want to direct films?
Directing films is a lot of fun. I love the whole process of making films from the page to screen. When I’m sitting in the dark alone in an empty cinema during the final sound mixing, I feel it’s pure magic. It’s a way for me to connect to the world. I love to see the world through my lens and tell stories from my point of view. I’m thrilled to be a filmmaker, and I love the challenges it brings to my life.
As an artist, filmmaking draws on my skills as a writer, photographer, actor, and fashion designer. I realized that film is the peak of the artistic pyramid with all arts I’m passionate about and good at.
Why is directing a film so challenging these days?
Directing a film is challenging from day one. You must be curious and knowledgeable about all aspects of storytelling, especially those that relate to your senses such as sight, hearing, touch, etc. This is exceedingly difficult. As a director nowadays, you must also be good at not only creating a work of art, but also selling it to the marketplace, which is extremely hard to accomplish.
What do you do to overcome these challenges?
I always say that filmmakers are crazy people with tremendous passion and a willingness to sacrifice for art. That’s maybe the secret to overcoming any kind of challenge: being insanely committed to visual beauty and honesty, and never take “no” for an answer.
Whether you succeed or fail, what kinds of films are truly worth doing?
The kinds of films I want to make are unique, heart-felt, profound, and rich with humanity from a female’s point of view. I want my films to open everyone’s eyes to the truth, to the human condition, to tell fascinating stories about empowering women, and to be truthful to my creative sensibilities.
I’m so excited about my next film in Africa through my nonprofit, A VOICE OF LOVE – GIVING SANCTUARY TO WILDLIFE. Set in the backdrop of bloody anti-poaching wars in Kenya, the film is about an American war veteran who seeks a new identity through a chance encounter with a beautiful, accomplished African woman. Love changes the world, does it not?!?