My time on the set with film director Tian Zhuangzhuang
I remember watching Tian Zhuangzhuang’s ‘The Blue Kite’ (1993) as a senior in high school, a seminal work hailed as one of three central masterpieces of Chinese Cinema. Watching in my small Bronx apartment, I was enthralled as the camera descended upon a small provincial neighborhood in 1960s northern China. The camera slowly tracked alongside a kitchen table where five family members, humbly dressed, sat close together eating dinner. Steam rose from a pot on the stove, the sound merged with one in my own home: that of my mother frying eggs and salami as she prepared a Dominican breakfast in our kitchen. I moved to raise the volume but realized it was unnecessary; the world of the film and my home suddenly didn’t seem so far apart. This was in 2009 when I was a teenager, taken with the cinema of China. Now in 2019, as a filmmaker myself with a few years of Mandarin under my belt, I watched a camera descend upon another small town in 1960s China. This time I stood on Chinese soil, in Yunnan province, behind a director’s video monitor. Seated beside me was Tian Zhuangzhuang, analyzing the same monitor. He was working on his latest film, ‘Cry of the Birds’ (2020), a period piece adapted from a novella by acclaimed author Ah Cheng.
As the director prepared to commence shooting in November, I was invited onto a small team of writers that would spend three weeks conceptualizing and outlining a Huawei cell phone commercial that he and his team were hired to make in October. My ideas were always encouraged, yet rarely implemented, often met with a silent nod. I was gaining their trust, while receiving unfiltered exposure to the nuances of modern-day Chinese culture and interaction within the film community of a vibrant and complex nation. These days of relationship building would prove valuable once I was invited to join the crew as they commenced the two-month filming of ‘Cry of the Birds.’ My work consisted of daily notes on the filmmaking, but I was also conducting long-form interviews with the director about his career and thoughts on the craft for an assignment from the magazine American Cinematographer.
High in the mountains of Yunnan province, where the sun rises and sets above a solid bed of clouds, you can see the peaks of mountains protruding in what appears to be thin air. The nights are cold and fleeting, the mornings chilly and long. Roosters and turkeys amble along dirt roads where the denizens of this mountainous region till the land, hang washed clothes to dry, and drive three-wheeled loading carts into town for work. The majority of the people are of the Lahu ethnic minority, their Mandarin spoken with a tinge of their own dialect. Every morning at 6:30, I would ride up the mountain with the film’s producer and the director’s assistants. We’d pass three large water buffalo that were herded by a local farmer who would bless each morning by calmly directing his herd off the road to make way for the series of vans and massive film trucks loaded with equipment. When we’d commence filming, the director’s assistant would wave me over to watch and analyze his process of creation, scene by scene, day by day in the depths of Yunnan’s forests. It is here where, in the director’s words, he would engage in the process of exploring the dichotomous relationship between humanity’s faith in itself and its faith in the mysteries of the natural world.
The final frames of this film were shot in mid-December, and production came to a close. Upon finishing our final interview, the director paused, and then added that film is a medium of action and emotion. He said, ‘Ours is not a verbal medium, not one of talk, because people understand each other more when they simply see themselves.’ My strongest hope is that my time spent watching an honest artist create will inform my own work with the same singular empathy that inspired me many years ago.