If there has been one major change within the film industry in recent years, it’s the recognition that authenticity is essential for exceptional storytelling which will stand the test of time. Yes, talent and skill are traits possessed by all remarkable filmmakers but the public and the film community now recognize that far too many unique and profound perspectives have been overlooked. The films of Yucong Chen are powerful, even overwhelming at times, in their beautiful heartbreak. While not all of her films are those of despair, Ms. Chen certainly displays an intuitive inclination for cultivating touching moments that come from loss. Her documentary film Unfinished Lives, about the killing of a Chinese international student in Los Angeles, garnered such high praise as a BAFTA Student Film Award, a 47th Student Academy Award, and numerous others at various Oscar and BAFTA-qualifying film festivals. As an Asian immigrant female filmmaker, Yucong appears to be in her most powerful position as an artist when creating films which come from the vantage of those who share a similar background to herself. This is most evident in two films: One Last Taste (which received multiple nominations from the Asians on Film Festival, including Best Picture) and Lessons (winner for Best Drama at the LA Film Awards and heralded at the HER International Film Fest, Rome Independent Prisma Awards, and others). These remarkable films reveal the Asian female immigrant's understated life. In her position as a writer-director, Ms. Chen has committed to enlightening audiences about the experiences of these women; illuminating the fact that the love they pour out and the hardships they endure are indeed most remarkable.
Yucong readily admits that her surroundings alter her approach as an artist. In China she finds herself drawn to shared experiences like family dramas and romantic comedies whereas in the U.S. it’s a desire to focus on marginalized communities. She declares, “As a creator, I regard ‘filmmaker’ as a privilege. Stories are powerful. Telling a story via cinema makes it even more influential. I sense different missions in different cultural backgrounds and hope to bring positive energy to both sides.” In regards to the films Ms. Chen creates in the United States, she refers to the idea of a “lonely outsider” as the concept she wants to impart to audiences. The main character in One Last Taste is a woman who has been overwhelmed by her situation in America. The expensive cost of living in the U.S. has left her no other recourse than to sell her recently deceased grandmother’s home. The financial weight is compounded by the cultural differences of living in America, leaving this woman numb to all emotion. It’s not until she discovers her grandmother’s last dumplings and tastes them that she is able to actually feel anything. Even though the emotion she connects with is sadness, it is the opening of a gate that may lead to a normal life again. As the song “Farewell” plays with lyrics from a famous Chinese poem, this woman is alone but feels the connection of family even if only through a memory of sweet dumplings made by a loving matriarch. The central character of Yucong’s Lessons is perhaps even more desolate, experiencing emotional separation within her own family. A scenario found so often in Asian immigrant families, the mother and daughter have moved to the U.S. to establish a better future while the father stays in China to pay for it. In the case of this particular family, the mother was a very successful business woman who sacrificed her professional life and identity for the love of her daughter’s future. The teenage years bring an emotional rift and one day the daughter disappears, leaving the mother to fear that she has failed in her role as caretaker and is afraid to reveal this to the father. This brings isolation from her most intimate group, child and spouse.
The gravitas of both these films points to an authenticity born only of someone who understands these feelings based on culture, gender, and being immersed in an environment where this specific blend exists. To witness these films is to be deeply touched by the message of each as well as the power wielded by Yucong as a master storyteller. The honest manner in which she presents her films has an equally impactful aspect as Ms. Chen reveals, “I think the first rule is to be authentic and genuine. Sometimes when I feel there’s a story to tell, it means that I sense a touching feeling and a passion to share. These two elements don’t always appear together. From my experience of making films in the U.S., I figured that starting a film production is not just about telling a story. It’s more than that. If you decide to make an Asian female story, it means you need to cast at least one Asian actress to be the lead. It could mean so much for an Asian actress to be a lead in a film because it might have never happened in her entire career. And it’s the same for crew members in this production. It means a lot for the DP to capture the most beautiful and vulnerable moment of an Asian actress with a different skin tone and facial structure, which may need him/her to think twice about how to light it. It means a lot for a production designer to do research about how to make a western house look like an Asian home, following an Asian family’s living habits. This also applies to post-production. Every department needs to be creative and explore a new pace and method of telling an Asian female story.”
Concerning what lies ahead Yucong Chen notes, “Recently, the purpose of filmmaking has changed again for me. I’ve started to think about the meaning of suffering and all the tribulations we meet in life. I hope that the stories I’m going to tell in the future will eventually lead me to a glimpse of the answer.”