From VIFF’s Sea to Sky and BC Spotlight Series emerges a thrilling documentary covering a decade-long mystery
Rachel D’Sa // Editor-in-Chief
When BC filmmaker and director Ying Wang first laid her eyes on a local Chinese newspaper housing an article covering the court battle between a couple fighting for justice over their son’s suicide, she hadn’t expected her next project would be a decade-long endeavour. The upcoming film, The World Is Bright, a part of the Vancouver International Film Festival’s (VIFF) Sea to Sky series, covers the haunting turn of events that led up to and followed the mysterious death of Chinese immigrant Shiming Deng in 2005. The documentary, which began filming in 2007 and wrapped up in 2017— excluding the additional two years of editing — takes viewers along a complex journey, challenging the distraught parents to search for answers, along with a retelling and dramatization of Shiming’s life in Vancouver. The network of bureaucracy, negligence and mental illness weaved within the film brands The World Is Bright as a notable piece that highlights the value of the representation of contemporary migrant life.
D’Sa: What is it that drew you to this family’s particular tragedy?
Wang: I heard about their story from a local Chinese newspaper. After they came here, there was some coverage in the Chinese newspapers. What struck me is this old couple came all the way to Canada to find the truth of the death and also try to find some justice so that really triggered me. Also, there’s a lot of mystery surrounding his death during that time so the whole story was just very intriguing. So I began to follow them. I was not born here. I grew up in Beijing and they came from Beijing — from my hometown. So that’s another element connecting me with the film.
D’Sa: How did you approach them and ask to tell their story?
Wang: I reached out to their lawyer and the lawyer connected me with them and they were very open. So, on our first meeting they agreed that I could follow them. It started in November of 2007 and the whole filming finished in 2017.
D’Sa: Being that this documentary deals with such sensitive subject matter, how were you able to capture this story in a way so that paid respect to the family, their privacy and how they felt about their story being shared so publicly?
Wang: I think they have opened themselves to the camera. I think one reason is that they hope that the story can be heard and that the truth of the whole mystery, the death, the everything can be aware by the public. Their story was not a headline story, even though there was some media coverage, it was still very limited. But what’s revealed through the story actually is quite tremendous and it’s quite profound. They were very alone here and I came from the same hometown so I think for me, and for them… my presence could also bring some company to them—as if I gradually became a family member. I definitely tried to respect them so lots of the time, it was me with my camera there to listen.
After a 12-year process, the film is to finally have its world premiere this September at VIFF—a moment that Wang describes as powerful and honoured, especially after all of the challenges that the film’s subjects and crew pushed through. During the course of the 10 years of filming alone, the documentary received one BC Arts Council grant and one Canada Council for the Arts grant. The rest of the funding was done using Wang’s money. “A lot of crew members either worked for free or they worked for very minimum payment. So it’s tough, actually. We didn’t know that everything would take so long. Because the material was huge, by the time we got to the editing, the grant money had run out. But with independent films, you just have to struggle to complete it,” said Wang. Additionally, the director stated the most difficult part of the entire process was making a good film out of the complexity of piecing together the intricate story, with many issues and an enormous amount of collected material. Wang also notes the demanding set of needs within the realm of casting for the retelling portions of the film.
D’Sa: Can you dive a bit into the casting process? Were you looking for any connections between the actors and the real-life subjects?
Wang: It was not an easy job to find the right actor. First of all, we definitely tried to look for someone who looked like him (Shiming Deng) and also felt like him. Because he came from Beijing, he was an international student and so he had his own atmosphere. A lot of actors here, most of them grew up here. So, even though some actors look like him, they don’t feel like him. And also, the language. They had to be able to speak some Mandarin, and the English could not be too perfect. So all these elements [made it] quite hard to find the actor.
D’Sa: What about film and storytelling intrigues you?
Wang: Film interested me because at first I developed a passion for photography, and then the film just naturally is a moving image, and that combined with literature, story and also music. All the art in life you can just find in film. So I think that makes film the most fascinating aspect of the film, to me.
D’Sa: Are there any films, specific artists or individuals in your life that you could say have inspired you to direct?
Wang: Definitely. At the time I was in China—that was at the end of 1990, and during that time in China, it was not so easy to watch foreign films. We’d often get a VHS copy to watch secretly. So what I think really inspired me to want to start to tell my own stories is an Ingmar Bergman film [Cries and Whispers]. In film history, he definitely was considered a master and he was a Swedish director. During that time we were able to watch a lot of old films from Europe so I was really inspired by his films. I will never forget that experience of watching that film. The film is about three sisters and the cinematography is so beautiful and the emotion—the intimacy of the three women—that is so powerful. The profound humanity is placed throughout his work. That really inspired me.
D’Sa: How does The World Is Bright compare to your other bodies of work, such as Sisters? What elements of this film are “new” to you?
Wang: I don’t have a big body of work. Before this film my only other film was Sisters, so this is my second film. And actually, Sisters is actually not a documentary—Sisters is fiction. Both films have similar elements. They’re about new immigrant life and the life in the void of culture—the life in-between. That is one topic, and the other is mental illness. Me, as an immigrant and migrant, the in-between—this kind of life in the middle of nowhere, that’s a topic that’s very interesting to me.
Wang states that looking at Canadian film brings about conversation surrounding representation and addressing the country’s current state. “There are still so many new immigrants coming… but you look at the Canadian film screen about the contemporary migrant life and it’s so lacking,” she noted. “I strongly feel like there should be more films about contemporary migrant life in Canada because there’s this new complexity there.” While she acknowledges that history is still rich in storytelling value, Wang stressed that “we should also tell new stories because the stories from today will be the history for tomorrow.”
Tickets to view the world premiere of The World Is Bright at VIFF will be available for purchase online on Sept. 5 through viff.org.