Interview with filmmaker Qiu Yang: A Gentle Night

Filmmaker Qiu Yang is the first Chinese director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with his short film A Gentle Night.  In addition, the film was just included on the long list of Academy Award nominated films.  He was born in Changzhou, China.  We talked about the production of the film, his collaborations, and future projects. 

The film is inspired by a true story, can you tell us more about the background?

It was inspired by a report I saw in a local newspaper. In a small local community, there were a few kids missing, then a few months later, more kids went missing. And none of them had been found at the time. Then a few months later, a report said that all of them suddenly returned, without any explanation. I was really intrigued by this news, I kept wondering why it happened and what happened before and after the kids went missing. So those reports and my fascination stayed with me for a very long time and it came back to me again when I wanted to make a new film. So naturally, I decided to work on this.

The trailer is very minimalistic. What is your intention behind this choice?

Well, it’s a trailer for a short film, I wanted it to be short.

What inspired you to cast Shuxian, a Xi Opera performer as your protagonist?

She was the only choice for the role. The story is set in my hometown and the character has to speak my local dialect. But I’m from a very small city, there is no film industry here, hence no professional actors. So, I had to cast non-professionals, after about two weeks auditions, I didn’t really find anyone who could do the role. I was about to pull the plug if I couldn’t find someone I thought fitt. And that’s when I met her and was really happy with her audition, so I cast her.

How did you cast the rest of your actors? Are they professional? Or did you street cast them?

None of them are professional.  Everyone is from my hometown.  We posted an AD online and shared the casting news. So, a lot of people came to the auditions. And mainly I was looking for people who are not afraid of the camera, and people whose personality are very close to the character. So, they don’t have to act, they can just be themselves.

I noticed that almost half of the crews are not Chinese speakers, especially in the post, how does that affect the film?

I studied filmmaking in Australia. So, my entire film education was western. So, my filmmaking process is mostly westernized. A lot of those western crew are my friends I met in film festivals. Because I studied and worked only in the western film industry. I don’t know anyone from China, so naturally, for the important collaborators, I kept working with my western friends. And most of the local crew are my childhood friends from my hometown, they are not professional.


There is no resolution at the end of the film. What do you want to express through this ending?

I don’t believe life always has a resolution for you. Especially when you live in a country like China. Things you set out to do or problems you set out to solve, don’t always have a solution in the end.

The film reflects a lot about the Chinese society: education, religion, parent-child relationship, public security and so on. What is the primary theme you want to explore in this story?

I was more or less always inspired by Chinese traditional ideology. “Sky, earth, emperor, father and teacher” are the five sacred figures of Confucianism, and are the figures we should always respect. But nowhere in it is mentioned woman and children. So, I wanted to create a situation where I can explore who this ideology affects and how people behave in contemporary China.

The Chinese title 小城二月 literally means “February in a small city”, whereas the English title is A Gentle Night. Why are these two titles different?

The inspiration of the Chinese title is from one of my favorite Chinese writers, Xiao Hong’s book, which is titled “March in a Small City”. Since my film is set around Chinese New Year, which is normally in February, I titled it “February in a Small City”. The English title was inspired by Dylan Thomas’s poem, which is very suitable to what the character is going through.

What are your upcoming projects?

I’m working on the script of my first feature film. It’s adapted from my graduation short film called Under the Sun.

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