Toronto-based filmmaker Yung Chang ’96 relates his experiences working in film and creating his latest documentary, Wuhan Wuhan, which will launch at this year’s Hot Docs Festival at the end of April.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
I'm a filmmaker based in Toronto. I just came back to the city after living in Montreal for 20 years where I moved for university after graduating in 1996 from UCC.
Your documentary, Wuhan Wuhan, is premiering at Hot Docs in April. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Wuhan Wuhan is a humanistic portrait of individuals experiencing the outbreak of COVID-19 at its epicentre in early 2020, going beyond vitriol and mis-truths to shed light on the universality of the pandemic experience. The film includes portraits of a couple expecting a baby, quarantined families in a byzantine shelter, dedicated medical workers, and a psychologist facing her own family crisis while helping patients with the unknown threat. In a time when the world needs greater cross-cultural understanding, Wuhan Wuhan is an invaluable depiction of a metropolis joining together to overcome a crisis.
What was it like filming in Wuhan during such a critical period?
I inherited 300 hours of raw footage filmed by my intrepid crew who just happened to be locked-down in Wuhan as they were preparing for a documentary about the Yangtze river. They pivoted and focused on filming nine different characters, a cross-section of the frontline workers in the city. The footage is intense. I came in later as the director to see the film through, which is the first time I’ve done something like this. But the through-line in the footage was this sense of humanity, this sense of collective perseverance. Just a week before signing up to make this film, my daughter and I had an anti-Asian racist incident in my neighbourhood in Toronto. It was shocking and so upsetting. So to fold this emotion into the making of Wuhan Wuhan helped to focus the stories we wanted to tell.
I had a team of Chinese-American editors in Los Angeles. We were working 100 per cent remotely, yet it felt like the most cohesive experience I’ve had, simply driven by the desire for my team and me to tell the most nuanced and empathetic story we could to help quell the hate and violence we felt was surrounding us at the time.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Having the stamina to see a film through to its completion. It takes a lot of sacrifice and energy, which inevitably takes away from other parts of your life. I wish to find more balance with my family. The pandemic has brought to the forefront the quality of life I often miss out on when I’m away and making movies.
Is there another project you’re working on right now that you can tell us about?
I have a handful of projects right now but my focus is on completing my first fictional feature, Eggplant – a film developed at the Sundance Institute.
How do you feel your time at UCC prepared you for your career?
I think being a boarding student in Seaton's House helped to make me worldly, introducing me to so many international friends. Boarding also shaped me to be more independent and resourceful. But most importantly, UCC’s teaching staff indelibly shaped my ways of thinking. I credit Mr. Tompkins, Mrs. Mozarowski-Palijenko, Mr. de Pencier, Mr. Booth, Mr. Lowndes, Mr. Webb and Mr. Kuzniak for inspiring and encouraging my development as an artist.
Taking part in co-curricular activities like the film and photography clubs, the College Times yearbook (I was the photo editor), and the World Affairs Conference helped me to apply my skills as a budding filmmaker. And being able to frequent the repertory cinemas in the neighbourhood exposed me to international films.
What advice would you give to current UCC students who are interested in pursuing a career in film?
Don’t rush into filmmaking. Take your time. Finding your voice as an artist isn’t something that’ll happen overnight. For me, it took five years after graduating from film school to find my footing with my first feature documentary, Up the Yangtze
. In between, I studied the Meisner Technique at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, lived in Hong Kong, travelled extensively throughout Mainland China, dawdled and ruminated, read books, listened to music, watched movies, went to the theatre and art shows, museums and galleries…that gap between post-secondary graduation and "real life" was such a crucial period of marination for me. It was also fraught with worry and pressure, but UCC gave me the foundation to persevere through the ups and downs!