‘I have almost an idiotic hopefulness’: An interview with Yiru Chen, director of Handscape
In Yiru Chen’s Handscape, a boy who’s hard of hearing delves into the world of dance against his mother’s wishes. Here, Chen talks about collaborating with the deaf community, what she’s learned from sign language, and how moving to New York has changed her perspective on filmmaking.
Yiru Chen must be one of the few 24-year-old filmmakers with a ten-point manifesto published on her website. “Write poems with the body parts” is point 2. “Face the shadow for the sake of light,” point 9. Both these imperatives find their way into Chen’s poetic and painful short film, Handscape, screening at this year’s Oxford International Short Film Festival. “Filmmaking is a process of going into life, noticing it, receiving it, and then giving it back,” Chen says – of facing the shadow to create the light.
Though her manifesto is often cryptic, Chen herself is an open and animated presence: a single answer can lead to a string of bubbly digressions. Handscape is her second short film, set in her hometown of Shanghai. Xia Qing (Yuzhen Tang) is an introverted 17-year-old with severe hearing loss and a passion for dance. Qing’s mother (Lina Zhu) is deaf, and the two communicate through sign language – which becomes an arresting fury of movement during their arguments. When an opportunity arises for dance school, his mother reviles the idea: dancing makes you “gay,” “a sissy,” and would take Qing away from the “normal life” his hearing aids and speech therapy were designed to give him. As much as Handscape is about deafness and sexuality, then, it’s also about the fear of difference – of occupying a space of periphery that leaves you cold and ostracised.
Indeed, ideas of what’s ‘typical’ or ‘different’ pervade our conversation. For Chen, who is not hard of hearing, her own experience of difference was lower-stakes, but still formative. “In school, everyone around me was almost the same,” Chen explains. “It was a very typical public school, where you don’t do these things with film.” An assignment happened to come her way in which she was tasked to make a film in 48 hours. By the end of year graduation ceremony, Chen’s project was being screened in the school hall in front of hundreds. “They say cinema is replacing the church, since you have all these people sitting and admiring the screen,” Chen says. “That screening was the first time I realised, ‘this is what film is about.’”
Chen’s religious metaphor is striking – the screen as pulpit, the audience as congregation. Though her own filmmaking is decidedly naturalistic rather than zealous, the image of an audience paying rapt attention feeds into her vision of cinema as advocacy. Chen speaks of Handscape “helping to achieve [the deaf and LGBTQ communities’] goals,” creating a film “strong enough to protect its stars,” and reminding herself that “to reach that level of advocacy, you have to be inclusive of the members of the communities themselves.” That community gave Chen the Chinese Sign Language name of “Fox” – an honour only the deaf community can bestow.
For Chen, then, cinema is not cinema alone. It’s also a way of defending minority interests, invested as it is with the political power of representation – and the potential for hundreds of people to watch, listen, and learn. “As artists, we have the privilege of feeling a little bit more, a little bit faster, and a little bit stronger than other people,” Chen says. “But we ought to use that to help other people – or it’s nothing.”
But for all the work Handscape does on the social level, it’s also a tender, tactile film. Chen stumbled across non-actor Yuzhen Tang in a moment of “serendipity” (they were both volunteering at an event hosted by the Shanghai Sign Language Culture Centre), and he plays the role of Qing with softness and lyricism, like a painter lost in a dream of his own creation. As Qing escapes home one night to dance, Chen’s camera fluidly follows him down Shanghai’s streets in long, gentle takes, resting on Qing’s face as signing and dancing flow into one flux of self-expression. Then there’s the scene where the perspective moves into Qing’s sensorium, when the sound design becomes muted and crackles with the frequency of the hearing aids. In moments like these, the film’s tactility comes to the fore. “What I learned from sign language was to be aware of your body, to really experience it,” Chen explains. “That’s the value and pleasure of life itself.”
Chen first started learning Chinese Sign Language in Shanghai – she vividly remembers wanting to connect with the deaf children at a local nursery as far back as grade school – and picked up American Sign Language upon her move to New York. After years of experimenting with filmmaking in Shanghai, Chen was accepted onto a summer school at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts. The next year, she was jetting over again to take their undergraduate programme, where the melting pot of the city introduced her to “all these advocacies, all these movements, which I didn’t learn about in my own country.” For Chen, living in these two metropolises became a diptych of creative coming-of-age: “in Shanghai, the small films I made were an experiment in me discovering myself. But over here in New York, I had more power to think about other people, to see myself as part of communities.”
Since finding her footing as part of these communities, Chen now embraces her position as an international filmmaker, rather than a strictly Chinese or Shanghainese one. “The moment I left my hometown, my hometown was gone forever,” she claims. But Handscape is very much lodged in that hometown – in its language, its community, and its metaphors. Chen finished Handscape the same year Shanghai’s Pride Festival shut down, and the film’s final scene takes place in a Tian Jing – literally a “sky well” – a grey, four-walled courtyard with an open roof that’s common in Shanghai. “That’s a metaphor of the political environment. Yes, of course there are a lot of restraints. But you have to look up – you have to reach for the sky,” Chen says, before laughing about the “almost idiotic hopefulness” her friends see in her.
Who gets to tell whose stories? This question – one often mooted in film journalism and on online chatter-boards – occurred to me as Chen explained her desire to advocate for people through filmmaking. Often, attempts to bring the stories of marginalized groups to the screen become exercises in so-called “inspiration porn”, or promote poorly-researched understandings of that group’s struggles. It’s as if directors worry that the film would falter under its own realistic representation – or that without an able-bodied person or person of full hearing there to serve as conduit, the nature of life with disability and deafness would be too difficult, too incomprehensible. But Chen avoids these misfires. She centres the deaf community: she’s able to reconcile her outsider status with an investment in research and representation (she’s currently completing her MA in Deaf and Hard of Hearing Education at Columbia University). As a result, Handscape is a film where deafness is not a metaphor – not shorthand for some failure or crisis – but a reality worth telling in and of itself.
“Filmmakers have such power to depict stories about other people,” Chen says. She critiques those who “just want an element of someone else’s story. They don’t want the people, they don’t want to know what’s behind it. They say, ‘I want to use signing, because it’s beautiful,’ or ‘I want a hard of hearing girl, because it’ll help the plot.’ But that’s not helpful.” Chen’s own actors testify to Handscape’s true-to-life portraiture: “my actors said, ‘wow, it’s so real!’ That’s something I achieved. I will always try to do that in my future filmmaking path.”
Above all, perhaps, Handscape is a film about vocation. Qing finds his at the age of 17, around the same time Chen found hers. She will be interning as a teacher at a deaf school in New York this autumn. For her next project, she envisions a documentary about deaf Chinese children adopted by American parents. Tackling cultural identity, the adoption process, and mixed deaf and non-deaf families, Chen wants to know “everything.” “I have the language skills, I have the research. I realise only I can tell this story,” Chen says. “And I want to tell it.”
Handscape is screening at the Oxford International Short Film Festival 2021.
Find more of Yiru Chen’s work at https://www.yirucart.com/films.
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