A Woman’s Quiet Journey

The story behind making “Mute”

Whenever I saw “free-range chicken” on the menu(and I see that a lot living in a trendy area of Brooklyn), images emerged in my head — a dozen of chicken clucking & fluffing wildly while I tried to chase one down; I would fail multiple times until my grandma taught me to hide behind the coup and sprinted to secure it by the wings.

my uncle’s chicken coup in 2012

I spent a lot of time at my grandma’s farm as a child. I remembered seeing all the chickens/ducks/gooses growing up and sad to see them on the dinner table. I remembered picking ripe watermelons from the field, cracking it open and devouring it under the tree canopies in the summer heat.

I could never forget those days, however since then, China has experienced such an unprecedented transformation that the world I inhabited as a child now belongs to a bygone era.

It occurred to me that I could capture this vanishing world on film.

Making Mute took place over the course of a year. I filmed it in Nanjing, China and then finished editing and sound design during my last year of college at Brown University & RISD. It was premiered at NYC Independent Film Festival in October 2013 and then screened at a couple of other film festivals in the US and Europe. You can watch it here (password: liyuzhen).

The Idea

In 2011, I discovered films by Jia Zhangke. His films, such as Xiaowu(1994) and The World(2004) were documentary-esque; the story unfolded with long takes, pauses & huge spans of silence; the line between fiction and documentary was blurred.

What resonated with me the most was the “quietness” throughout the film. To me, a great deal of information and emotions can be expressed and revealed using minimal words, sometimes even in complete silence.

By then, the idea of a short narrative film had emerged in my head. I wanted to depict a small town woman’s life in rural China and her quiet, sensual relationship with a barber. There would be no dialogues. Both characters would be mute.The relationship between the two characters would be subtle and ambiguous; viewers could freely interpret based on how they relate to the characters.

The Sketches

To make loose ideas more tangible, I made a few video sketches. Similar to putting together a moodboard in design, in filmmaking world, these helped me to find the voice & tone I was looking for.

These activities depicted on camera were totally normal to the people in the scene but were totally strange in outsiders’ eyes.

Everyday I wondered around the historical district of Nanjing, until I finally discovered a barber shop on the far edge of the town; it was small but neatly organized, colorful but tinted with age, quiet but not secluded.

After finding this barbershop, I spent days sitting on one of the cracked bamboo chairs in the back of the shop fantasizing. I imagined the way my story would unfold: Yuzhen’s wrinkled face and wet tangled hair is reflected in the mirror. She sits on that chair with paint peeling off revealing the rusted metal surface.

The chair spins around and decompresses when Xueliang, the barber, steps on the pedal and pumps it several times. Drawn on my sketch book are camera angles, shot compositions and every little visual and aural detail that had come to mind as streams consciousness, such as the brown vintage table clock that ticks slightly off time, the slowly spinning fan on the newspaper covered ceiling, red thermal bottles lined against the wall, and the old broken aluminum kettle with hot white steam bursting out.

The Making Of

During the shoot, my intention was to capture the most spontaneous expressions and the most natural actions. Yet I still set up the shots, and made artistic choices on composition, light, and color. I carefully selected what objects to place in the background and what the actors would wear.

Behind the camera, I found myself shifting between the roles of an insider and an outsider, between fiction and reality. Suppose it’s just like what Jean-Luc Godard had said, “The cinema is not an art which films life: the cinema is something between art and life. It both gives to life and takes away from it.”

One challenge I encountered during the filming was how to find the balance between technical execution and spontaneity. It is a challenge familiar from my days playing music in a Jazz band, when I strove for both mastery of the instrument and theory on the one hand, and improvisation on the other. Film, like jazz, requires deft handling of these competing elements to create a single work of art. Even till today I’m still seeking to further refine this balance.

test dolly shot with me in place of the actress

The Characters

My lead actor’s name is Zhang Xueliang. He is a barber in real life as I had found him and asked me if I was shooting a promo video for the town. I intentionally didn’t give him any script and wanted him to act himself. I was able to retain his purest form of expression.

The lead actress name is Zhou Xuefang and she is my aunt. I had chosen her partially because she and I resemble each other in a lot of ways.

I learned a lot about filmmaking during this process, especially how to rally people behind a purpose. I had a large group of extras in various parts of the film(my relatives, neighbors, people on the streets). Most of them didn’t know what the film was about but they were all happy to be a part of it.

“Craft” & “Un-craft” the Story

Returning to school with a hard drive full of raw footage, I was content and couldn’t wait to start editing. In my senior year, I enrolled in a course called “open media” at RISD. I had learned a new concept that got me thinking a lot — “mediation.

Apparently, the current version of “mute” the films has been mediated 3 times already and was about to be mediate again once I start editing.

Why does it matter?

Since I can’t change what’s already been done(1,2 & 3), I have to make a choice on how much do I want to “mediate” when I edit this film.

Should I “craft” the film to be more like my original narrative story or should I preserve the spontaneity of the acting and see where that takes me?

If you want to find out which way I went with, watch the film here (password: liyuzhen).

The Future

It’s been years since I made “mute” but it still seem like yesterday. I didn’t end up choosing filmmaking as my profession, but my filmmaking days were what have shaped me as a creative. I developed a point-of-view and showed people what that point-of-view is using powerful and immersive visuals and storytelling(in an unconventional way).

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