When the prestigious BAFTA student awards were bestowed on July 23, two LA-based filmmakers were thrilled to learn they’d taken home top honors.
USC student Yucong Rae Chen won the BAFTA Student Film Award for Documentary and the Special Jury Prize for her film, “Unfinished Lives.” American Film Institute student Olivia Hang Zhou won the BAFTA Student Film Award for Live Action for her film, “Apart, Together.”
BAFTA — the British Academy of Film and Television Arts — hosts an annual film award ceremony to recognize student talent. The 2020 and 2021 ceremonies have been virtual. The 15 student finalists from 34 countries in 2021 were selected from more than 680 submissions. Finalists were from China, South Africa, Norway, Denmark, France, the United States and United Kingdom.
Three of the five winning projects, including those by the LA-based filmmakers, focused on Chinese subjects.
“It is heartwarming to see the breadth of talent and ingenuity among the world’s student population, and the high standard of work being produced despite the many adversities placed in front of them,” said Kathryn Busby, BAFTA Los Angeles board chair.
“These remarkable finalists have delivered poignant, important and timely pieces of work and it is our honor to be shining a spotlight on their creativity and achievements. We are proud to be supporting their professional journeys and welcome them all to the BAFTA community.”
Relating to LA tragedy
Chen won two prizes for her documentary “Unfinished Lives,” which focuses on the investigation into and the aftermath of the beating death of Chinese USC student, Xinran Ji, in Los Angeles in 2014.
It was a story she heard about in China before moving to LA. She said there were misconceptions about Ji, who was escorting a female classmate home from a study session. Many felt he must be the child of rich parents or that he was playing around because he was there during the summer. Others questioned why he was walking in the street so late at night.
“We started to do the research and found all of those misunderstandings were wrong,” Chen said.
“Actually, he is doing the summer session and it is right after a study session. He’s not from a rich family, just ordinary people. He is sharing his bedroom with another roommate. He cannot be the second rich generation.”
She and her crew of international students related to the story and wanted people to know what really happened that night. They were also shocked at how long it took for justice to be delivered; it was almost five years.
“We feel like people need to know that fighting for justice in this country is very heartbreaking,” Chen said.
“You need to pay a lot. You need to trust a lot of people and people need to care.”
She began the film in 2019, just before the final court hearing. Therefore, she missed filming the dramatic meeting between the U.S.-based lawyer representing the family and the parents who came to the country for the trial.
She turned to the use of sand art, with an artist’s hand creating and erasing pictures to help tell the story in a way that did not rely just on talking heads.
“It is a moving art, not like a picture and then another picture,” Chen said.
“It is a very motion picture thing. You are saying something that is moving but it still tells a story. I feel like sand art is poetic in a way. It is not telling you something in detail. We figure that is a very good art form to picture someone’s memory.”
The editing took place during the pandemic. She moved into the apartment of her co-editor Mozhu Yan until the editing was done.
In addition to the documentary prize, Chen took home the Special Jury Prize. The jury reviews all 15 finalists and chooses one it feels is best. This year’s jury included actor Kingsley Ben-Adir (“One Night in Miami…”), actor and director Colman Domingo (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), actor Aasif Mandvi (“This Way Up”) and costume designer Trish Summerville (“Mank”).
She didn’t think it was possible to win twice, so she only prepared one speech. When she did, she ceded her time to the other members of her crew.
Painful and poignant
For Zhou, the emotional story took precedence.
Zhou’s film, “Apart, Together,” is a fictional tale that is personal to the director. The film focuses on the effect China’s one-child policy has on both parents and children. It tells the intergenerational story of a mother and daughter who go searching for the older daughter who was abandoned so that the parents could try again for a boy.
Zhou is a second child, only because her older sister died before her birth. It is a guilt she carries over into this story, which started out as a fantasy before she narrowed it down to fit into the 20-minute time structure of her thesis project.
“I felt so sad for (my sister), but it was a very complicated emotion,” Zhou said.
“I know how much I want to be a good daughter, but I can never compete with the views my parents had for her. It feels like a black hole in the family. Everything is fine, but there was also a missing piece. It is what I wanted to convey in ‘Apart, Together.’”
Zhou was also inspired by a news story about twin girls born to a rural Chinese family who were separated.
While twins are allowed under the one-child family policy, the local government told them they would have to pay money they couldn’t afford. They offered one child for adoption and the baby was raised in a loving, comfortable family in the United States. The other girl, stayed in the rural province without access to adequate education.
In “Apart, Together,” the girl’s parents are spiteful because she reminds them of the child they gave up for adoption and that she was not born a boy.
“She is questioning her existence and herself,” Zhou said.
Zhou is most proud of the emotions that she captures in this film, which traces the sisters’ first meeting. It is in a church where the older daughter is assisting with communion. They meet when the older sister brings the cup of wine to the lips of the younger.
“I had been struggling to see how I could present the moment in a very, very special way, because they were very intimate strangers and I wanted to show that,” Zhou said, explaining that she visited a church in West Hollywood to learn about the sacrament and how it is delivered.
“It feels very holy. You are so close and so intimate.”
Zhou was in China when the BAFTA ceremony started, and it was 1 a.m. there. She said she was super sleepy, but she and her crew were really hoping they would win and hearing their name called jolted them awake.
“We were just very happy and very honored,” Zhou said.
“I think this is an encouragement for me.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has her and her family stationed in China, but she hopes to return to Los Angeles soon.