A first for a Chinese filmmaker in Quebec

An interview with Xiodan He about her debut feature A Touch of Spring.

Wensi Yan in A Touch of Spring

Li Fang (Wensi Yan) has lived in Montreal for over 10 years, leaving her family back in Dazu, the rural Chinese village where she grew up, to wonder about her supposedly glamourous life in Canada. Nothing could be further from the truth – instead, she’s married to an emotionally distant and abusive man (Émile Proulx-Cloutier) and deeply miserable. Things come to a head when one of their fights turns physical, and Li Fang decides to return to China to sort her life out. There, she finds her beloved grandfather (Kefa Cui) has remarried and a former lover (Xuan Zhao) finds himself divorced and miserable. As Fang attempts to reconcile the image her family has of her life (her handsome white husband and wild western lifestyle) with the reality of her roots, she attempts to reconnect with a cousin that has also fled the oppressive comforts of Dazu.

Director Xioadan He is the first Chinese-Canadian to ever secure SODEC financing for a film. It feels rather timely, then, that A Touch of Spring is being released so close to another watershed moment in Asian representation. The two are markedly different films with different tones and different things to say; A Touch of Spring is definitely a Chinese story, set mostly in China and told mostly in Chinese.

“I think it’s much harder for me than for a local western filmmaker to get the support,” says He. “It’s a very long way for me to get this money in the end. I knew that already, in the beginning; competition for SODEC and Telefilm financing is very tough. But I think that, from the beginning, we’re storytellers. I’m here now! I’m an immigrant and I totally accept my identity. I didn’t struggle too much, in the beginning, with my situation. But in the very beginning I knew that my challenge would be bigger than the local filmmakers’. Their background and the source of the stories they tell is much bigger than mine was at first. I knew that was the reality. But I love movies and stories so much, and I knew that I wanted to tell stories that meant something to me and that were from a different angle. And I’m a Québécoise now — this story is open to anyone!

“I was not very surprised when I got the financing,” she continues. “I was just very grateful. I got the financing in the third round — SODEC gives three chances to every project, and I got it the last time I submitted. It was quite scary! (laughs) If I didn’t get this, it meant my project was dead and I had to try a different project with them. It was two years of hard work!”

A Touch of Spring deals, to some extent, with the idea of culture shock. To me, the biggest element of culture shock was how bluntly Fang’s family speaks about her life and their life; they won’t hesitate to throw others under the bus or cut right to the bone if someone is acting in a broadly “unacceptable” fashion. I point to a scene where Li Fang explicitly expresses her disappointment in her grandfather’s choice of mate as one that feels particularly, brutally honest.

“You know, it’s funny, the previous journalist asked me the same question!” says He. “I think it’s actually the opposite. Western people are more open to express themselves and express their opinions to other people. But in Chinese culture, people usually try to keep their personal opinions and emotions to themselves. The grandfather is a great example. But I think there are two reasons why Li Fang would speak like that to her grandfather. The first is that she really doesn’t approve of this new grandmother; she’s even kind of jealous towards the sweetness of this new relationship! (…) The second is that she becomes kind of like a child when she returns, and she starts to want to provoke her grandfather and be deliberately mean to him. The rest of the world isn’t acting like her.”

Casting proved an additional challenge. For the character of Li Feng, He needed an actress of a certain age that was not only Chinese, but spoke fluent French. The pool of Quebec-based actresses of Chinese descent is limited enough as it is. He eventually cast Wensi Yan, a dancer and pianist who makes her acting debut in the film.

“It was a very scary experience for us!” she laughs. “It was very difficult to find a professional actress who spoke both the languages; there was no question that the film would be in French, not English, so we had no choice but to go back to China to find an actress there. We found one — a very good one! — who was a very new actress but with a very good reputation. But in the end, her schedule didn’t work out anymore. It was a huge problem because this was two months before we started shooting. Oh là là! (laughs) I told my partner ‘Buddha is real!’ We had to make this movie and we have no actress! Our last try was to put an ad in a local Chinese paper. From that, we had 30 people who came to audition. I thought we had no chance. I was very depressed because I couldn’t believe we would find a good one from that. In the end, it was a miracle when Wensi appeared. It was her at first sight. It was truly a miracle to find her at the last minute. (…) I thought I knew every Chinese actress in Montreal!” ■

A Touch of Spring opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 24. Watch the trailer now: