Songs and Ghosts: An Interview with Green College Resident Member Vivian (Xiao Wen) Li

Green College Staff

Vivian (Xiao Wen) Li is a Green College Resident Member and MFA student at the UBC School of Creative Writing. She wrote, produced and directed a short film, “In Silence, We Sing,” as part of the 26th Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival. She sits down with Green College Resident Member Noah Stevens to discuss her work and her time at Green.

What inspired the film? Do you see it as a response to recent events?

The theme of the program that I was applying for was “wide open.” And there was something there that I felt resonated with me because, you know, we were in COVID times and we're still kind of in COVID times—we forget about that sometimes. The idea of the pandemic was still on my mind. And in the film, the protagonist, her grandfather dies in China. She can’t go because borders are closed. In response to that, her recently departed ancestor ghosts cross the border and possess her parents, and then her brother also gets possessed in the end. So that sequence, maybe it wasn't all real life, but the fact that the grandfather died in China and they couldn't go back, that was all related to what happened to my family. And I remember at that moment when I saw my dad—it was pretty heartbreaking. Also, at that time, the doors and windows kind of blew open. So I thought, “Oh, what if we make this into a world where the ancestors actually travel through the windows or through whatever is open? Where they can sing out everything they've lost or repressed, as well as what’s been hidden in the parents as well?” A lot of Asian cultures are very much “repress your emotions—don't let anyone know,” especially for men. And to me singing is a way of exploring emotion when you have no words. Sometimes, when I’m angry, I can play or sing an angry song or song about strength, and the overwhelming emotion seems to ebb a little. Making this film was a way of helping me come to terms with what had happened.

The film ends in a sing-off between the spirits and the living. Why did you choose to end in a song? Have you always wanted to do a musical? Did you want to introduce a playful element at all?

Yeah, there was a bit of that. I called it a dramedy and musical because I thought I wanted it to be somewhat funny. I tend to write more drama, so I maybe unconsciously ended up making it more serious in the end. In Asian cultures, we don't talk about things, we kind of just sit in the silence—even when people are angry. That’s why the title’s “In Silence, We Sing.” I thought, what if the only way they could really express themselves was through music. I find that music is an artistic form that expresses all your emotions. In everyday life, when I speak, my voice is very soft—to the point when people often ask me to repeat what I said. But when I’m singing—I did opera in the past—I don't feel like I'm not being heard. I think, when I pitched the idea, I already saw it as a musical—the film would be about a family singing to each other because they couldn't communicate with words. And it just felt like a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings that results in lyrics, poetry and music.

You had a composer involved, Ben Ledochowski. Were you involved in writing the music and lyrics with him and how was that process?

It was an interesting process. Because when I first started this, I was like, “I want to write the music myself.” And then I thought about it some more and I was like, “This is my first time directing a film, my second time on set.” And in one month, that was our timeline. One month, writing the whole script getting your whole team on board. And I had almost nobody. Anjali [from Green College] agreed to help. But when I first started, I didn’t know anyone in film because I don't come from a film background, I didn't go to film school, I graduated from U of T with a BA in English and Philosophy. Plus, I was in a new city. So I reached out to… I think I actually tried [fellow Greenie] Walker. And then Walker was part of this listserv of musicians and Master’s students in music at UBC. I reached out there. And that's where I found Ben. It was kind of a collaborative thing where, at first, I had the core idea. I sent it to him like, “I want something like this. These are the lyrics I want as well.” He created the music, the orchestration, and the beautiful, sweeping moments. Then I went in, I listened to it, I was like, “I don't like this part and let's change it to something else, maybe like this.” I have a musical background so I would give notes, and/or specific kinds of pitches or lyrics I wanted to change moments to, and he created the score and different tracks for the actors to practice and/or sing to. But I gave him a lot of freedom because I trusted his instincts, and I really liked the music. It was nice to just see it all come together. But the musical element added onto all the other parts of creating the film was definitely a huge undertaking because I’d be simultaneously trying to figure out logistics, crew, equipment and casting. I don't know if I would recommend a musical for someone’s first film if they don’t have prior experience or people they know in film…nobody said that was a bad idea. They're just like, “Yeah, have fun. Good luck.”

You usually write fiction and poetry. Have you written a screenplay before?

I wrote a screenplay, but it wasn't produced, directed or anything. It’s a speculative short film, and it’s based on my short story about changing faces, but I didn't know how to actually create it. I mean, I’m still planning to film it one day if I get enough funding. But I really had no idea how to make it into an actual film. When I got into the program, I was immediately struck by the fact that I had never been on a film set ever. I knew some people in the film department, and I asked them if there was anybody who was filming and needs help. One group was filming for Run & Gun back then, and I helped them on-set for a day as an art assistant. It was really cool, and I enjoyed it a lot—that experience definitely helped me understand the dynamics of a film set as well.

What was it like directing?

Overall, I really liked it. I think it would have been better if I didn't produce and direct because producing is very…you have to know the budget; you have to get everyone together, the logistics. How are you going to bring equipment there and back? We were doing a night shoot—so how are you going to get everyone there and back home safely? Where can they park? What will you do with all the garbage? And all the time, money is pouring out. It's just all logistics. So doing all of that plus directing and managing other aspects such as lyrics for the first time was a lot. But I like the directing part very much. It was lovely just to talk to the actors and collaborate with them. I directed for plays before, and also acted in a few things. So I kind of had that sense of the relationship between director and actor. And I really liked figuring out the shots and some of the visual aspects of the story. I like the directing part. I like the writing part. I don't like the directing-and-producing part.

As someone who writes more fiction and poetry, was it hard relinquishing control of your story to the actors?

I don't think so. I was very happy because I love collaborative experiences. I think even locking down on location—all of a sudden the script that I wrote didn't actually match. In the script, “the windows blow wide open.” Well, the windows couldn’t open all the way. So we made the curtains blow open instead. Someone was underneath the window/ curtain with cardboard. The whole sequence with the ghosts coming in took at least four production assistants to coordinate. But I liked letting control go, because the actors would be like, “Do you want me to look around like this?” And I'd be like, “Yeah, you know what, that's good. That's a good idea.” And it'll work because they have good instincts and I want to trust their instincts. It’s this trusting thing. You know, I trust them. They trust me. That’s why I’m trying to find my people, the ones I want to work and collaborate with—the ones that believe in me as I believe in them.

The film has been shown at the Reel Asian International Film Festival, do you have any plans beyond that?

Yes, after some more edits, I’m planning to submit to other festivals—US, Canada, Europe, we’ll see. We’ll see.

You worked on the film as part of the Festival’s program. How did you find that program?

It was intense because I made my first short film—and it was a musical—in a summer-long program. In May you're supposed to have ideation and workshops. In June, you're supposed to write the script and plan everything. July, you're shooting production. August is post-production. And then November is festival day. So it's intense. But I learned a lot, definitely—I think most importantly it helped me demystify the filmmaking process. If I didn’t go through the program, I don’t think I would’ve continued making films the way I am now. If I had the chance, I might do it again, but not for a musical.

Do you have plans to showcase other work coming up?

I just finished a video poem—a film containing visual and textual details—for the Vancouver Poet Laureate’s City Poems Contest. Two of my poems are shortlisted for Stage One, and now we're on Stage Two. As this was my second film project, I focused a lot on the aesthetic quality of the visuals, because back with the first film, it was—let’s focus on the story, the music and the lyrics. The lyrics have the narrative I’m looking for. But this time, I explored what camera and aesthetic quality can give, as well as framing because I've been introduced to that a little bit more. I’m very happy with the visual elements of this short film. I definitely forgot it was for a contest.

I come from more of a fiction and poetry background—my creative works can be found on my website and you can also find my poetry in my debut chapbook, Someday I Promise, I’ll Love You (845 Press). I also recently had a staged reading of my full-length play, The Unknown, My Child at the Arts Club Theatre. I’m working on three other short films and my novel at the moment, the latter of which engages with Chinese Philosophy, sisterhood and mental health.

You mentioned Anjali Mandapaka, another Green College Resident Member, was involved in the film as production designer and props master. What was it like working with a fellow Greenie?

Anjali is amazing!! My first AD, Robin, is amazing as well, and I couldn't have done it without them. Anjali and Robin were very patient explaining many, many things to me. Also, Anjali brought in all the props and was very diligent. There was one part of the film with a bloody napkin and she had all of that prepared. I was managing a lot of the film in other ways so it was really nice not to have to worry about those elements. She was very professional, and it was also great to have her because we would come back together. We had two-night shoots—around 7 pm to 4 am—and we’d come back from the Kitsilano area with our props. And it's just so nice to have someone else with me as we destressed and watched the sunrise. We had brainstorming sessions as well. She worked with me on the video poem too. I just don't think I could have done it without her, or my first AD.

What impact do you think your time at Green has had on your creative process?

I think it has had an impact on my career process. Just by going to the Resident Members’ Series, I get inspired by what the presenter said, and I start sketching things. And I don't know, I feel like everything has a cyclic pattern. You experience something, you respond to it, and then you see the world differently. And then that happens again. So it’s like overlapping squares, a colour becoming more solid as you layer more translucent pieces on top, you know? I think even just living in a space with so much nature is wonderful. I've realized I sometimes need nature to feel calm. I love leaving my room in the morning and looking at the mountains. It's so free and so nice. And then just enjoying it for a moment, just living in a nature-filled environment, hanging out with the kind people who also care about what they do—people who care about me beyond my work. I really enjoy it. And the people who listen to and respond to my stories.

Hopefully a lot more will see it too.

Hopefully, yeah.

Post by: Noah Stevens, Green College Resident Member