When Ruby Yang was nominated in the best newcomer section of the Hong Kong Directors’ Guild last month, she giggled. After all, she won an Academy Award in 2007 for her documentary short “The Blood of Yingzhou District,” about a Chinese orphan who contracts HIV from his parents, and has two more Oscar nominations in the same category. When she won the HKDG award last week, she must have laughed out loud.
Yet, strangely, Yang is starting over.
After several years in the U.S. working as film editor and filmmaker, and then most of the past decade living in Beijing, she has now returned to her native Hong Kong and is putting down roots all over again.
She is teaching at Hong Kong University’s journalism and media studies department and also working as a producer. This week she will attend HAF as producer of “The Last Stitch,” a project by co-directors Stephen Gurie Woo and Alfred Sung.
And she is on a mission to get greater exposure for “My Voice My Life,” the feature-length documentary that won her the HKDG prize. The film received a modest theatrical release in Hong Kong, an extreme rarity for a local documentary, and has played a series of festivals including SXSW. A limited release in the U.S. is being put together in summer, which could set up “My Voice” for an Oscar run.
In fact, the film was one of the reasons Yang came back to Hong Kong.
When charitable institute the L plus H Creations Foundation proposed putting on a musical, Yang suggested that it train half-a-dozen student film makers to document the build-up. But when she attended the rehearsals, which involved a recently blind boy, a habitual miscreant and a girl who felt that she had been wrongly labelled as academically weak, Yang was moved by the efforts of the students and the sincerity of the teachers. She obtained a larger budget from the Lee Hysan Foundation and threw herself into making the full-length film.
“When I saw what these people were putting in and how they were defying handicaps and the labels that had been put upon them, I really wanted to challenge the idea that they were underachievers,” says Yang.
Such stereotyping, however, is typical in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia, where education systems are hot houses for intense learning, parents send their children for additional cramming, and a single exam can shape a child’s future for years to come.
The stage musical was performed in September and “My Voice My Life” released in October. Along the way it picked up additional support from singing-acting superstar Andy Lau, whose Focus Films is handling international sales.
“The Last Stitch” is another documentary project. The narrative this time is an exploration of Sung’s family roots, in particular Sung’s father, who was one of 20 apprentice tailors trained in Hong Kong by his grandfather, who fled from Shanghai after World War II. Along the way the project will explore themes including the Chinese people’s history of migration, career as identity and East-meets-West craftsmanship. Sung says the cyclical history lesson was brought home to him when his own high-flying job came to an end in the 2008 financial crash.
Yang no doubt identifies with the coming home and reinvention themes.