Asian American Movies (AAM.tv) is releasing “A Sunburnt Summer”, writer / director Zicheng Li’s debut film in the world today. CHOPSO takes the opportunity to interview the young director, recently graduated from USC on his scorching short film which sheds light on the lives of immigrants in America. “A Sunburnt Summer” is a short film about a Chinese immigrant somewhere in California, a mother, confronted with the rape of her teenage son by the son of her boss.
Tell us how you got started in the cinema. At what age did you decide to make films?
ZL: It was in college when I took my first film class. I took the course just for fun, but it changed my life. In this class, I discovered the fantastic world of cinema and cinema, as well as my passion to become a cinematic storyteller. After I graduated from college, I started to prepare my application for a graduate program in filmmaking. Then I was admitted to USC and came to LA in 2016, which could be considered the official start to becoming a professional filmmaker.
How did you come to do “A Sunburnt Summer?”
ZL: I believe it was your thesis / masters project at USC. How did you like your experience in an MFA film school at USC? I am always intrigued to write stories about characters in inevitable situations where often time cannot find the solution to the problems they have to face face. “A Sunburnt Summer” is such a story. The story begins with an incident of sexual assault, but I want to use this incident to reflect on the soil that cultivates such incidents. I think it’s important to know what silenced people in order to know how to make their voices heard.
Do you think it is necessary to go to an MFA program or film school to become a filmmaker? What did you get out of film school?
ZL: For technical knowledge and experience, systematic education in a film school is definitely a contributing factor. But I think the ability to observe and experience everyday life and people is more important. For me, my friends and classmates are the most precious thing I receive from film school. Film making is teamwork and school is the perfect environment to meet people who share similar artistic visions and philosophies in life. Not only have we worked together so far, but we can also provide each other with resources to help our career development.
What are the growth influences in China that give you your own perspective as a filmmaker?
ZL: I grew up in Beijing. It is a city where ancient history and modern technology, eastern and western culture exist at the same time. There are shopping districts full of skyscrapers, majestic malls and hotels, as well as the mansions of China’s richest people. At the same time, I saw people working for the day, people who barely made enough money to maintain their basic living, and people who lived in underground crosswalks. I think everything contributes to how I perceive the world around me and what I want to say about it. I also learned to avoid passing judgment on anyone, which I do in my writing as well. Society has its complexity, so do the people who live there. It is unfair of me to say what is good or what is not, which is good or which is bad. Instead of telling audiences who to like and dislike, I’d rather have the audience take a deeper look at the issues to understand what the reasons are for those issues and what makes these characters like that.
Since you have mainly directed films and written feature film scripts with a gay man as the protagonist, how would you do them in China… or the United States?
ZL: I only have one feature film script that is about a gay loving couple in China and I doubt it will ever come to fruition. It will probably be easier if I adapt it into a novel for the story to be published. I have two other short scripts with gay characters that I am thinking of developing into feature films. The premises of these stories don’t have a strong sense of location, so I think they can happen anywhere.
What do you think about the state of queer cinema in the world right now?
ZL: I think there have been more and more movies and TV series that have queer characters, both protagonists and supporting roles, compared to 10 years ago or even earlier. And the types of stories around these characters are more diverse. It is certainly a good direction in which we are heading.
How have you been artistically affected by these two years of COVID?
ZL: I found myself having more time to write back when everything in the world seemed to have stopped. It could still be controversial if this period were to be reflected in the stories we create going forward, but I think it’s definitely something too important to take for granted.
How is it for you as a Chinese citizen living in the United States? What is one thing you would like to see changed in your home, America or China?
ZL: I think the world has come to a time when living abroad is not as important as it was decades ago. I happen to be one of the countless foreigners living in this country. If there is something that I would like to see changed, I would probably like the film market to be less dominated by big studio productions.
What are you going to work on next?
ZL: I’m co-writing a feature film that will go into production next month. I am also in the early stages of getting ideas and starting to write another article. I am also looking for opportunities to start turning my finished scripts into films.