Charles Dong - The Story of Maternal Love Sofia Piven in conversation with Charles Dong.
Home Nieuws & Inspiratie

Charles Dong - The Story of Maternal Love

Sofia Piven in conversation with Charles Dong.

Today CineSud Magazine will introduce a new filmmaking star: Charles Dong. His revealing social problems-film After Class has already received numerous awards and will take part in other big festivals this year. The director tells us about his family, the inspiration to make his award-winning drama and how his passion for filmmaking and photography started.

"I think I'm still too young to understand all the details of what my grandparents lived through"

11 januari 2021

Director's background

As a child Charles Dong had a passion for telling stories. However, in his teens the boy was thrilled about a new hobby. The director remembers: "I started to show magic tricks and amazed everyone around me. A little bit later my interests slowly transitioned into filmmaking – the power of images intrigued me."

In some sense cinematography allowed Charles to combine his two passions, storytelling and tricks. Movies were just a new instrument to make people amazed and, more importantly, to make them think about the story shown on the screen.

Charles Dong was born and raised in a small town in northeastern China called Anshan. When he was still in high school, he came to the US as an exchange student. The director remembers: "After my return I realized that I was not where I should be and was not sure what I should do in my life. Therefore, I decided to change my life drastically. I moved to Leipzig in Germany for a short period of time."

Nevertheless, Germany felt like the wrong place. Charles suddenly understood that the best solution would be to go back to the US and pursue his filmmaking dream. "In 2019 I graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts NYU with a degree in film", the filmmaker says. "Since then I was fortunate enough to direct numerous short films and commercials and am working on my first feature film right now."

The director did not stop there. He continues to develop himself. Currently he is a first year directing fellow of the American Film Institute Conservatory (Class of 2022). In spite of a difficult situation because of COVID-19, Charles has already gained valuable experience at the institute. He confesses that he has got the inspiration from the other filmmakers in the program. He discovered a huge number of filmmaking tricks from them as well.

Attitude towards education

Nowadays many people do not appreciate studying at the university, or even decide to quit because they find it boring. Charles, on the contrary, found his education very helpful for his career as a filmmaker.

"I met all the people I have been working with while studying in a film school", the director comments. "My producer Branton Choi is a long-time collaborator of mine, I met him on a student set almost four years ago, and now we moved to LA together. In addition to that, I met my cinematographer Stefan Nachmann on my first day at NYU: way before I decided to pursue a career as a director and he - as a DP (Director of Photography). Stefan and I used to be roommates for a long time and know each other inside out."

A collaboration of two old friends, who enjoy working together and have a great understanding of each other’s artistic approach. It doesn't always work like that. Moreover, there are a lot of directors who never went to film school. Charles thinks that in the end either way works.

Passion for photography

Charles Dong is a photographer as well as a director. "I want to be a filmmaker", he explains. "Being a photographer is just my hobby. Photos capture characters, films tell their stories. Films are broadened pictures."

Whenever Charles takes a photo, he never really looks at the specific aspects of it. He often simply feels that the person or the space is right for his camera to capture. He is fond of taking photos of people and places he feels good about.

The most joyful thing for Charles is taking pictures of people he knows. He has taken a set of photos of his family in their most natural condition. This inclination for biographical elements can also be found in his latest project. Charles says: "Narratives and documentaries are different genres, but in the end both are storytelling. I am writing my first feature film, Anshan Blues, based on a true story from my experience, about two insecure teenagers bullied in school. They decided to hire a group of gangsters to beat up their bullies. I am hoping to make this film after I graduate. And in general, I am willing to make films about people who I love and care about."

After Class

The inspiration for the award-winning film After Class came from an infamous scandal which took place in China a few years ago, where people would intentionally get hit by a car to scam the driver. Charles says: "I once saw a news article about a single mother who was arrested because of forcing her son, who had a broken leg, to run into traffic. It was reported that she did it in order to send her son to school."

The boy got hit three times until his mother was arrested. The mother was shunned by the public, no one sympathized with her situation. Charles wondered what the mother would do to fulfill the basic needs of a child. In After Class, her name is Sumin.

The whole story is partly based on the news and partly on the director's childhood. "When my family moved to Shenzhen from the Northeast", Charles says, "they had to pay taxes every year in order to send me to public school. I walked around the city and noticed some kids running in slums, collecting water bottles for nickels and dimes in return. I asked them why they weren't in school. They told me they just had no opportunity to go there. That was the moment I realized one of those kids would become the character of Sumin."

No matter in what period in history, in what part of the world, and in what socio-economic class the person is, the love of a mother is a universal theme. Charles thinks that especially now, in times of unpredictability, we need stories of love and sacrifice.

Team of the project

Charles has known most of his production team since studying at New York University, with the exception of his production designer, who is based in Hong Kong and works in the feature film world. Producer Branton Choi has been the director's partner for a long time already. Cinematographer Stefan Nachmann shot all his projects. 

The crew knew each other very well. When Charles told them about After Class long before preparation, all of them immediately became interested and were willing to come on board.

Charles met most of his actors through a casting director. The leading actress Youfeng Zhang had a similar background as her character, which gave her a very clear understanding of what she needed to do. The girl who played Sumin, Yiyi Sun, was a first-time actress, who was an experienced child model. She did a great job as well.

The director expresses gratitude to his team: "Even though there are a million things I want to change, I am proud of every crew member who was working on this project. After Class was not an easy film to pull off. It was quite a long process. It took around six months to write and polish the script, and another half year for post production. From the moment we started making this film, we faced countless problems with locations, casting and even budget. But everybody had so much faith in this project. I am just very thankful to my cast and crew for supporting me along the way."

An Anshan Story

In the list of the films produced by Charles there is a documentary called An Anshan Story. The director picked his grandpa, one of the revolutionaries of the left wing, as the film's lead, investigating and retracing his family saga spanning three decades of Chinese post-cultural revolution history.

"As the grandson I felt an innate responsibility to make this film", the director says. "But as someone who was born in the 90's, my frivolous upbringing pales in comparison to what my grandparents lived through during the Cultural Revolution. To be frank, I am too young to understand all the details. That is why I refuse to state any political views. That would be irresponsible."

"All I could do is to show love and intimacy to my grandparents that carried them through six decades of marriage", the filmmaker continues. "That is the only tangible thing I could document." 

Along the way Charles hopes that thousands of people who will watch this film can be reminded of their own unique family history. 

To a certain extent, the director found it easier to work with relatives, as they were not really aware of what the project would encompass. Oftentimes, they were simply telling the truth that they believe in.

Most of the photos in An Anshan Story are made by the family of Charles. However, the videos of the revolution were mostly taken from American National Archives.

The director says: "Unfortunately, my grandpa left us early this year. He was also too ill to see the film. We ended shooting almost a year ago, but we are in a process of doing a significant recut. I am very excited to share this film with the rest of the world when it is ready."

Festival experience

Charles Dong and his team premiered After Class at Santa Barbara International Film Festival and since then have run the festival circuit. Unexpectedly, they won the Best Short Award at the Asia Internal Competition at Short Shorts. The director says: "I am very grateful for how far the film has gone since the day we started embarking on this gruelling shoot two years ago. We're in the process of launching a new campaign, and hope to be on the shortlist of a few more festivals soon."

A lot of projects of Charles Dong in development were pushed back and even cancelled. However, during quarantine the director had an opportunity to re-watch movies and read books, which resulted in writing his first novel. Eventually, he set a goal for himself to write a feature script for Anshan Blues, hoping to look for funding and to shoot after the pandemic is over.

In order to discover more about Charles Dong and get updates on his new films

Visit his website
Over de auteur: Sofia Piven

Sofia Piven is currently studying Journalism and International Relations at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. She has always been interested in writing articles and after finishing school and entering the university she wrote for local newspapers and magazines. Since January 2018 she regularly writes articles for CineSud magazine.

0 Reacties

Reageren is alleen mogelijk wanneer je bent ingelogd met een CineSud Account. Log in of maak gratis een account aan.