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Qiu Yang: A Melbourne film school graduate wins at Cannes

An image taken at night inside a bus of a woman looking out the bus window.
Qiu Yang's short film A Gentle Night won the Short Film Palme d'Or at Cannes.

Supplied: Qiu Yang

Chinese director Qiu Yang is now internationally renowned as the winner of this year's Short Film Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in France, but his journey to the awards ceremony stage began in Melbourne.

His moist eyes convey excitement, surprise and awe all at once.

That was Qiu Yang, the 28-year-old director from Changzhou, China on stage giving a succinct acceptance speech upon winning the Short Film Palme d'Or at Cannes 2017. The short that earned him the prestigious prize was A Gentle Night, a story inspired by a news event in his hometown.

"It was impossible not to cry," he says.

"I didn't know what to say. [I had] all sorts of emotions. It was an incredible moment. It was the first time I ever won anything."

A black and white portrait of a man.
Chinese film director Qiu Yang studied at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne.

Supplied: Qiu Yang

A cross-cultural education

Qiu studied film directing at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. He lived in Australia for five years and remembers that time with great fondness, expressing a desire to someday return.

"In a way Melbourne, Australia gave me all my film education and my film knowledge. I want to make a film in Melbourne."

"It is hard though, because Australia is so far from anywhere."

Not having permanent residency when he first graduated, Qiu says it was hard to apply for Australian Government grants for his filmmaking. Facing the typical dilemma of many international students, he decided to return home and tell stories about China.

"Melbourne is my second hometown. I really love it. I was really sad when I decided to leave."

His previous short film, Under the Sun, involved a number of Australian collaborators.

"We are not just collaborators," he says, "we are also very good friends."

In China, Qiu says he tries to maintain "an Australian way of doing things" with standard 10-hour days, which he says are quite unusual in China, where continuous filming with no breaks is the norm.

"When you give people enough sleep and when you feed them well, they give you their best."

A not so gentle night

In A Gentle Night, an intricate fabric of human emotion and interaction unfolds over the course of one night, captured by Yang's observational lens. The film's central event is anything but gentle.

Qiu's film — a 15-minute cinematic journey that follow's a mother's search for her missing daughter — shines a light on social realities in contemporary china.

A narrow street at night with a woman tending a fire in a metal container near a streetlight.
Qiu's film A Gentle Night deals with social realities in contemporary China.

Supplied: Qiu Yang

When asked whether there were any political elements woven into his work, he says, "If you depict your story realistically enough, it is going to be in the background anyway."

"I am not interested in the outright political stuff. I am more interested in exploring humanity and human vulnerability, especially as a Chinese."

Yang says that through this film, he would like to investigate how Chinese traditional ideology has affected China today.

"The sky, the earth, the emperor, the father, the teacher," Qiu begins, quoting Confucius' five objects of worship, "but there is no mention of women and children."

Qiu's perception of an absence of women and children in Confucianism provided him with a conceptual framework for the film. Around the same time, he heard a news report about a missing girl, which became the inspiration for the film's narrative.

Filming difficulties

"[It was] the most difficult film shoot," Qiu says of making the film.

"It was a physically and mentally challenging experience

"Everything [that] could go wrong went wrong."

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Filming kicked off during the winter.

"I was a bit pissed [off] when it started raining, and when it started snowing I just started laughing."

Despite the challenges — which also included the editor's visa application being rejected, visits from the police, Qiu being hospitalised during mixing in Manila, flight delays and a corrupted hard drive — the short film was selected to screen in-competition at Cannes and won the top prize.

From Melbourne to Cannes and back

A Gentle Night will screen at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).

The film was selected by the MIFF Shorts Programmer, Thomas Caldwell, who had been impressed by Qiu's camerawork and the emotional intensity of his earlier short films.

In particular, Caldwell says that Qiu's short film The World captures an element of Australian culture in a way he had never seen before.

A black and white image of a man working under the bonnet of a car in a large garage.
A scene from Qiu Yang's Australian short film, The World.

Supplied: Qiu Yang

Of Qiu's maturation over the years, Caldwell sees strengths that he would expect to see in much more experienced auteurs.

"There's nothing redundant, there's nothing excessive, there's nothing flamboyant about his films — they just have this sophisticated control of film style that's enormously powerful."

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