Linhan Zhang is quite possibly the youngest filmmaker from Hong Kong who has had multiple nominations for award-winning short films in various film festivals around the world. His recent short film The Last Ferry from Grass Island has just been selected for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival. We speak to him at SKYE rooftop bar of Parklane Hotel to find out why he founded his film production company Bering Pictures as well as his inspirations and aspirations as a burgeoning director.
I started to do photography in my semester abroad in Argentina when I was in high school. I think that was the first exposure for me into visual storytelling. And then an opportunity came to me where I could help work on a film in India. I was very lucky that my family was very open to trying things while I’m young so they allowed me to take a year off in the middle of high school, when I made Gateway to Heaven.
The Sundance fellowship was very American-centric and Euro-centric so I was the only fellow from Asia. But it was eye-opening to meet fellows from the rest of the world, especially in Europe. Because I was one of the youngest fellows there – most of them were 22/23 years old and I was only a freshman so they already have a few years ahead of me. We’re all young filmmakers but they already started to have some kind of reputation and resources. I think it was a very steep learning curve and a very good experience for me. A lot of them ended up doing really well, one of my Greek fellows won Palme d’Or for his short film last year at Cannes.
The government doesn’t have a lot of funding for short filmmakers but that’s how we all start. Tisch has a lot of talented filmmakers but they don’t have the resources to actualize their dream. Hence we created a community of short filmmakers who want to help each other out. Besides the initial start-up money for Bering we were lucky enough to have winning prizes from film festivals. I was also awarded an Adobe creativity scholarship a few years ago and I was able to use that to fund our production company. They award it to young students who are doing art or who have a positive social impact for the work that they do.
At Bering, we help out filmmakers financially, with film development or, for some filmmakers after they’ve finished, we help them to strategize in order to get into film festivals, etc. Everything we can do to facilitate them. The intention is not about immediate financial return but for the opportunity to make a feature film in the future. This is certainly the most approachable method to become a big director.
I produce and I direct. When I produce I think the opportunity is wider because as a producer I can help someone make an American story. America is very vast in its cultural diversity. It would be hard for me to produce in Hong Kong. Whereas as a director I want to come back to Hong Kong, to a place where the film industry in shrinking. There are still some gems and pockets that remain unexplored.
I have a couple favourite directors, the first being Wong Kar Wai, a quintessential film school choice. For specific genre films I like Johnny To. His gangster movies are very interesting. Globally I’m a fan of Greek cinemaI think they have the potential to become the next new wave in film. If you look at the film festivals, especially the top film festivals around the world in the past few years, you see a lot of Greek films and Greek indie makers making it into Hollywood.
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos directed The Favourite, which was nominated for an Oscar. I think they have a very strong visual sense and their storytelling method is very interesting. I think drama started in Greece ages ago so they have a homecourt advantage. I asked a Greek cinematographer to come to Hong Kong to work on The Last Ferry from Grass Island with me. It’s very interesting to have someone of a different culture to come use his eyes to see and work on your project.
I’m still trying to find my own style. There are so many iconic directors from Hong Kong and I think it’s really important to try something new instead of attempting to emulate others because it’s very hard to surpass them, so you must try to find your own path. I am a fan of the Greek filmmaking, so I’m trying to infuse a more Greek style filmmaking within Hong Kong cinema. The Greek style of film making sees a greater sense of detachment – it’s not about overt emotions, it’s about people with a very cold façade, distancing themselves, not saying what they want to say and a strong sense of dry irony and humour. So imagine Stephen Chow’s comedy with slapstick and people flying all over – it’s the extreme opposite of that.
I’m currently trying to work on a feature project that we might shoot at the end of this year pending on the situation. Generally, we produce other people’s projects under our company.