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TinNgai Chan: Behind the Camera for the Story of Lily Lee Chen

The unwarranted backlash by some against people of Chinese descent and individuals from China residing in the United States during the current pandemic is an indication that America still has a long way to go in becoming a nation which judges by the content of character rather than color of skin, to loosely quote a civil rights icon. Filmmakers Nox Yang and TinNgai Chan have created a film to illuminate the types of immensely positive contributions of Chinese Americans through the power of their craft. The Story of Lily Lee Chen: Becoming the Historical First, has garnered such a powerful response that it is now being developed into a feature documentary. Ms. Chen’s life and career spans some of the most transformative times in America and China. Her achievements and recognitions are numerous and include her historical election as the first Chinese-American woman to become mayor of a US city, service to four United States Presidents, and awards like the President’s Volunteer Service Award from the Obama White House. Currently in postproduction and set for a 2022 release, The Story of Lily Lee Chen: Becoming the Historical First is a depiction of the great contributions of one immigrant by filmmakers who share this immigrant experience. This occurrence is indicative of the continuing positivity which those from other nations can bring to the United States.

Nox Yang understands the power of using documentaries to heighten awareness and enlighten the difficulties of others. Yang’s documentary about the discrimination experienced by the Asian community for wearing masks had captured the attention of many, including Lily Chen. Recognizing a kindred activist spirit, Chen and Yang began the process of what would become the documentary film of Ms. Chen’s life and distinguished career. Understanding the need for the film to visually emote, they enlisted award-winning filmmaker TinNgia Chan as the cinematographer. Heis work on award winning films such as Pâté and Mary Mary Quite Contrary (which earned him Best Cinematography awards from the Canadian Cinematography Awards, European Cinematography Awards, IndieX Film Fest, London Independent Film Awards, and others) was augmented by the fact that TinNgai is also of Asian origin, meaning that he had the talent and perspective to authentically and exceptionally communicate the visual tone needed for this film. The DP relates, “There are of course the struggles of being an immigrant that we share and that’s comforting but also the sense of pride that we built our careers, our connections, friendships, communities, and our lives from scratch. This is tremendously encouraging to me and I think to others as well. This not only informs my cinematography to capture some of the bitter sweetness of Lily’s history but also to empower her and her family, to communicate the sense of optimism which immigrants share.”

A documentary film about Ms. Chen’s life and numerous achievements occurring in the past presents an unusual task for cinematographers who are normally tasked with establishing a “look” for a film that complements the tone of the story. Stock footage from past events can stifle the creativity of a filmmaker unless substantial imagination is utilized. Add to the complexities of this specific documentary that it was produced during a global pandemic lockdown; the obstacles were numerous for TinNgai. Undeterred, he informs, “The director trusted my eyes and skill and gave me space to make the film as visually interesting as possible, which was a challenge. As a biography – documentary about Lily, whose legendary political career and achievements mostly took place decades ago, this meant the film would be comprised mostly of interviews and stock footage. We ended up spending a lot of time designing the visual of the interviews, especially on the location, as well as the color and lighting in order to make the interviews emotionally and aesthetically connected to the stock footage we’re using. Yang was dedicated enough to live with Lily for months and we collaborated a more observational approach as well to capture who Lily is as a person. For myself as the DP, the process of creating a biographical documentary is very similar to that of working with still photography or even oil painting in that you are spending a great deal of time learning about your subject’s life. Ultimately you are desperately trying to fit someone’s whole life into an hour or two length film in the same way that a painter or photographer wants you to see the completeness of a person in their work. Just knowing Lily personally and being privileged to hear her story first-hand was incredibly rewarding.”


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