Learned in Translation

'There's no line between documentary and fiction,' says director Li Ying of Tokyo-based Dragon Films. This statement isn't an invitation to debate film theory or the role of factual in an industry dominated by Hollywood fantasies. Like his films, Li's point is much subtler.
January 1, 2004

‘There’s no line between documentary and fiction,’ says director Li Ying of Tokyo-based Dragon Films. This statement isn’t an invitation to debate film theory or the role of factual in an industry dominated by Hollywood fantasies. Like his films, Li’s point is much subtler. ‘Any human life is more dramatic than any fiction film,’ he finishes.

Li understands that it’s often the little moments in life that spark great drama. The decision to uphold a tradition, the lonely struggle with old age – these can be catalysts to grand acts. However, like life itself, they need time to unfold and Li gives them just that.

Having Japanese pubcaster NHK as a coproduction partner helps. Dream Cuisine, the director’s most recent cinematic effort, was shot in high def and originally produced as an NHK Hi-Vision special. ‘I could make a nice long film, because there was more leniency in the hd department,’ he explains. ‘NHK transferred it to 35mm film [for festivals], because they figured they could benefit from the recognition.’

Indeed, the film has played festivals in New York; Sheffield, U.K.; Toronto; and elsewhere. At the 2003 Festival International du Documentaire in Marseille, France, Dream Cuisine won the juried Prix Marseille Espérance.

Dream Cuisine is a 134-minute dip into the lives of Hatsue and Koroku Sato. Hatsue Sato, the wife, is a master of Shandong cuisine, a traditional method of cooking purported to be the origin of Chinese cuisine. This gourmet practice was almost eliminated during China’s Cultural Revolution, but the Satos keep it alive at their small restaurant in central Tokyo.

The film’s narrative springs from Hatsue’s desire to return to her birthplace of Shandong to reestablish true Shandong cooking. However, two formidable obstacles stand in her way: age and contemporary Chinese society. Hatsue is 78, Koroku 72, and the film delicately conveys Hatsue’s struggle to reconcile their physical limitations with her lifelong dream.

Additionally, most Shandong chefs feel the cuisine needs to evolve to meet contemporary taste. One of the most heartbreaking and hilarious moments of the film comes when Hatsue is invited to guest-teach at Shandong’s Oriental Gourmet College. A shot of her explaining why sugar and monosodium glutamate (MSG) aren’t necessary is quickly followed by one showing a younger female teacher adding a generous pinch of sugar and a healthy dash of MSG to a pan’s simmering contents. Perhaps Hatsue’s aspirations come too late.

Li has a lot in common with the Satos, which lends the film an affectionate tone. Born in China, Li began making documentaries for China Central Television (CCTV) in 1984. Working for a state broadcaster, however, meant his work was tightly controlled. ‘I couldn’t show people as people,’ he explains. In 1989, shortly before the Tiananmen Square massacre, Li moved to Japan. Not knowing the language, he earned a living washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant. ‘I never figured 13 years later I would make a film about cooking,’ he says, smiling.

In 1993, Li founded Dragon Films and began producing docs for Japanese broadcasters. Around the same time, he started shooting 2H, about two Chinese people living in Tokyo – an elderly man stalked by death and a young woman hoping to conceive. ‘TV channels were not interested in this old Chinese man, so I financed the film myself,’ says Li. His investment paid off when 2H won the NETPAC award for outstanding achievement by an Asian film at the 1999 Berlin International Film Festival. ‘It opened a few windows to the world for me,’ he explains. Li returned to Berlin in 2000 with Flying Flying and in 2003 with Dream Cuisine.

When he can, Li travels with his film. ‘I put so much into it, I don’t want to send it alone,’ he explains. His globetrotting also provides a first-hand assessment of doc audiences worldwide. ‘The Berlin Wall, Tiananmen, 9/11,’ he says, ‘have woken us up out of the fictional world and given us a hunger for reality.’ For Li, that means focusing on the everyman. ‘I want to show universal stories of human beings,’ he says. Xiou, Xiou, a copro with CCTV about human traffic in China, is Li’s current project.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.